How are smaller cruise lines reducing their environmental footprint?

Four senior executives discuss the changes they’re making to become more socially responsible

How are smaller cruise lines reducing their environmental footprint?

Celestyal Cruises

As a Greek brand, Celestyal Cruises aims to have a positive impact on the Greek economy

By Alice Chambers |

Many cruise lines aim to become net-zero by 2050 in line with the International Maritime Organization’s shipping decarbonisation targets, but challenges such as cost pressures, a lack of available technology and a need for new alternative fuels are hindering their progress towards that goal.

Senior executives from four smaller cruise lines – that operate one to five ships and carry a maximum of 2,000 passengers per vessel – give an insight into how responsible practices, partnerships, new technologies and other initiatives are helping them to move closer to attaining their sustainability aims.

Can you describe your process for setting sustainability goals?  

Peter Deer, Managing Director, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines: We review our current sustainability measures and procedures and look to what we want to achieve. By understanding the base level of where we are now and where we want to be, we can ensure that our goals are achievable, realistic and have the most positive impact on the environment possible.  

Our shoreside Green Team looks at smaller environmental decisions from an individual perspective, such as recycling and saving water, as well as larger technical developments like shore power and the implementation of additional sustainable technologies in the future.

James Rodriguez, President and CEO, Atlas Ocean Voyages: Setting sustainability goals at Atlas Ocean Voyages is a collaborative and thoughtful process. We believe in preserving the world’s pristine destinations for future generations. Our guiding sustainability principles help us to identify areas where we can make a positive impact. We closely assess our operations, technology and supply chain to identify opportunities for improvement and set specific, measurable and achievable targets.

Chris Theophilides, CEO, Celestyal Cruises: We develop our sustainability goals so that they align with those of the United Nations’ (UN) World Tourism Organization. For example, we design our itineraries to ensure that each destination benefits from our visits, respecting the unique characteristics of each island and conserving their heritage and biodiversity.  

Our sustainability goals also include strengthening our partnerships with local stakeholders, for example by increasing the quantity of local produce onboard our ships. As a Greek brand, we have a positive impact on the Greek economy and look to employ officers who are natives of the destinations we visit. 

Christian Verhounig, CEO, Ambassador Cruise Line: Ambassador Cruise Line was founded with the principle of placing a strong emphasis on safety and security, the environment and social responsibilities, and we recognise there is more we can do to be more sustainable. Since our inception, we have worked with our private equity investors and main shareholder, Njord Partners, on a comprehensive long-term plan to ensure that sustainability is, and remains, fully embedded into the wider business strategy.

We have ambitious objectives focused on reviewing and improving how we operate to effect positive change, support local communities and reduce our environmental impacts.

What are your key short, medium and long-term sustainability goals?  

PD: Acting from our sustainability report, our initial objectives are for zero percentage environmental spills and to reduce both fuel and waste. In comparison, our longer-term goals will be aligned with industry standards such as the Energy Efficiency Existing ship Index and Carbon Intensity Indicators (CII).

We continue to assess our operations to seek better solutions to reduce our carbon footprint. For example, we intend to make technical advancements to our vessels from 2024 onwards to improve efficiencies and decrease emissions and have invested in energy management technology to help us on our way to this goal.

JR: Our key short-term sustainability goals include reducing single-use plastics, conserving water and energy, and minimising waste onboard. In the medium term, we aim further to enhance our waste management and environmental stewardship initiatives. Our long-term goals involve continuously exploring and implementing new technologies that reduce emissions and limit our environmental footprint.

CT: Our long-term goal is to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2050, which will require fleet renewal and the introduction of new technologies as they become available.

From a socioeconomic perspective, we continue to find ways to enhance our contribution to local economies and to promote the culture of the destinations that we visit. Our short- to medium-term goals are to continue introducing our guests to local products and experiences by crafting unique land-based experiences.

We are further bolstering these experiences onboard through our gastronomic experiences.

We are also aiming to increase our passengers’ awareness of environmental protection while travelling with us and therefore always try to involve them in onboard initiatives to reduce our environmental footprint. 

CV: In the coming year, we will set out our roadmap towards achieving targets aligned to the UN’s sustainability goals and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board metrics. Measures include reducing carbon emissions and the group’s carbon footprint; improving energy, water and waste management; and ensuring that refurbishment specifications are tailored to reflect the strategic importance of sustainability.

We’ve put a model in place to monitor the implementation of Ambassador’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets. I chair the ESG committee, which aims to ensure the business is effectively directing the implementation of a plan in a way that builds and fosters trust.

How does the size of your business impact on your ability to carry out sustainability initiatives?

PD: Being a family-run business, we have more control over our sustainability ambitions and how we achieve these goals. The smaller size of our company gives us more scope to develop in key areas, such as sustainability, and to ensure our team is environmentally aware.  

JR: While cost considerations may be associated with sustainability initiatives, we firmly believe that investing in the environment and local communities aligns with our core values as an expedition yacht-style cruise brand.

One advantage of being a smaller cruise brand is that our size allows us to collaborate closely with local suppliers and purveyors, fostering stronger partnerships that promote sustainable sourcing and support local economies. Ultimately, our size enables us to embrace change proactively and act decisively, ensuring that sustainability remains at the heart of everything we do.

CT: As a regional cruise line, the welfare of the destinations we visit is vitally important to us. The medium size of our vessels ensures a smaller environmental footprint whilst still allowing us to follow all current regulations. We also adhere to international regulations and CLIA guidelines for the protection of the environment.  

Our sustainability initiatives are driven by both our wider interest in the local communities we visit and our relationships with key stakeholders. While we may be a smaller cruise operator, we contribute to the communities we visit in so many other ways than purely financial such as through educational and welfare programmes.

CV: As sustainability is embedded into the operation of our business, Ambassador has clear environmental goals which are supported by our investors. We are ahead of the industry in that we won’t operate any of our ships unless they are in the top 10-15 per cent of the most environmentally sound vessels in the world. We are still relatively small by way of a core shoreside team, meaning that our agile business management model sees cost-effective decisions being made quickly and any changes implemented promptly.

What external initiatives have you joined to help you become more sustainable?

PD: In 2019, we installed free water stations across our fleet as part of City to Sea’s ‘Refill’ campaign.  We also removed single-use plastic cutlery, replaced plastic laundry bags with linen ones and use ropes to secure items during rough seas, rather than plastic. 

We also partner with marine charity ORCA’s Cruise Conservationist programme; the project uses data collected on our cruises to monitor whale and dolphin populations around the world. Plus, we have invited experts from environmental charity Project Seagrass to explain how seagrass plays a crucial role for wildlife, communities and climate stability in our new Earth Room onboard Bolette.

JR: We collaborate with reputable partners like L’Occitane and Vero Water, who share our values and contribute to our sustainability efforts through ecofriendly products and advanced technologies. 

Looking ahead, Atlas Ocean Voyages continues to review additional opportunities and explore partnerships to further our commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship. We are dedicated to identifying external initiatives that align with our guiding principles of sustainability and we’re proactively seeking collaborations to help us become more sustainable and responsible.

CT: As well as being an active member of CLIA, Celestyal participates in several European-based sustainable tourism programmes such as the Eco-Cruising FU_Tour and the Healthy Sailing Consortium.

Celestyal is also an active member in the Greek Union of Cruise Ship Owners. Sharing the common goal to promote cruising, the union makes regular visits to the ports and the destinations and resolves all issues relating to the service of cruise ships and passengers in tandem with local authorities.

CV: Ambassador works with several partners to support its ethical and sustainable ethos. These include community work and venue promotions with Essex Cricket Club and London Stadium.

In addition, Ambassador’s 2023-2024 ORCA itineraries will total almost 500 days at sea, with each itinerary featuring an interactive education programme. Guests can also use the ORCA Oceanwatchers application to record sightings of whales and dolphins and help to record vital scientific data.

How do you ensure that you’re having a positive impact on the local communities you visit?    

PD: Our fleet of three smaller ships means we carry no more than 1,400 guests onboard, so we avoid overcrowding ports. We also work closely with our port partners, tour operators and other suppliers to ensure that our operations bring mutual benefit to the local economy and community in the destinations that we visit. This extends to the food served onboard our ships and used during cooking demonstrations of local dishes. 

To minimise our environmental impact, we are continuing to develop the technology to utilise shore power at ports where possible.

JR: We ensure that we leave a positive impact on local communities by adhering to the protocols established by organisations like the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators and the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators. 

Furthermore, our ‘Cultural Immersion’ tour programme fosters an inclusive atmosphere that respects cultural traditions, religious beliefs and historical sites. We believe in building meaningful connections with the local communities and supporting their livelihoods. Plus, our expedition-style voyages with smaller vessels enable us to access less-travelled destinations, providing guests with immersive experiences that do not disrupt residents’ daily lives.

CT: Our tours are thoughtfully designed in a way that allows a good spread of visitors in each destination, ensuring minimal impact and underpinning the sustainable growth of the local communities. We sail mainly in the Greek islands, so we have established long standing relations with the local stakeholders in all the destinations we visit and offer well-planned activities ashore by considering their needs. We seek feedback during regular meetings with local authorities and the local Chambers of Commerce to help us develop future deployment plans.

CV: Where possible, we use environmentally friendly transport for our destination experiences such as walking or cycling tours to reduce our carbon footprint. We would like to do more, but some of the sustainable tours we introduced previously have tended to be more expensive owing to their nature. These simply did not sell as well as our straightforward experiences, and as some guests need assistance due to their age and mobility, we reluctantly withdrew these from our offering. We are however exploring more cost-effective ways to feature them again in the future.

What are your biggest sustainability achievements to date, and why?   

PD: Our two new ships have allowed us to sail more sustainably. In early 2023, our flagship Bolette and sister ship Borealis were both fitted with diesel-electric engines so they can connect to shore power and use renewable energy while in port.

We also optimised engine performance in 2023 across our entire fleet by installing systems that monitor weather, tides and ship timings to update our itineraries. Minimising our environmental impact is a journey that never ends and we’re always reviewing our operations and looking for greener ways to sail our seas. 

JR: One of our most significant sustainability achievements is incorporating advanced technologies, like the FarSounder Forward-Looking Sonars and advanced hydro propulsion jets on our vessels. These innovations enable us to navigate safely around sea life, reduce underwater noise and avoid using anchors to protect fragile ocean ecosystems. Our ships’ diesel-electric hybrid power management and propulsion system also contribute to maximising fuel efficiency and reducing emissions, showcasing our commitment to sustainable travel and responsible environmental practices.

CT: In 2022, we reduced our total fuel consumption by six per cent. We are also fully DNV certified and automatically monitor carbon dioxide emissions based on the European Regulation requirements. 

More than 80 per cent of water consumed across our fleet was produced by seawater in 2022 as a result of reverse osmosis water treatment and we implemented new onboard recycling schemes to reduce waste production by 15 per cent.

Looking forward, Celestyal will continue to actively pursue various initiatives and strategies that can contribute to a greener and more sustainable maritime industry. 

CV: We have reduced Ambience’s nitrogen dioxide emissions by 95 per cent since its first sailing in 2022, and lowered fuel consumption by seven per cent and carbon dioxide emissions to 5.358 tonnes.

Ambassador has already cut Ambition’s emissions by using cleaner marine gas oil and by fitting our engines with selective catalytic reduction units to reduce nitrogen oxides emissions by eight grams per kilowatt hour.

Both ships are forecast to meet Category ‘C’ Carbon Intensity Index requirements for the next three years and further improvements are being planned to ensure they continue to meet requirements in the future.

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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