Cruising Forward: Improving Your Environmental and Social Responsibility at Sea

Environmental and Social Responsibility at Sea

Tips from a tourism researcher and a former cruise line employee

By Jada Lindblom and Samir Mustafić

Let’s be honest—cruise lines don’t have the best reputation in terms of environmental and social responsibility. Between news of illegal toxic dumping, crowded ports and overworked staff, many travelers with an eye on sustainability choose to dismiss cruising altogether. 

Nevertheless, cruise tourism continues to grow: an estimated 30 million passengers worldwide will cruise in 2019, including around 12 million Americans, according to Cruise Lines International Association

Cruising can be a convenient and enjoyable choice for families and a way for people of varying physical abilities to see remarkable, remote sites including glaciers, fjords and tropical volcanic peaks. The cruise industry is keen to improve its tarnished reputation and has identified “conscious travel” as a key trend in 2019. There’s a growing recognition that many cruise tourists do care about protecting the environment and ameliorating impacts upon destination communities.

Behind the scenes, cruise companies are making efforts to improve areas of environmental concern, such as waste management, fuel efficiency and pollution. Many major U.S. cruise lines require all staff and crew to complete an extensive training and certification in environmental standards and protocols. However, not all matters of sustainability are in the hands of cruise companies: consumers play a large role through their decisions and actions.

If cruising is on your leisure to-do list, here are some points to consider.

Pre-trip:

Research and choose wisely. Not all companies have the same priorities. While many of the newer ships are built with higher environmental standards such as more efficient heating, lighting and plumbing, they may also have a plethora of space- and energy-consumptive leisure offerings (pools, malls, amusement parks, you name it!) that may eat into the supposed benefits of a “greener” design. Think about what amenities you value most so you’re not paying for more than you need, in terms of your wallet and your ecological footprint.

Consider cruising off-peak or off-the-beaten-path. Many port communities are economically dependent upon tourism. Off-season travel may be a better deal for you and can help destinations maintain steadier income year-round. It may also help diffuse the physical impacts of overuse upon natural areas and historic sites. If visiting less-crowded ports is a priority for you, consider smaller ships featuring unique itineraries.

During your trip:

Avoid being wasteful. On board, staff sort waste carefully so it can be disposed efficiently. This means mashed potatoes go in one bin, bones in another. A common complaint from restaurant staff is that guests order much more than they can actually eat. A helpful tip is to order as if you are paying for it, even if you’re not. If there’s an extra dish you’re curious to try, invite others to share, and then order more later if you’re still hungry. In your cabin, you can help housekeeping by separating recyclables. Like in hotels, many cruise ships are implementing ways for guests to indicate whether linens need changing. Remember that even though the ship is surrounded by water, desalination is an energy-intensive process, so try to conserve water just as you would at home.

Support local businesses. At port, you might notice the same jewelry stores, art galleries and souvenir shops you saw at the last stop. Many of these are owned by the cruise companies or their affiliates. As a result, local residents may not profit as much from tourism. By buying local handicrafts or visiting a family-run restaurant, you’ll get to know the host culture better and be able to benefit the local community. In ports such as Juneau, Alaska, qualifying businesses often feature signs letting visitors know that they are locally owned.

Maintain good etiquette at sea and on land. Whether on deck or on the beach, cruise passengers are guests. It’s important to be respectful of others as well as the places visited, and the same rules apply even after a few drinks—that cocktail cup still needs to go in a proper bin! During shore expeditions, try to follow Leave No Trace outdoor ethics principles (www.LNT.org). Since cruise vacations are often multi-generational, think of them as opportunities to model best behaviors for younger generations by dining with manners, picking up trash, and thanking staff who assist you. A staff person, host, or guide whom you treat as a friend is more likely to treat you as a friend in return.

During the Trip Continued

Be attentive to tipping. For staff such as waiters and cabin stewards, tips can comprise the majority of their income, and base pay can be low. Staff and crew work tirelessly to ensure that passengers’ trips go smoothly. If their efforts help make your vacation extra special, you can show appreciation by leaving thoughtful notes and appropriate tips. Information provided by the ship as well as independent sources online provide guidance about whom or how much to tip. Note that some ships have no-tip policies or offer the option to add tips as a flat rate along with the original bill.

Lastly, have fun! Being able to travel via cruise is a joyful privilege. Make the most of your trip and take pleasure in the journey.

Keep up with all content in the ASU Sustainability Series by visiting our website.


Jada Lindblom, M.S., is a researcher with the Center for Sustainable Tourism at Arizona State University. Samir Mustafić worked on cruise ships based in the Caribbean for six years, including as a head waiter.

Photos by Jada Lindblom

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