Should you go on a cruise?


More and more people are going on a cruise – whether on small ships around Scotland or the gigantic new cruise ships that dominate the Caribbean seas. But is this form of tourism ethical and sustainable? Is it acceptable ethically to take a cruise?

The briefing below sets out the issues you need to consider. It was based on findings in 2o11. There has been some progress since then in addressing the issues discussed but not nearly enough. so we have now dedicated our first on our new series of Travellers’ Briefings to this issue. If you want an up to the minute picture of the situation to help you make decisions as a consumer, go to our blog, Voices in Ethical Tourism. Or read the new briefing: Cruise Tourism – What’s below the Surface? To download it free of charge join Tourism Concern or from our Reports section.

The cruise tourism industry grew rapidly during the 1990s with a worldwide demand at a cumulative rate of 7.9 per cent compared to 4.3 overall demands for international travel. The industry forecast 16 million passengers in 2011, a 6.6% increase over 2010 and according to Mintel, the industry expected to carry 20 million passengers by 2012. In the UK the luxury cruise market seems to have remained immune to the recession and the mass market continues to grow.

Although not all cruises are the same, it is fair to say that the industry has a poor record on worker rights, has significant environmental impacts and brings few benefits to the destination communities – often leaving waste and pollution behind and culturally overwhelming smaller destinations. Cruise ships not only transport passengers from point A to B, but also include the provision of entertainment within a self-contained environment. Some cruise ships can take 6000 passengers and have at least the same number of staff – these ships are not so much floating hotels, but closer to floating towns – floating artificial edifices that offer passengers a wide range of activities such as discos, swimming pools, gambling and musical shows and spas.

  • Social Impacts
  • Workers’ rights
  • Destination benefits
  • Corporate Responsibility

Tourism Concern has been campaigning for better working conditions in the tourism industry for many years. Employment rights are included in the human rights agenda: everyone is entitled to a decent wages, fair contracts and safe working conditions. Most cruise ships operate under Flags of Convenience which means companies registering their ships in countries with poor employment protection. A 2012 Dispatches programme on Channel 4 highlighted that cruise staff were paid low wages, and forced to work for long hours. In was also reported that some staff had to pay to get the job and then work to pay off the debt in a form of bonded labour. Many are working long hours with little or no time off and for less than the minimum wage. Furthermore, cruise lines restrict workers to engage in collective action by hiring staff from multiple countries, making it very difficult for employees to resist and fight for labour rights under different jurisdictions. Where workers do try to resist they are often dismissed, as in the case of 150 Indian crew members who were fired by Carnival for protesting at their low wages. In most cases workers are from developing countries and their contracts run for 12 months and most work for 10 months and then have a two-month unpaid vacation. Employees generally work 10 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week and a waiter may work 16 hours a day. According to the ITF, overtime work is poorly remunerated and wages range from just US$400 to US$700 out of which they are expected to pay for their own uniforms.

The cruise ship industry is the largest economic sector in the Caribbean and Central America, highlighting the potential of the industry to become an engine of economic development. However, we are concerned that cruise ships represent the ultimate all -inclusive holiday with few if any benefits flowing to the destination communities. Cruise ships often stock up before they set off and purchase little local food or supplies. Tourists spend very little in the destinations and shore excursions are organised by the cruise ships, who take most of the profit. Cruise lines are doing their best to maximise the money spent on board while minimising their time in port. According to a report by the Travel Foundation, an average spending on an island excursion is £40 and not all passengers disembark. Another factor is that all meals are included on board as well as entertainment, encouraging minimal tourist expenditure on land. In Costa Rica for example, surveys indicate that passengers’ expenditure on land ranges from US$28-36 . Moreover, most of the disembarkation points are controlled by transnational chains or local elites, who already have agreements in place with local tour suppliers, making the suppliers highly dependent on their contractual conditions.Another strategy emerging is for cruise lines to either buy or lease their own islands bays or beaches, therefore avoiding docking fees and head taxes and generating the least possible benefit to local economy. According to Professor Ross Klein,”the irony is that cruise companies, because they are foreign registered, pay virtually no corporate tax”.

The cost of running a sustainable cruise ship industry is seldom approached from the destination point of view. Ships tend to carry all supplies on board, despite the availability of food locally. Costa Rica,for example, is the major exporter of bananas and other fruits in the Caribbean, yet does not benefit from the purchasing power of the cruise ship trade. Companies argue that buying locally is too costly – prices are too high. Meanwhile the economic cost to small island nations catering to the cruise market seems not be be of relevance. Destinations live with the constant threat of being excluded from itineraries so have to keep investing or adapting themselves to the cruise ship market requirements.

Corporate responsibility

The cruise industry has been ignoring its responsibility for a long time. Three of the four largest cruise lines have been convicted of abusing US environmental laws since 1998 and cruise lines have paid more than $90 million in fines over the past decade for illegal dumping. However, some companies claim that they are implementing environmental standards by using alternative ways to reduce engine emissions related to ocean-going vessel hotelling in port – although their effectiveness has not yet been proven in practice. The world’s largest cruise company Carnival was ranked in the bottom 20 ethical companies in the Observer’s Good Companies Index in 2007.

Environmental impacts

The environmental issues with cruise ships are

  1. Carbon emissions
  2. Diesel particles
  3. Waste and rubbish
  4. Damage to reefs and ecosystems

Cruise ships emit more carbon per passenger kilometre than flying, even taking into account the extra damage that emissions cause at high altitude. This may seem surprising; however cruise ships are floating hotels, so will use energy for laundry, water treatment and employ considerably more staff than an airline. According to a report made by the Climate Outreach Information Network, The Queen Mary II emits 0.43kg of CO2 per passenger mile as opposed to 0.257kg for a long haul flight. According to the Telegraph, Carnival, in its environmental report state that that its ships, on average, release of CO2 per kilometre; based on an average of 1776 passengers this equates to each passenger being responsible for 401g of CO2 per kilometre. This is 36 times greater than the carbon footprint of a Eurostar passenger and more than three times that of someone travelling on a standard Boeing 747 or a passenger ferry. To make matters worse many passengers fly to the cruise departing point as well, increasing carbon emissions further. Ships not only emit CO2 but are also responsible for an estimated 1.2 million to 1.6 million metric tons of tiny airborne particles each year. These particles have been linked to premature deaths worldwide and according to a study from 2007 are believed to cause heart and lung failures. An article in the New Scientist claims that such pollution from ships kills at least 60,000 people each year.

In addition to airborne pollution cruise ships also produce a great deal of waste and rubbish. It is estimated that every passenger produces 3.5 kilograms of rubbish daily as opposed to 0.8 kilograms generated by people on shore. A typical cruise ship with 3000 passengers will also generate 30,000 gallons of human waste and 255,000 gallons of grey water a day. In addition there can be 15 gallons of toxic waste and 37,000 gallons of oily bilge water produced every day. Although cruise ships are required to have onboard waste treatment systems, they can lawfully release black water anywhere beyond three miles from the shore (except in certain areas of Alaska). Grey water (from washing up, laundry etc) can be discharged into the sea almost anywhere. Ships also produce vast amounts of ballast water containing diseases, pathogens and invasive species which is often discharged into fragile ecosystems. Cruise ships are also accused of damaging reefs. According to Ocean Planet, there are 109 countries with coral reefs, in 90 of which coral reefs have been damaged by anchors and sewage. Tourists also often damage reefs either directly, by breaking off corals, or indirectly by purchasing commercially harvested pieces of coral.

The future

Cruising is a growing trend and although it brings some benefit to destinations, the reality in most cases is that ships convey large numbers of low value passengers, who have limited time for meaningful cultural exchange and leave behind large amounts of rubbish and pollution. The large cruise ships have an enormous ecological impact and notoriously poor working conditions. Additionally many destinations have become highly dependent on this form of tourism which can inhibit the development of other, more sustainable forms of tourism. If you are looking for a Better Holiday – a holiday where you experience the real community and the community gets real benefits as a result – a cruise ship holiday is probably not the right choice.


  • The Mintel Press Release (May 2012)
  • Klein, R. (2002)
  • High seas, low pay. Working on Cruise Ships Pattullo, P. (1996)
  • Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996. Douglas, N. And Douglas Norman (1999) Cruise Consumer Behaviour, a comparative study (chapter 17) cited in: Pizam, A. and Mansfeld, Y. (1999) (eds) Consumer behaviour in travel and tourism. Binghamton Haworth Hospitality Press.
  • Seidl, A., Guiliano F. and Pratt, L. (2006) Cruise Tourism and community economic development in America and the Caribbean: The case of Costa Rica. Revista Pasos Online (Vol 4) Number 2: 213-224.
  • Responsible Travel Website
  • United Nations World Travel organisation (UNWTO) The Climate Outreach Information Network
  • The Florida Caribbean Cruise Association The International Council of Clean Transportation
  • The Travel Foundation
  • The World Cruise Industry Review. Raising Retention. Available online : Travel Mole
  • Murray,T.J. (2005) The impacts of Cruise ship tourism on Local economies.
  • Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Available online

Photo by cliff1066™

Should you go on a cruise?

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