As an avid scuba diver, Douglas Rader of Raleigh, N.C. says he would love to join a few friends next spring when they explore one of the world's most spectacular reefs off Cozumel, Mexico.
But getting there poses a problem for Mr. Rader. The reason: His friends will be taking a cruise ship, and he's skeptical of the cruise industry's commitment to the environment.
"I would need to invest the time in actually finding out how my personal wastes were handled so that I would feel that it was in fact a conscientious ecotourism experience," says Rader, chief ocean scientist for Environmental Defense, a New York-based advocacy group. "I'm inherently skeptical about whether the industry delivers the goods right now."
For environmentally minded consumers, the prospect of taking a cruise isn't as simple as hopping aboard and sailing off into the sunset. Cruise ships are either menaces to fragile ecosystems or environmental role models, depending on which advocacy group is making the judgment. And their social impact is no less murky since cruise lines stand accused of making sure most passengers' spending in ports of call barely reaches the pockets of local merchants or craftspeople.
Problems notwithstanding, advocates generally agree it's possible – by taking a few precautionary steps – to enjoy certain types of cruising with a relatively clean conscience. The question of how exactly to take an ethical cruise, however, remains a matter of some discussion.
This much is certain: Cruising attracts crowds. Twelve million people took a cruise in 2006, marking a 7 percent increase from 2005, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry trade group. Three out of every 4 cruisers last year were US citizens.
CLIA expects the number of American cruisers to climb 5 percent this year, from 9.4 million to about 9.9 million.
As the winter cruising season approaches, travelers may choose from among dozens of cruise lines and thousands of destinations. For those with an ethical bent, the decisionmaking process probably begins by considering environmental and social impacts.
Many cruise lines respect the ocean
When looking for an ecofriendly cruise line, consumers can trust that major operators generally make efforts to protect sea life and carefully dispose of waste, says Jamie Sweeting, senior director for travel and leisure at Conservation International, an advocacy group with a focus on biodiversity in Washington, D.C. The same can't be said, he notes, for many fine hotels in developing countries, where wastewater is often injected into the ground or dumped directly into the ocean.
"I only wish coastal resort hotels were managed in as effective and efficient a manner with respect to the environment as a cruise ship is," Mr. Sweeting says. "Cruise lines have big thick documents and protocols for how they do absolutely everything, and your average hotel just doesn't have that." Conservation International gets funding from the cruise industry as part of a partnership to monitor environmental performance.
CLIA also notes that its member companies must meet environmental standards that exceed regulatory requirements. For instance, they're adding advanced systems to treat wastewater to the point that "it's practically drinking water" and then discharge it far offshore, says Steve Collins, director of environmental and health programs. Leftover sludge, beyond what's incinerated or discharged in port, goes into the ocean at 15 or more knots, which "allows for a high level of mixing of a biodegradable product," says Capt. Ted Thompson, CLIA's senior vice president of technical and regulatory affairs.
But Rader says consumers need to consider the big picture of impacts caused by these "floating cities." When cruisers visit newly constructed terminals in exotic destinations, he says, they often reward businesses responsible for dredging harbors, which disrupts habitats, stirs up silt that kills coral, and creates situations where giant ship propellers leave reefs scarred. In these areas, much of the damage is already done, he says, which makes it that much more important for passengers not to add insult to injury.
Passengers can minimize impact
"Every cruiser should recognize that what you're doing does in fact injure the environments that you're going so far to see," Rader says. To minimize that damage, he says, passengers should manage personal activities in order to leave no trace – that is, "look at it like a hiking trip up into the pristine mountains."
To leave a light footprint, Rader recommends cruisers take a few measures: pack biodegradable, phosphorous-free soaps and shampoos; recycle wherever possible; don't eat endangered seafoods; and throw nothing overboard.
Cruise ships aren't the only vessels at issue. Wherever ships dock, a fleet of marine recreation operators in smaller boats is likely to appear and offer a day of fun watching seals, snorkeling, etc. It's largely on this level that coral reefs are either protected by knowledgeable guides or abused, says Rich Wilson, program manager for the Coral Reef Alliance, a nonprofit in San Francisco that works with tourists and those who cater to them to help save coral reefs. Cruisers should choose lines that contract with responsible marine outfitters who, for example, discourage feeding bread to schools of fish (it may disrupt ecological balances) and don't enlist divers to bring octopi or other creatures to the surface for photos.
"The cruise lines are a bulk purchaser of marine recreation activities in any destination they visit, so they could have a huge influence on the behavior of these operators," Mr. Wilson says. "What's important is that the tourists ask the cruise lines questions: 'Does your company have an environmental policy in relation to how it books shore-based excursions?'... The more these cruise lines hear that from their customers, the more open they're going to be to moving in that direction."
Beyond environmental issues, critics of cruising highlight its social impacts – and lack thereof. In a 2006 study of the effects of tourism on the fast-growing port of Belize, the Washington-based Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development (CESD) found that passengers ashore did business largely with "preferred" vendors, who pay cruise lines for the privilege and mark up prices some 100 percent for cruisers. Cruise lines also receive more than 50 percent of the proceeds from the per passenger taxes they pay to Belize City, according to the study.
Helping local economies
To make sure tourism benefits local people, travelers should avoid major cruise lines, stay in accommodations on shore, and take small-scale day cruises with local guides, says CESD Executive Director Martha Honey. For those who must have the experience of several days at sea, she recommends taking a "pocket" or small-scale cruise with fewer than 100 passengers, such as those operated by Lindblad Expeditions.
But for thrifty travelers, several days at sea may be possible only in the company of a few thousand fellow passengers. And for them, CLIA says relax: Local residents in ports of call consistently welcome cruise ships as well as their occupants. "In those towns and cities where we do call, I'm not aware of any that have said, 'Well, gee, this isn't good for our locality. We don't want you here anymore'," says Captain Thompson. "We just are not seeing that."
Checklist for an ethical cruise
Applying ethics to a cruise may require proactive steps. Here are some recommended by conscientious cruisers:
• Question cruise lines before booking. You might ask about what materials they recycle onboard, whether their ships use biodiesel or other renewable fuels, or ask for a list of labor citations from the past five years.
• Avoid ports of call in ecologically fragile areas where high-volume tourism would hurt local ecosystems. Best bet: Visit long-established ports, such as those in the Mediterranean Sea.
• Pack phosphorous-free and biodegradable soaps, shampoos, and detergents.
• Bring a list of endangered seafoods to avoid. The Monterey Bay Aquarium website, www.mbayaq.org, has a good one.
• Take brief showers to conserve water, which may be scarce on ships and in island ports of call.
• Never throw trash or garbage overboard.