Saturday, May 15, 2010

Responsible Cruising?

It’s been a good stretch since I’ve last written for Urbal Tea, the reason for which I can at least partially attribute to the month I was traveling with my mother.

Now, one of the topics I’ve wanted to write about for Urbal Tea is sustainable travel, to which Peter and I and Louise and Andrew are totally committed.

I am therefore chagrined to confess that the some of travel I did with my mother was anything but sustainable—I took her on a four-day cruise.

Holy Cow! My mom in front of the Carnival Imagination:
Gross Tonnage: 70,367
Length: 855 feet
Beam: 103 Feet
Cruising Speed: 21 Knots
Guest Capacity: 2,052 (double occupancy)
Total Staff: 920

I had never been on a cruise before and was a bit trepidatious about the whole thing, but it’s what she wanted to do and truth be told, it’s a very easy way to travel with an 86-year old woman. It’s also a very easy way to travel with kids, which I guess a lot of parents have figured out: it was spring break week and there were 957 children on our boat—which was less than ideal for an elderly woman and her 50-something daughter (whose idea of a cruise involves Cary Grant, Paul Henreid, or Charles Boyer). But I digress from the point of this story.

Which is the issue of environmental impact and cruise ships. In theory, traveling by boat is far less impactful than flying or driving—it takes a lot less carbon-based fuel to move a person by boat from Port A to Port B than by air or car. But the problem with cruise ships is that they are floating, luxury mini-cities and so whatever carbon emissions you might save by sailing, you more than make up for by all the waste you and your fellow passengers generate on board.

According to (quoting the United Nations Environmental Program), “On a typical one-week voyage a cruise ship generates more than 50 tonnes of garbage and a million tonnes of grey (waste) water, 210,000 gallons of sewage and 35,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water. On average, passengers on a cruise ship each account for 3.5 kilograms of rubbish daily — compared with the 0.8 kilograms each generated by local people on shore.” (In non-metric terms, that’s 7.7 pounds vs. 1.7 lbs.)

I believe it. The amount of food waste alone on our ship must have been staggering. My mother loved the endless dessert tables, but I was fixated on the unfathomable amount of food that was left on people’s trays or that I saw being carted out by waiters after each evening’s dinner.

Add to the fact that cruise ships tend to visit ecologically vulnerable areas, like coral reefs (ours went to Cozumel, for example), where both ship sewage and anchors can harm the fragile environment, and the proposition gets even dicier.

Is there a responsible way to travel by cruise ship? It’s true that lots of cruise ship lines are trying to adopt ecologically responsible practices, like converting cooking oil into diesel fuel (which gets used by farming equipment). And companies like Holland America have programs in which they donate reusable goods (linens, toiletries, dishes, mattresses) to charities.

But honestly, I think these efforts are mere drops in the bucket. asks a really good question: What interests you in a cruise in the first place?

If it’s the chance to visit lots of different places, they suggest a number of far more eco-friendly overland tours that one can take. (Besides, most cruises spend just a few hours at any port of call, which I found absolutely frustrating. Don’t ask me how I found Cozumel because I couldn’t say after a six-hour stay.)

If you’re interested in a cruise because you want take a sailing vacation, again, there are more sustainable ways to be on the water (like renting your own barge to travel the river and canal system in England, which we did a few summers ago).

If it’s the desire to be pampered, have all your needs taken care of while your children have a safe and entertaining environment in which to let loose, there are more and more eco-friendly resorts popping up in the Caribbean every day.

Of course, what I want out of a cruise is to wind up in a stateroom with Jeremy Irons—not exactly a sustainable vacation, at least as far as my marriage is concerned.

P.S. The New York Times did a good article on this topic about a year ago. Here is the link.

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