Leading the way in cruise collaboration and sustainability

The Port of Seattle has been central to resuming cruise operations across North America

Leading the way in cruise collaboration and sustainability

Port of Seattle

By Stephanie Jones Stebbins |

Port leadership is incredibly important, particularly as it relates to how homeports can positively influence and enhance the performance of others.

The Port of Seattle believes effective leadership is not just about making demands. Our approach is to create trust in business partnerships through active collaboration and mutual performance expectations.  

As a cruise homeport, we work hard to make it convenient for cruise guests, whether through a welcoming and exciting city destination or by providing great services from the airport to the cruise terminals. It is because of consistently high guest satisfaction ratings in Seattle, and our ongoing collaboration with cruise partners, that we’ve been able to open dialogue for innovations in services and environmental sustainability. It has also allowed us to aim beyond the minimum regulations in areas we prioritise, like environmental sustainability.   

The Port of Seattle has long aspired to create the greenest port in North America for the communities we serve. It’s in that spirit of leadership we created a green cruise road map by offering financial incentives, recognition and innovative technology. This led to the development of a voluntary clean water agreement in North America between the port, the cruise lines and our regulators – the only one of its kind in North America. The agreement has been reviewed and amended by the signatories over the past 18 years as regulation and practices evolved. This work continues today as the signatories incorporate ongoing feedback from stakeholders. This is a great example of how we can aim to go beyond compliance by working closely with the industry, regulators and our communities with a focus on environmental sustainability to minimise the impacts from cruise ship operations.  

Faced with the global climate crisis and in response to demands for ambitious climate action from visitors, local communities and cruise lines, the Port of Seattle has risen to the challenge and is a leader in North America in maritime carbon reduction and clean water initiatives.  

In addition to sustainability, visitor experience is also a top priority for us. A few years ago, we were looking for innovations to make it easier for cruise visitors to spend more time in Seattle between ship disembarkation and the airport and identified that luggage was a real hindrance. Some cruise lines were offering paid luggage transfer services to the airport, but we thought, “what if we included it as a complementary service?” That led to a collaboration and a service partnership between the ort, the cruise lines and the airlines, and the creation of Port Valet, a complementary service in Seattle delivering cruise guests’ luggage from ship stateroom to the luggage hold on their departure airplane. Buy-in wasn’t immediate, but partners trusted each other through the pilot programme and soon realised benefits for everyone with less congestion in the cruise terminal baggage hall, shorter lines at airline check-in counters, and a better cruise passenger experience overall. Since the start of the service in 2017, we know that 20 per cent of Port Valet cruise passengers will spend time in Seattle before heading to the airport, which benefits local businesses as well.  

Cruise guests now combine the convenience of Port Valet with newer Port of Seattle innovations at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport such Spot Saver and Order SEA. Those programmes allow travellers to reserve a spot and avoid the line at airport TSA security and order food for delivery right to their departure gate.  

To share these best practices, the Port of Seattle collaborates with global cruise ports in a few ways. We are executive members of Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) and are active in its programmes and events. We are active in the American Association of Port Authorities, including a recent appointment as AAPA Cruise Committee Chair from 2018-2020. Throughout the pandemic, we have combined efforts on the resumption of cruise with our port partners through America’s Cruise Seaport’s Committee.  We also meet monthly with Cruise the West, a coalition of West Coast cruise ports including both the large and small ports of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Victoria, Astoria, Eureka, Santa Barbara, and Catalina Island. On the international stage, the port actively engages in the International Association of Ports and Harbors-led project in partnership with other global ports, CLIA and cruise lines to identify how we can all share important environmental data with each other. Our participation across this spectrum of organisations provides a rich platform to inform and unify seaport leaders and maritime professionals.    

The Port of Seattle has played a significant role in restarting cruise operations in North America during the pandemic. We set out our principles for resuming cruise in summer 2020 as we knew that cruising in 2021 was critical to the region’s economic recovery. We believed that, with our commitment to health and safety and the customer experience, we could play a leading role in restoring cruising to be better and more resilient than ever before.   

To get there, we formed an internal taskforce to manage requirements, responsibilities and expectations among a broad list of stakeholders including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cruise lines, federal agencies, local health partners and community groups. At the centre of this effort was the need to create a Memorandum of Agreement with the cruise lines and local health departments to meet the requirements of CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.  

Our task force focused first on the terminal operator and our own staff to bring together the required elements of the agreement including building a terminal sanitation programme and staff training. We activated our Government Affairs team to get the attention of state and county health departments which were under great stress managing the pandemic crisis. Through a series of ongoing port facilitated meetings, all parties had open lines of communication and worked to put all requirements in place, including medical, hotel, transportation, and embarkation/dismebarkation protocols. Through it all was the continued, daily engagement with our cruise line partners. Since Seattle was one of the first US ports to resume cruise, our Memorandum of Agreement and its legal framework became a model our cruise line partners could use to meet the requirements of CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for other ports around the country. 

Several of our partners have praised these efforts. In fact, Charlie Ball, executive vice president of land operations at Holland America Group, said: “The Port of Seattle teams were instrumental in connecting us to the relevant local agencies and officials who could help devise a safe cruise resumption for the community. They also worked side by side with us to complete thorough documentation of the plan which was used as a model for subsequent Memorandums of Understanding. At that time, the Alaska cruise operation was our biggest priority and, in many ways, helped establish a solid proof of concept for our safe return to North America in 2021.” 

We also worked with other ports to support them in their own resumption programmes. For example, as the homeport for all Alaska itineraries in 2021, we worked with our Alaskan port partners to understand their unique needs. Generally, they were concerned that Covid-19 outbreaks could overwhelm their smaller communities and medical facilities. These conversations were important to align their concerns with our agreements and to meet the requirements of the CDC framework. This work also helped our cruise line partners develop their vaccination requirements, onboard medical facilities and shore excursion activities. 

While we celebrate the resumption of cruising, we continue to prioritise environmental sustainability and improve our operations in line with it. The port has long partnered with the Washington State Department of Ecology and the cruise industry in a unique voluntary agreement to prevent wastewater discharges from large cruise ships into state waters. In 2020, we took it upon ourselves to take water quality protection one step further and prohibited cruise ships from discharging exhaust gas cleaning system wash water at berth.  

One of our most exciting actions this year, though, was the authourisation to expand clean electrical power to our third cruise berth in 2023. To overcome tricky infrastructure challenges which had delayed progress for years, the innovative project will install a submarine cable that runs along the seabed through the harbour to bring power to our downtown cruise terminal at Pier 66. Not only does this approach avoid the need to dig up busy downtown waterfront streets, but it’s cheaper too.   

In 2005, the Port of Seattle was the first cruise homeport in the world to offer two cruise berths with shore power and an ever-increasing number of ships are plugging in. For example, since 2018, shore power use at the port by cruise ships has prevented the emission of over 6,200 tons of carbon dioxide. We are very proud that through our voluntary actions, 100 per cent of our cruise berths will be shore power capable from 2023.  

In 2021, an updated Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy was also completed. For more than a decade, this regional, multi-port agreement has achieved significant results exceeding its emission reduction targets. The updated strategy establishes a new vision to get to zero emissions for seaport-related activities by 2050.  

Additional port action in the past year included a new partnership between the Port of Seattle, the Northwest Seaport Alliance, and our local electric utility Seattle City Light to develop the Seattle Waterfront Clean Energy Strategy, a holistic plan for decarbonising the maritime industry in Seattle. In addition to our 2050 zero-emission target for seaport-related activities, we also accelerated our port-wide carbon reduction goals from our own operations and now aim to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. 

In addition to these various energy and emissions targets, the Port of Seattle also has an ambitious goal to restore, create or enhance 40 acres of habitat across port properties, building on the previous restoration of over 100 acres of fish and wildlife habitat. Additionally, we have improved the marine environment via removal or remediation of over 10,000 creosote-treated derelict piling and over 100 acres of contaminated soils at numerous sites.  

The port also created the PORTfolio line of business in 2016 to restore nearshore habitats using market-based conservation models. One of the first large projects in the PORTfolio will be completed in 2022 – the Duwamish River People’s Park and Shoreline Habitat. This project creates approximately 13 acres of valuable fish and wildlife habitat in a marine-freshwater transition zone. We are starting the conceptual design phase of our second large restoration site which will create approximately nine acres of riparian, marsh and intertidal habitat in a critically important part of the Duwamish River estuary.  

In 2021, the Port began assessing its 15 miles of shoreline to identify opportunities to replace deteriorating armored bank lines with living, sustainable shorelines that will both stabilise shoreline and provide habitat benefits. Work on the first project is beginning this year and we are in the process of identifying additional sites for future projects.  

On top of all this, the port is advancing several pilot projects to enhance the Puget Sound ecosystem, including kelp conservation. At our Smith Cove Cruise Terminal site, we are testing the efficacy of kelp, eelgrass and native oyster restoration techniques, and measuring their ability to enhance resilience of our shorelines to the effects of ocean acidification.  

Stephanie Jones Stebbins is managing director of maritime at the Port of Seattle

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