How responsible is cruise tourism?

cruises undercover

Relatively little attention has been paid to how responsible cruise tourism is – the industry itself has kept a low profile on the issues of sustainability and there has been little attention paid to its performance. There have been a few radio and TV documentaries over the years dealing with some aspects of the industry’s performance; such as Channel 4’s film, Cruises Undercover: The Truth Below Deck, about working conditions on cruise ships. There have been claims and counter claims about how accurate the reporting was, and
Paul Mills, the journalist who worked for five weeks as an undercover waiter, wrote in The Guardian: ‘The ship is a poignant metaphor for wider global divisions; above deck, British passengers who have grown accustomed to affordable luxury, while below deck, an international workforce that has grown equally accustomed to providing the service to make this possible.’

Sue Bryant wrote on Cruise Critic: ‘In some regions of the Philippines, from where many cruise ship crew come, the minimum wage is just over £3 a day in the backbreaking world of agriculture, with no accommodation and no food (both of which are provided on a cruise ship). So a cruise job is beginning to look quite attractive to a Filipino worker who can send home over £600 a month.’

In defence of cruise tourism

how responsible is the cruise tourism industryDefending cruise tourism on the other side, James Smith, who had himself worked on cruise ships for three years, defended the cruise lines: ‘While some of the staff from the Philippines and India are charged fees to join the company, this is not the practice of the cruise lines, but the hiring companies. While these agencies shouldn’t be used, the change of these bad practices will need an industry-wide reform.

‘For the most part, foreign crew members are paid according to their home economy, so when they return home they are able to afford an equivalent standard of living. The free food, accommodation, and flights home weren’t mentioned at all, which is a considerable subsidy for 6-10 month contracts.’

Nonetheless, there continue to be campaigns. War on Want ran a campaign on sweatships. And in Canada Ross Klein maintains the Cruise Junkie website detailing environmental, labour and health and safety issues in the cruise tourism industry.

The industry protests that these exposes are unfair, but they won’t go away. The industry needs to address the sustainability issues which are being raised about its practises ranging from employment conditions, through carbon emissions and waste management.
Across the cruise industry there is considerable variation in sustainability reporting – see for example Carnival Corporation’s Sustainability Reports for 2010 and 2011.

ABTA has been scoping out sustainability best practice in relation to cruise operations in order to understand what best practice looks like in relation to sustainability on-board cruise ships. They are working on a set of indicators which will be discussed with the wider cruise tourism industry in 2013,  ABTA is seeking to strengthen best practice and to provide transparency around good practice already happening within the industry.

Hopefully there will be further progress to report soon.

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Harold is Professor of Responsible Tourism at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he teaches and researches in the Centre for Responsible Tourism. Harold researches on tourism, local economic development and poverty reduction, conservation and responsible tourism and teaches Masters and PhD students. as well as the industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists. Harold also undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism which he founded in 2002 and which promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration.

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