It's hard to beat the convenience and simplicity of a cruise, but when it comes to sustainability, the industry has a bad reputation. Fortunately, this fast-growing sector offers responsible options, too. Here are issues to consider and questions to ask when researching a boat-based adventure.
When I first started working as NPCA’s Travel Program manager a few months ago, I was apprehensive about promoting cruises.
The industry has a bad reputation for a number of reasons. Cruise ships can consume significant amounts of fuel, produce a high volume of wastewater and landfill waste, and create significant noise pollution. Some cruise lines have been cited repeatedly for violating environmental regulations. Many have a shameful history of treating workers poorly.
My feelings changed this past July, however, when I actually got into a boat with our travel partner, UnCruise Adventures, on a journey from Juneau to Sitka in southeast Alaska. The company made a clear commitment to reducing waste and abiding by responsible labor laws, my guides offered thoughtful educational programs on the Tlingit culture of the region we were visiting, and when I anonymously asked about the company in the port cities where we stopped, I learned firsthand about the good reputation UnCruise has in these communities.
The small-ship journey also gave me access to places I would not have physically been able to visit on a larger boat, such as the moment I was just 20 yards from a massive waterfall in the Red Bluffs narrows. There was also a particularly memorable day when I stood in a scenic bay formed by the LeConte Glacier. The tall mountains were shrouded in a low-hanging mist the locals call “dragon’s breath,” and thousands of unique ice formations stood around me like magnificent sculptures. We heard a loud, visceral cracking sound as half of a massive iceberg broke off in front of us, releasing 4,000-year-old glacier ice into the bay as we stood in silent awe. I never thought that I would get to experience such an incredible phenomenon outside of a Youtube nature video.
UnCruise Adventures may not be the norm in the travel industry, but the company is not alone. The cruise industry is the fastest-growing sector within leisure tourism, serving more than 25 million passengers worldwide last year alone, and conscientious providers are changing the face of the industry as consumers demand more responsible options.
Many people book cruises over the phone. After consumers research their options and decide on a short list of companies to call, they can ask targeted questions directly of the operators’ staff. But what to ask? Here are a handful of important issues to consider.
Does the company partner with or donate money to any nonprofits that play a role in global stewardship?
A nonprofit partnership is a good signifier that the cruise line has a vested interest in supporting conservation work, engaging with communities and sharing economic benefits. You can normally find these partnerships on the company’s webpage in the “About Us” section.
How does the company manage its waste?
The need for the three Rs of waste management — reducing, reusing and recycling — becomes even more pronounced on a floating vessel carrying hundreds, or even thousands, of guests. Reducing waste, as always, is the most important strategy, as it takes the least amount of energy and can save the greatest amount of resources. Companies such as UnCruise provide refillable water bottles to guests free of charge to use throughout the trip, cutting down on the need for single-use plastic bottles. Don’t just ask whether cruise lines recycle, but which items they recycle (e.g., what kinds of plastics), how they reduce the use of disposable items, and what actions they take to prevent waste from the start.
Does the company hire local guides and work with local souvenir vendors?
If you travel with a major cruise line, you will likely be responsible for planning your own shore excursions in each port destination. Most companies have a slew of different options on their websites, which you can book directly through them. Seeking out locally owned tour operators will help ensure that your money stays in the region you are visiting. Supporting local restaurants and purchasing locally made handicrafts and souvenirs instead of mass-produced items also bolsters tourism economies. Basic internet research on the port cities you are visiting can help you find good local businesses in advance of your trip.
Does the company pay its staff adequately and follow reasonable labor standards?
Some cruise lines register their ships in countries that allow them to pay low to no taxes, offer low wages and poor on-board conditions for staff, and avoid strict labor regulations. One way to know if a cruise operator is abiding by U.S. statutes and regulations is to confirm that the ships it uses were built in the U.S., are owned by a U.S. company, and are staffed with a U.S. crew (thereby meeting U.S. minimum wage laws). Sadly, there is only one ship with a major cruise line at the time of this writing that meets these criteria: the Pride of America, based in Hawaii. This is one reason it is worthwhile to look at small-ship cruise lines as an alternative, since smaller businesses are more likely to register in their home countries and invest more in their workers. Plus, smaller ships can offer more personalized services and a greater sense of rapport with staff and other passengers. Regardless, remember to do your part and include tips for service workers in your travel budget.
Where/how does the company source its food?
Just as grocery stores and restaurants have adapted over time to consumer concerns about food, cruise lines have slowly shifted toward incorporating local and sustainable foods into their dining options. Confirm that the cruise line you are interested in participates in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch® program (you can find this on the cruise line’s website) and ask whether the company makes an active effort to source foods locally in the destinations they are serving. This helps to keep money in the local ports while giving you a more immersive cultural experience.
What is the total cost of the trip?
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The price tag is an important consideration for any travel decision, but keep in mind that what you get for the booking price will vary greatly by company. Many small-ship cruises with responsible practices have higher listed prices, but these packages often include tours and activities at each of the port destinations, whereas a larger cruise line usually charges extra for each shore excursion. Consider what you would pay for the experiences you want beyond the base rate for a big-ship cruise before assuming a small-ship experience is out of reach.
Here are a few articles with more information on responsible cruises to help you decide the best company to invest in. Unfortunately, there are not many sources for comprehensive information on individual company practices. One of the best tools to keep in mind is Google — be sure to look up any company that you are considering to see if it has been recently cited or fined for environmental violations or involved in negative treatment of workers or passengers.
- Green Cruising by Cruise Critic
- The Benefits of Eco-Friendly Cruise Trips by Ship-technology.com
- The Top 10 Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Lines by Travel and Leisure
- Tips for the Responsible Traveler (PDF) with general tips on cultural and environmental sensitivity from the UN World Tourism Organization
Learn more about NPCA’s Travel Program at www.npca.org/trips.
About the author
Jared Dial Associate Director of National Parks Experiences
Jared Dial is the Associate Director of National Parks Experiences for NPCA, offering immersive small group travel opportunities and educational adventures to members in national parks across the country. Jared also oversees NPCA’s partnership and participation in both Climate Ride and Climate Hike.