The Dark side of Cruise ships. Garbage. Sewage. And more.

[ I detest cruise ships which destroy the ambiance of small towns in Alaska and everywhere else they go.  While cruise ships disgorged their sewage and garbage in Alaska’s Skagway harbor, passengers disgorged into shops owned by the cruise ships rather than voyage into the spectacular scenery they’d supposedly come to see.  Then I read Elizabeth Becker “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism”, and found out cruise ships were even worse than I thought.  Below are excerpts from this book, which I very much recommend, and she covers many other interesting issues with the tourism industry as well. 

But wait!  It gets worse.  There’s rape, and crime, and death, see my summary of a U.S. Senate hearing for details.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, 2015, Springer]

The small head tax paid by cruise ships doesn’t begin to cover the damage that cruise passengers cause during their short stay. “Goff’s Caye in Belize has really been trampled now. Locals avoid it. Most of the wildlife has fled, but that is fine because these cruise tourists are less sensitive to protecting habitat of birds or monkeys, or protecting coral reef. If there is garbage strewn everywhere, you know the tourists came from cruise ships.” Many conservationists believe keeping cruise ship passengers restricted to a few areas-sacrifice zones-could prevent irreversible damage, because their numbers are getting out of hand.  Excursions of several hundred people descending on a wildlife preserve for a few hours can be disastrous. “Our parks weren’t made for that kind of an invasion and the guides can’t control the tourists.

Against this bleak picture, cruise ships could seem insignificant; there are some four hundred cruise ships, compared to a global fleet of tens of thousands of commercial vessels. And these few cruise ships sail across vast oceans. Yet their contribution to the fouling of the seas is considerable. While the oceans are large, these cruise ships stick to a standard path whether in the Caribbean or the Baltic, disposing of their considerable waste at roughly the same stretch at the same time, year in and year out. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the course of one day the average cruise ship produces: 21,000 gallons of human sewage, one ton of solid waste garbage, 170,000 gallons of wastewater from showers, sinks and laundry, 6,400 gallons of oily bilge water from the massive engines, 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes and expired chemicals, and 8,500 plastic bottles.

Multiply this by those 400 ships cruising year-round and you have a sense of the magnitude of the problem. But there are no accurate studies of how well that waste is disposed of because the ships are not required to follow any state or national laws once in international waters.

Cruise lines are not required to monitor or report what they release. As a result, neither the government nor the public know how much pollution is released at sea.

Cruise ships were largely ignored, considered harmless for carrying tourists rather than oil. The awakening came in Alaska ten years after the Exxon Valdez spill. The guilty party was Royal Caribbean. Their cruise ships, which sailed through some of Alaska’s most sensitive harbors and coastal waterways, including the Inside Passage, were caught illegally dumping bilge water containing waste oil and hazardous chemicals. The bilge water routinely dumped by the cruise ships was sufficiently toxic that the U.S. Clean Water Act forbids its discharge within 200 miles of the coast because it endangers fish and wildlife and the habitat they depend on.

The government made new efforts to police the industry. In 2003 the Carnival Corporation pled guilty to illegally discharging oily waste from its ships, paying a $9 million fine and agreeing to pay another $9 million to environmental projects. Environmentalists lobbied for new legislation in Congress and in state legislatures to strictly regulate the discharge of ships refuse and regularly monitor that discharge. The cruise line industry pushed back, saying they were making voluntary improvements in their waste disposal systems.

After the Royal Caribbean convictions a group of Alaskans lobbied their state government to hold cruise lines responsible for the damage they caused. Juneau, the state capital, imposed a $5-per-passenger head tax to cover costs of cleaning up after those cruise tourists. Governor Tony Knowles convened a state panel in 2000 to monitor the waste produced by cruise ships during that summer season. One of the members appointed was Gershon Cohen, a scientist and environmentalist who lives in the small port town of Haines, which limits the number of ships allowed to dock there. As Cohen describes it, the panel tested cruise ship waste for evidence of hazardous material. What they found, instead, was untreated human sewage. “That shocked the hell out of us,” he said. “We found the cruise ships were floating poop producers.” The raw sewage came from inadequate “marine sanitation devices” that were designed to treat the refuse from a few dozen people but were installed on ships to treat the waste from thousands. Cohen said the samples testing fecal coliform bacteria from the ships’ human sewage were unbelievable: “One ship tested out at nine million fecal coliform bacteria counts per sample. Another tested at fourteen million, another at twenty-four million. These samples to be healthy are supposed to be at 200 or less.” Those pollutants from human sewage were threatening Alaska’s marine life, its fish, coral reefs, oyster beds, and sea mammals.

Since the Alaskan economy depends mightily on fishing, recreation and other land- based tourism, those findings alarmed the state leaders. The Alaskan legislature passed laws requiring that cruise ships routinely be tested to meet the state’s clean-air and -water standards and levying a $1 tax on each passenger to pay for the program. In Congress, Senator Frank Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, won passage of a law to allow Alaska to set standards and regulate “black water” waste that contains human sewage. No other state had these laws. The cruise industry pushed back again, and convinced Senator Murkowski to win approval from the Secretary of Interior to nearly double the number of cruise ships allowed in Glacier Bay National Park during the high summer season over the strong objections of park officials. Then Gershon Cohen and an Alaska attorney won a petition drive that placed an initiative on the 2006 ballot requiring cruise ships to apply for official waste permits with strict limits on sewage disposal. The initiative also created an ocean rangers program of marine engineers who would ride cruise ships to monitor the discharge and that would be underwritten by a new $50 passenger head tax. Despite predictions to the contrary, the voter initiative passed. Some of the requirements were later eased by Sean Parnell, the new governor, including cutting in half the passenger head tax in order to head off a lawsuit filed against the tax by Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

Maine joined Alaska in passing state laws curbing cruise ship pollution. California, with its long, varied coastline and strong environmental movement, has passed the strictest rules against any waste discharge by cruise ships. The laws were sparked in part by a Crystal Cruises ship that dumped 36,000 gallons of gray water and sewage in Monterey Bay. The cruise line was able to claim, rightly, that it hadn’t broken any rules. So the town banned the Crystal Cruises ship from the bay in 2005. The California state legislature then passed a law forbidding discharge of any waste whatsoever-treated or untreated, black water or gray water, sewage waste or garbage waste, into California’s coast waters by cruise ships or other large vessels. The federal government through the EPA endorsed the law in 2010, which gives the Coast Guard authority to enforce it.

the industry has forcefully opposed the Clean Cruise Ship Act, sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, which would require sewage and gray water discharges to be controlled by the Clean Water Act. The legislation would also require cruise ships to use advanced treatment systems and to sail beyond the current 12-mile limit before discharging treated sewage.

U.S. Coast Guard is charged with enforcing existing laws and standards in American waters, but it has done a lackluster job, largely because inspecting sewage from cruise ships is close to the bottom of its to-do list. After the 9/11 attacks, when the Coast Guard was absorbed into the new Homeland Security Department, its mission has been insistently focused on “antiterrorism.” In theory, complaints about ships’ discharge in international waters are investigated by flag states like Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas, but they rarely follow up. The Congressional Research Service study of cruise ship pollution rated overall enforcement as “poor.” That leaves the industry

In some countries, cruise ships pose such an immediate danger they are under tight restriction. Antarctica has banned large cruise ships outright, beginning in 2011. The cruise ships’ heavy fuel oils were causing serious air pollution and, when spilled in an accident, causing irreparable damage. In 2007 the cruise ship Explorer capsized in an ice field, dumping 50,000 gallons of marine diesel fuel, 6,300 gallons of lubricant and 260 gallons of gasoline into the ocean where it rests at a depth of 5,000 feet.


Shopping seminars were the only lectures offered on the cruise-nothing on Mexico or Belize, our two ports of call. At the seminar, Wesley and Victoria, the shopping gurus, told us there were world-class bargains in the ports and passed out a free map with lists of reliable stores that they said had qualified to insert paid advertisements in the brochure. Cozumel was especially strong on diamonds, Wesley said, even though diamonds are not mined, polished or set in Mexico.

“Stick to the stores on the map,” said Wesley. “If you’re silly enough to buy something from a store not on the map, then my hands are tied when something goes wrong.”

Kathy Kaufmann, a professional dancer in New York and a friend, told me what it was like to be a member of a dance troupe aboard a cruise ship. She described it as something you do when you’re young, “a little like backpacking through Europe.” The work is demanding; the pay adequate. During a cruise on a Holland America ship, she danced in the two productions each night and then rehearsed from midnight to five in the morning, when the stages were empty. The artists slept through the day in cell- sized rooms well below sea level, “which is a little depressing but great for sleeping since there are no windows.” After a year, she said, “I couldn’t do that again.”

The next morning we docked at the island of Cozumel. We were part of a mini-armada of eight cruise ships that arrived the same day, each adorned with trademark funnels- Mickey ears on the Disney liner, a splayed red tail for Carnival-and each carrying at least 2,000 people. That meant at least 16,000 people were all getting off at the same time for an afternoon of fun. A Native Mayan in a feathered headdress, his face and body painted in beguiling swirls, greeted us at the gangplank. Bill pulled out his camera to snap a photo of me with the Mayan when a ship photographer blocked him. “We paid for the Indian to be here, only we can take his picture,” he said. “Ship rates at a hundred dollars for the first four copies; ten dollars a copy afterwards.” “But we’re passengers on this ship,” said Bill, wondering why we had been put in the camp of “us versus them.”

Fifty years ago the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited the then unknown and sparsely inhabited island of Cozumel and declared its clear waters among the best for scuba diving. Today, every year, 1 million cruise passengers visit the thirty- mile-long island with a population of 100,000 looking for a few hours of sightseeing and shopping in the now densely commercial strip of San Miguel, where, again, a Diamonds International store dominated.

We saw cruise passengers on excursions arranged by the ship, snorkeling near the shore, or swimming with dolphins. (Forty minutes for $122.) We walked past a thatched-roof al fresco bar where

Walking back onto the ship, we went through a security check where the guards were largely concerned about hidden alcohol. No, Bill and I said, we did not buy any liquor. One of the most stringently applied policies of Royal Caribbean is the ban on bringing any beer, wine, or spirits on board. If passengers had purchased a bottle of tequila in Cozumel, they had to hand it over to security where it would be “sequestered” until the cruise was over and the ship docked in Miami. The only alcohol passengers were allowed to drink had to be purchased at the ship’s bars or restaurants. The penalty for disobeying this policy is severe. In our rules book Royal Caribbean states that guests concealing alcohol “may be disembarked or not allowed to board, at their own expense, in accordance with our Guest Conduct Policy.” Those drinks tabs added up. My husband and I were not reveling into the late hours, but our wine at dinner and occasional cocktails over five nights ran to several hundred dollars. When your key card is also your credit card, it is easy to lose track of what you’re spending.

We passengers were the ultimate captive audience, spending our time and money on that one ship for five days, watching our bargain vacation quickly spiral into a more expensive getaway. Temptation was everywhere. The Portofino Italian Restaurant and the Chops Grille required a surcharge of $25 a person. Massages cost as much as $238.

With five thousand tourists landing in Belize on that day, we had expected business to be booming all over the city. But the tourists were off on excursions or were shopping at the pier, following the warning that anything at local stores not approved by the ship would be sketchy.

After five hours we were back on the ship, attending the “Grand Finale Champagne Art Preview” at the Ixtapa Lounge, a warm-up for an auction offering pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Henri Matisse. Derek, the auctioneer, taught us how to bid with a paddle and quizzed us on our general art knowledge. He represented Park West Gallery, headquartered in Southfield, Michigan, which advertised itself as one of the biggest art galleries in the world. The next day, at the actual auction, the first art up for bid were serigraphs and hand-embellished graphic works by lesser-known artists. Those were followed by more pieces by artists we had never heard of. Puzzled by the selection, we left before it was over. Back in our cabin, Bill calculated tips for the waiters and housekeeper. Royal Caribbean made it clear that passengers were expected to pay tips or gratuities to “thank those who have made your cruise vacation better than you could have imagined” and had left envelopes in our room with forms listing the rates we were expected to pay: $5.75 a day per person to our housekeeper, $3.50 a day per person to our dining room waiter, $2.00 a day per person to the assistant waiter and $0.75 cents a day per person to the headwaiter, or maître d’hôtel.

Now I had a sense of the appeal of cruises. It is effortless travel aboard these ships, taking all of the risk out of foreign travel. Once you buy that single ticket, you don’t have to lift a finger again. No planning, no moving from one hotel to another, no navigating buses or taxis to find a café that proves to be a disappointment. The excursions on land are tightly programmed, requiring no understanding of foreign languages or cultures. You unpack your suitcase once, sleep in the same bed, and read an activities bulletin each morning to decide whether you want to enter the “Men’s Sexy Legs Competition,” attend a complimentary slot machine lesson or take a merengue dance lesson for “fun fitness,” which were all offerings on our second day at sea. It is the ultimate package tour. How the cruises made their profit

was less obvious: onboard sales of everything from photographs to Internet service to yoga classes was the cash cow. But a lot didn’t add up: these are American cruise line companies, but we didn’t meet any American employees. And the wages paid were definitely below the American minimum.

Behind the carefree holiday of a cruise-the dancing waiters, the constant shows and events, the spreads of great food and the escape from daily drudgery-is a serious industry that has changed what people expect out of a vacation. It was built by several entrepreneurs who took advantage of changes in American lifestyles, married the design of a resort with the rhythm of a theme park, put it on a boat and won sweet deals through giant loopholes in American laws.

Carnival rendition diverges dramatically from the real man. Arison was not born poor; his well-to-do family has a long history in maritime shipping. He invested millions in Carnival Cruise Lines over several years before turning a profit, leaning on wealthy friends to come up with the money. But he was bold and brash and imaginative as he redefined what it meant to take a cruise, filling ever-larger ships with thousands of fun-seeking passengers and giving them nonstop entertainment sailing the seas. He decided port visits should be almost incidental, offering a few hours on foreign soil before returning to the real pleasure of eating, drinking and playing on board.

His cruise line made the Port of Miami the cruise capital of the world. And yet he accomplished these seismic changes without having to follow American laws and regulations that govern everything from pollution to minimum wages. As a business model, the cruise industry has been phenomenal, a $40 billion industry in the United States alone, and the fastest-growing segment of the global tourist industry. Cruises are the future. But cutting corners and avoiding laws have had serious downsides. Cruise ships are not subject to the requirement for federal permits covering sewer and waste disposal systems that are de rigueur for the resorts and hotels on land. As a result, all of those millions of passengers and crew members dining and defecating and showering on the oceans have left filthy discharges in their wake. On land, the cruise crowds streaming into foreign ports by the thousands have disfigured beaches and plazas, building resentment among many locals. Cozumel isn’t the only port that has taken on the life of a strip mall. St. Mark’s Square in Venice is now a field of kiosks selling cheap imports and lines of tourists waiting to visit the basilica.

But having fun on a ship sailing in the middle of the ocean requires prosaic essentials re-creating all of the systems hotels on land take for granted as well as the underpinnings of the ship: the navigation system, engines, power plant, water filtration and purification plants, sewage plants, photography plants, laundry and dry-cleaning facilities, kitchen galleys, a morgue, and storage lockers for the 100,000 pounds of food required to feed 3,000 people every day on a cruise. Also hidden from view are the below-sea-level accommodations for the 1,200 crew members. These fun ships grew ever larger to incorporate all the services necessary to run a miniature town, becoming megaships with space for elaborate playthings like the skating rinks and climbing walls.

As the American lines expanded to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe and then into Asia, annual passenger load tripled from 500,000 in 1970 to 1.5 million in 1980, and then grew exponentially to 4 million in 1990 to over 13 million in 2010.

“Onboard spending is becoming more profitable than ticket sales. On average, each passenger provides forty-three dollars in profits each day to the big cruise companies,” he said. “If you include all the onboard spending, it is now less expensive to stay in an upscale Caribbean resort than to sail there on a cruise ship.” That onboard revenue translates, roughly, into at least 24 percent of all cruise revenue. Along the U.S.-Caribbean routes it can jump to more than 30 percent, according to UNWTO. Booze is one of the biggest earners. In the earliest days of modern

Gambling brings in nearly as much profits. Spas, Internet fees, extra costs for fancier restaurants, fees for sports and exercise classes, photographs and a DVD of the cruise-that DVD can earn at least $100,000 in revenue on a short cruise-and souvenirs all bring in money. As Mr. Dickinson wrote, “Everyone has already prepaid for their ticket and the only variable left that will determine the overall revenue (and ultimately the overall profitability) of a voyage is how much is spent on board. “The truth is that selling goes on all of the time all over the ship,” he said, “and it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to the bottom line.” Convincing passengers to spend is part of the theater of a cruise, conjuring up “the vacation of a lifetime” with unique flashy shows. This is especially true for the third big profit center for cruises: art sales. Even though art auctions are relative newcomers to cruises, begun in the mid-1990s, they are now big business and a serious source of money.

Enthusiasm is whipped up with flyers tucked into cabins, by announcements on the in- house television channel and by lectures on how to buy art. At the auction we attended, the salesman spoke convincingly about the quality of the paintings and artworks, the high reputation of the artists, and the long-term investment value of the pieces. And everything, he said, was guaranteed with appraisals of the fair market price and a generous return policy. But over the years hundreds of customers have complained that those guarantees are sketchy. And they have tried to bring legal cases against Park West, but the gallery argued that since the sales were made in international waters, the gallery was outside the jurisdiction of the American legal system. The customers felt cheated and started writing letters to their members of Congress and their hometown newspapers. The narrative of the complaints was always the same: back home the customers discover that the art they purchased was worth far less than they had paid and, at times, wasn’t even authentic. But when they complained, the return policy evaporated and Park West refused to refund the purchase.

On the cruise, this emphasis on buying diamonds felt out of synch with the idea of a carefree vacation. The pep-rally shopping lectures in the ship’s huge auditorium added to the sense of a trip aboard a shopping mall-destination nowhere. For all those reasons, though, cruise ships are the face of modern mass tourism. The industry has turned travel into a shopping spree. Airports have resembled shopping malls for several decades. The most glorious cathedrals and monuments are surrounded by high- end luxury stores with the same brands for sale whether in Europe, the United States or Asia.

There is one more profit center for onboard revenue that seems counterintuitive. Cruise lines make significant money from what the passengers do when they leave the ship and go ashore on those excursion trips. Cruise lines essentially apply the same system to excursion trips as they do to diamonds and artwork. The ship sells the excursions onboard, offering guarantees and then warning against taking competing excursions. Then the ship takes a nice cut from every excursion sold. On average, the cruise lines collect a commission or fee from the local tour agency as great as 50 percent of the price of the tour. In one year, Royal Caribbean earned a third of its profits from selling shore excursions.

This antipathy derives not only from the frustration of seeing your city overrun on a regular basis but also knowing that there is little profit in welcoming them. In Venice the city spends more to cover the services used by the ships-water, electricity, cleaning-and their passengers than it receives in the taxes paid per passenger to the port. (Given Italy’s murky political system, it is impossible to find out what that per passenger fee is and whether it goes into the city treasury. In a study with the Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, the Belize tourism board found that cruise ship passengers spent an average of $44 on land, not the $100 average cited by the cruise industry. The tourism board commissioned the study out of disappointment that passengers on the cruise ships were not helping the economy as promised. The study warned of an “inherent tension between the objectives of the cruise industry and those of Belize.” By contrast, tourists who came by land to Belize spent at least $96 a day and $653 per visit. Costa Rica’s figure for cruise passengers was similar to that of Belize, with an average of $44.90. In Europe, an impartial study found passenger spending in Croatia averaged about $60 in 2007.

The industry also has made friends in the nonprofit media, think tanks and organizations by offering them fundraisers aboard cruise ships at special prices. These cruises offer fans and donors the chance to spend up to a week listening to their favorite personalities. At the same time, the price they pay for the cruise fills the organization’s coffers with tens of thousands of dollars. Nonprofits from across the political spectrum take advantage of these offers. Media stars like Diane Rehm of National Public Radio, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation magazine and Gwen Ifill of public television’s News Hour, have hosted cruises to the Caribbean and Europe for their organizations. More than one critic has asked if it wasn’t hypocritical for organizations to blithely make hundreds of thousands of dollars on cruise ships that pay poor wages and routinely dump pollutants, the exact practices they deplore.


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