Photo: Tourists leave their cruise ship in Belize

Cruisers head to shore on a tender in Belize.

Photograph by Gary M. Hymes

By Costas Christ

From the October 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

On a balmy morning last January in Belize, a team of cruise ship execs arrived for discussions about expanding cruise tourism in this tiny unspoiled Central American country, home to the world’s second largest barrier reef and swaths of biodiverse rain forest sheltering one of the greatest concentrations of ancient Maya sites. That’s why I was there: The Belize government asked me to help craft a new sustainable tourism plan that incorporates cruise ships. But negotiations with the delegation had hit rough seas.

It was not lost on the country’s leaders that in nearby Cozumel, nearly three million camera-swinging, tchotchke-buying cruise ship passengers stepped ashore last year, adding to the mass tourism pressure that threatens to engulf the Yucatán’s fishing hamlets and once pristine coast. Belize wants the economic benefits of cruise tourism, but not the damage it can bring.

Once in the crosshairs of the environmental movement for illegally dumping trash and oily bilge water at sea (several ships were famously caught on-camera doing the dirty deeds in the 1990s) and belching toxic smoke out of their stacks in port, the cruise industry has since invested millions of dollars to green up its sustainability credentials. Royal Caribbean, for example, tapped Jamie Sweeting, a former senior director of Conservation International, to become its first vice president for environmental stewardship in 2008. The line now routinely touts its clean practices on ships such as the new Oasis of the Seas, a 5,000-plus passenger vessel that is the first to receive a “Green Passport” designation for its green technology, including state-of-the-art energy efficiency, nontoxic marine paints, solar panels, and an advanced wastewater treatment system. But as the negotiations in Belize make apparent, the cruise lines have yet to embrace a more responsible path to doing business on land.

Just weeks after reporting nearly $2 billion in profits for 2010, Carnival—the largest cruise corporation in the world—joined other cruise lines in insisting that Belizean tour operators, whose tenders transfer 100 passengers on ship-to-shore excursions, increase capacity to 150 passengers (to provide a smoother and more comfortable ride, according to Carnival). This would cost Belize’s tender owners over a million dollars and take many months to do. To make matters worse, the cruise executives also insisted that Belize abandon a proposed increase in national park entrance fees—from $5 to $10 per person (among the lowest in the world, even with the increase). That increase, Belize officials maintain, is desperately needed to better care for the same parks that receive high traffic from cruise passengers. When the Belizeans emerged from the negotiations, I learned that Carnival warned them that it might pull out of the country if its demands were not met.

“The cruise industry talks about the great strides they are making for the environment, but what about supporting the local economy and safeguarding cultural and natural heritage in the destinations they visit?” asks Lindsay Garbutt, CEO of the Belize Ministry of Tourism. “We want and need cruise tourism as part of our economic development, but we want it based on sustainable practices.”

Other cruise destinations echo similar concerns. Last June, local residents and groups in Charleston, S.C.—a model of historic and cultural preservation—announced they were suing Carnival, citing the negative impact from large-scale cruise tourism on its neighborhoods and environment. According to the Charleston Heritage Federation, “Charleston has struggled against and survived three  centuries of wars, fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes.” Its current challenge is the cruise ships—and the negatives they bring.

When it comes to the flip side of the sustainability equation—providing social and economic benefits to local communities and protecting the destinations they  visit—the cruise lines come up far short. For instance, many “cruise villages”—where passengers first disembark to shop—are closed areas controlled by affiliated companies peddling international diamonds, rather than more local mom-and-pop shops that could benefit from that income. Some destinations must actually pay cruise lines to bring passengers into port, rather than the other way around. Peer under the hood—or into the engine room—and you’d wish you could just sit on a deck chair wearing sunglasses in blissful ignorance.

“These are perfectly straightforward transactions,” maintains Michael Crye, executive vice president of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). “Certain port improvements have been funded by the cruise industry, and that debt may be repaid through the cruise lines getting a fee for each passenger they bring ashore.” In its 2010 annual report, Carnival emphasized “cost containment” as a primary objective. Some of that appears to be at the expense of host destinations.

As the big cruise companies drag their fins at the destination level, smaller cruise outfitters have been going full speed ahead for years. In addition to environmentally sound practices on board, Lindblad Expeditions (a National Geographic partner) has been a pioneer in supporting Galápagos conservation efforts since the 1990s, and Australia-based Orion Expedition Cruises is becoming a leader in community-benefit projects. That may be as much a matter of size as philosophy—smaller ships are often able to be more flexible and nimble in the way they conduct business.

Major cruise lines predict 16 million passengers in 2011—an increase of more than 6 percent over last year. Those cruisers are in a unique position to lift their shades, look around, and start pestering the big ships to go green on land. Doing so will send a powerful message: What happens on land and water matters equally.

“Our work is fundamentally inspired by the beauty of the sea,” said Howard Frank, CEO of Carnival and chairman of CLIA, in a report released last October coinciding with the 35th anniversary of the industry group. “It’s important that we respect this setting and do our best to keep the environment in the pristine condition in which we find it.” Words to live by or lip service?

The cruise line’s threat to cut back its ship visits to Belize forced the government to abandon the proposed increase in national park fees. The cruise industry may have set sail on sustainability, but it has yet to bring it into port.

Editor at large Costas Christ writes about sustainability and tourism issues. E-mail your comments to Travel_Talk@ngs.org.

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