Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the cruise industry was expanding rapidly around the world. While many cruise operators celebrated this rapid growth, some were concerned about the sector had become a victim of its own success.
“The focus on marketing the same established marquee destinations to guests became too much in some instances, causing overtourism,” says Grant Holmes, global vice president of cruise solutions at Inchcape Shipping Services, a global provider of port agency and maritime services.
Although some pro-cruise destinations may be willing to stretch capacity, others are concerned about the many downsides of overtourism. These challenges are particularly evident in ports and communities that do not have the infrastructure to cope with large vessels and high numbers of cruise guests and crew members descending on towns and cities at the same time. “Overcrowding is also unpleasant for cruise guests, so destinations risk losing their appeal and thereby compromising their integrity,” says Holmes. “It is important to review and learn from that, and to put sustainability principles first, especially from the destination perspective.”
Pre-2020, Holmes travelled around various destinations advocating for developing a more sustainable approach to cruising. “Typically, people fully accepted the idea of sustainable cruise management, but the challenge now is to implement it successfully,” he says. “The pandemic ‘reset’ means we have to get it right as soon as the cruise industry restarts. Although some may initially reject it, sustainability is the only way forward in the long run, and I anticipate a growing sustainability focus even in the busiest destinations.”
Operators in niche sectors of the cruise industry, such as luxury and expedition, have already embraced the sustainability trend. “They’re pioneering itineraries that feature new destinations and regions on a truly global scale,” says Holmes. “I believe even the mega ships will change towards a preference for less crowded and overpopulated ports of call in the future, with a greater focus on nature. Inchcape’s World of Ports service shows there are 374 cruise ships globally at present, however more cruise ships were retired and sold for scrap in 2020 than we’ve seen in the past few decades. This offers a great opportunity to shift priorities.”
To successfully transition to a sustainable cruise model, the industry will have to introduce measures to tackle several key issues.
“At a 2019 Cruise Lines International Association session in Hamburg, I asked <assembled cruise executives to vote on what their biggest challenges were at that point in time and in the future,” says Holmes. “The top three included port congestion, the environment and government regulations. In my view, port congestion is actually a deployment problem, with too many ships going to the same ports at precisely the same time of year. This definitely isn’t sustainable.”
To remedy this, Holmes suggests that cruise lines could share their itineraries to avoid too many ships being in port at the same time. “We also need to spread ships more thinly over a greater reach across the planet,” he adds. “For example, Indonesia is made up of 14,752 islands and islets, 6,000 of which are inhabited. Yet the entire country only received 450,000 cruise passengers in 2018, which is just half of the passenger tally at one key port in the Mediterranean. There is a plethora of fantastic unspoilt places to experience, and this can absolutely be done in a measured way using the appropriate-sized vessel for each port destination.”
According to Holmes, it’s also vital that governments improve how they manage the impact of cruise ships on the port communities and local infrastructure, particularly in emerging markets. “Cruise lines may ask for a large terminal, for example, but authorities must weigh up very carefully what is needed versus what is sustainable in terms of the capacity of each destination and cruise ship segment suitability.”
Inchcape’s work with the Vanilla Islands project exemplifies this approach. It focuses on developing sustainable cruising in 12 ports in the six island nations of the Indian Ocean.
“The partly European Union-funded project we were awarded involves setting completely new protocols and standards for luxury, discovery and expedition cruising in the Indian Ocean,” says Holmes. “We have taken a holistic view, visiting each island to understand capacity from both a port and tourism perspective. These are micro-communities where too many ships arriving would have an adverse environmental impact and tax local resources, so it is important to restrict the number of ships to ensure an optimal experience onshore. Failure to do this is asking for trouble. We have also recommended the Vanilla Islands to apply for Global Sustainable Tourism Council destination certification, which involves management, preparation and training.”
Holmes is confident that if cruising can be done more consciously, the industry can look forward to a bright future once operations resume worldwide. “The mega ships will likely focus on marquiee port destinations and private islands, while more adventurous and nature-loving travellers will desire to visit more remote places,” he explains. “This will require the industry to build a network of smaller port destinations with attention to detail. That way people can experience what’s best about our planet.
“Our destination development strategy at Inchcape is to make sure what is good for cruise lines benefits destinations and local communities. With this unique approach, we aim to be the leading player helping to develop future emerging markets so that the industry can flourish, based on quality rather than quantity and the overall destination experience.”
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