Responsible cruising: Seven tips for choosing a cruise that's better for the environment

When the Pacific Explorer sailed into Sydney Harbour on April 18 to a celebratory cascade of waterspouts, cruise aficionados and cruise company executives were overjoyed. International ocean cruising had at last returned to Australian shores.

There were others, though, who were horrified. I was surprised by how many negative comments I heard about it. "Ugh, those ships are back." "Floating petri dishes." "Who in their right mind would go on a cruise now?"

Lots of people in their right minds go on ocean cruises, around 30 million of them in 2019. Cruising was so popular in "Before Times" that even sceptics were coming around to the idea that it was a fun way to see the world without unpacking every day (one of its great advantages.)

The pandemic certainly took the gloss off that. A few highly publicised incidents were disastrous for cruising's image, and caused many potential passengers to have second thoughts. The cruise industry says it has worked hard to improve health and safety to the point where passengers taking sensible precautions and who are well-vaccinated should be safe. But the stigma will take a while to shake off.

On top of this, the growing number of people who want to travel responsibly worry about the negative impact of ships on environments and communities. Passenger ships account for a tiny fraction of the emissions of global shipping, yet large ships lined up one after the other in ports burning dirty fossil fuels make disproportionate impacts on the places they visit. Even though Cruise Lines International members made a global fleet-wide commitment in December 2018 to reduce the rate of carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, it's very hard to turn the ship around quickly. The big fuel guzzling behemoths aren't being retired any time soon. But if you want to cruise responsibly here are ways to do it.

1. Consider why you're taking a cruise. I once had lunch on board a 6000-passenger ship docked in Miami. It was a combination of shopping mall, fun fair and apartment complex, with so many food outlets, bars, gardens and entertainment venues that it was dizzying. Passengers wandered around looking stunned. The ship was going to cruise to the Bahamas, but this seemed completely irrelevant. And I wondered – why be at sea at all? What's the point of burning all those tonnes of fossil fuels if you might as well be on land?

2. Consider the kind of ship you're sailing on. If your vessel has 18 decks it's not really a ship but a floating city building. That's going to have a different impact on a port than a ship with fewer than 1000 passengers. There are human as well as carbon impacts to consider.

3. Think less about price and more about value. Maybe you could travel less frequently but make it really special each time, investing in a cruise where you and your family really gain something and have the opportunity to give something back, such as an exploration with scientists onboard.

4. Do your homework. Friends of the Earth annually publishes a report card ( that rates 18 major cruise lines, giving quite a few an "F" for fail and listing those with international violations and fines. The more sustainable expedition companies such as Aurora and Hurtigruten aren't included and it doesn't take account of the fact that many companies have a mix of new and old ships, big and small, some cleaner than others. But it's a start.


5. Begin and end the cruise in your home port or in a port that's not across the other side of the planet. This reduces your personal carbon emissions dramatically because you're not adding the many tonnes expended on long-haul flights to the total.

6. It is so easy to put too much food on your plate if the ship still offers a buffet. It's less tempting if your meal is served a la carte at a table. Food waste is avoidable and inexcusable.

7. Avoid the herd. Group tours often mean a destination gets overwhelmed with tourists all at once. Some destinations have now put the brakes on how many passengers can disembark at one time, demanding ships stagger arrivals. If you can, venture out on your own or separate from the pack once you've used the group transfer. Follow your own schedule, spend money directly in the community and engage with locals in a personal way. That makes a more memorable trip anyway.