Venice risks its Unesco World Heritage listing if it continues to let huge cruise ships dwarf its romantic charm.(Reuters: Stefano Rellandini)

This morning I woke with the word ‘cruising’ and began thinking about the devastation that has been caused to people who were ‘captured’ on cruise ships during the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. I began thinking about the dark side of the ‘mega’ cruise ships and their impact on both people and place.

An article was written on 5 June 2019 by Freya Higgins-Desbiolles for ABC News, and how prophetic it was. Ms Higgins-Desbiolles writes that “Mega Cruise ships represent a Sword of Damocles over us in relation to their presence and risk to fragile marine reserves such as the pristine waters of Antartica. I would argue that Freya’s statement already had far wider impacts globally than Antartica and little could Freya know how this prediction would also include the outbreak of a global pandemic. [1]

If you say that someone has the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, you mean that they are in a situation in which something very bad could happen to them at any time.

In 2017 25.8 million people globally went on a cruise, with demand growing by 20.5 percent over the past five years. Cruise tourism caters for all incomes from the expensive,  luxury end of the market to low-income wage-earners who save up for such a holiday therefore cruising has a very wide market and caters for specific attractions as a tourism experience.

The cruise ship industry is dominated by large multinational corporations, such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian and MSC Cruise Lines. These powerful companies are able to dictate terms of access to ports and their all-inclusive model means that too little tourist spending reaches the ports that receive them. There is a tendency to build ever-larger cruise ships and this is exacerbating problems.

One marine expert stated: “These ships burn as much fuel as whole towns. They use a lot more power than container ships and even when they burn low sulphur fuel, it’s 100 times worse than road diesel.”

Cruise ship visitation also brings negative socio-cultural impacts despite the brief duration of shore visits. The most pressing issue is the way cruise visitors add to already crowded tourist sites, such as the old city of Dubrovnik and Piazza Marco Square in Venice. Local residents are angered by such overcrowding and may even be pushed out at peak times and in peak seasons. Transport facilities can be overwhelmed and make an urban work commute difficult.

Then there is the issue of low wages, long hours, precarity and exploitation of cruise ship labour that does little to commend cruise lines as good corporate citizens. Many developing countries, such as the Philippines, provide the labour force to these cruise ships and rely on the remittance funds these workers send back. All the while having their own ports negatively impacted as ports of call to these very same cruise lines.

Cruise lines are being impacted by new regulations effecting the global marine industries to address dirty fuel by 2020. But they stand accused of “emissions dodging” “rather than paying for more expensive cleaner fuels. Such responses to regulatory changes do little to foster goodwill.

Freya writes, “Regulatory authorities need to take aim at the negative environmental impacts of powerful cruise lines and address the efforts to escape regulations through flags of convenience and poor practices such as emissions dodging and skirting maritime safety regulations”. [1]

The outbreak of the Coronavirus has brought these Company’s under even greater scrutiny. James Walker, a Florida attorney who specialises in cases involving cruise ship passengers, said the outbreaks on cruise ships around the world were “entirely predictable” given there was so little government oversight of the industry. He said the cruise industry should have halted operations much sooner, and also criticised the US government’s response to the crisis. “It’s been abysmal,” he said. “It seems out of control quite frankly. No one seems to have a plan.” [1]

So, who does control cruise ship regulation? If you look up the Cruise Lines International website it says that ” Cruise operations are tightly regulated with rigorous enforcement by outside authorities. These regulatory authorities set comprehensive standards for safety, security, crew member protections, health, and environmental performance.” [2] Clearly its complicated and seems to depend on where the cruise ship is in relation to any particular incident.

With hundreds of deaths blamed on cruise ships continuing to operate following the notification of the WHO warning regarding the global Coronavirus pandemic, multiple class action lawsuits have been filed against certain cruise lines. In Australia, the New South Wales Police have launched a criminal investigation into the conduct of Carnival Australia over whether the Company was transparent about the scale of the Covid-19 outbreak on the Ruby Princess, which is the countries single largest source of Covid-19 cases in Australia, accounting to date for a third of deaths . [3]

If it takes a pandemic to review the industry then so be it. For local environments and local people, where these ‘mega’ cruise ships dock, the negative impact has been felt for some time. For thousands of low paid workers on cruise ships, many are still trapped at sea, with no understanding of how they can return home, as stated by US attorney James Walker , there doesn’t seem to be a plan.

Covid-19 has delivered unusual environmental benefits: cleaner air, lower carbon emissions, a respite for wildlife. Now the big question is whether we can capitalise on this moment?

When the time comes that we can return to travelling on a cruise ship or flying overseas, we will need to think about the impact that it/us is having on the local people and environment. I have enjoyed as much as any, visiting the beauty of places like Venice, but they are fragile, and perhaps the answer lies in smaller visitor numbers that are carefully monitored by local and State Governments to ensure that respect and care for the people they represent is put ahead of corporate greed. I believe that we can find a solution if we have the right balance and each one of us can make a difference by choosing to travel ethically and green.