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Despite Carnival Corp.’s June admission of guilt and consequent $20 million fine for ocean pollution, some travel advisors are finding that such incidents have done little to raise environmental awareness or change booking behavior among their cruise clients.

However, travel advisors and others also see a growing commitment, primarily among operators of expedition-style cruises, to enact and promote sustainable cruise practices.

Beate Klünder, transport policy officer for German environmental lobby NABU, told Skift the only tangible consequence of the Carnival fine has been a pledge from the shipping giant to do better, but there hasn’t been any industrywide change in behavior in the wake of the fine.

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald is speaking at Skift Global Forum in NYC Sept. 18. Get tickets now

However, NABU believes its extensive campaign against cruise ship pollution is bearing fruit, with at least two German operators, AIDA and TUI, stepping up their game.

“They hired environmental officers [and have started] to invest in emission-reduction technology,” Klünder said.

Not Asking About Impact

Paul Sieferth, president and owner of Mesa, Arizona-based Terra Travel, believes that while every business is thinking more about the environment than ever before, there is not much discussion about what’s happening in the cruise sector.

“My clients don’t even ask about the environmental impact,” he said. “They are concerned about the itinerary and price of the cruise.”

In a similar vein, Ashton Palmer, president of Seattle-based ExpeditionTrips, observed that many of the companies his agency represents are taking steps to “green up” in some ways, “but it is not something clients are typically asking about proactively at this point.”

While travelers may not be asking for it yet, environmental pressures are influencing the way operators manage their fleet and develop new ships, Palmer added.

“New small-ship builds are certainly cleaner and more efficient as compared to older vessels still in service,” he said. “Operators are increasingly touting their sustainability practices as a selling point, so this may well shape the conversation with travelers and eventually emerge as a key differentiator.”

Operators Wave Green Flags

Some cruise operators are already finding growing interest in green practices among their customers.

SeaTrek Sailing Adventures in Bali, Indonesia, has seen a definite increase in the number of guests “asking about our environmental credentials, our commitment to sustainability, and the ways in which we respect the local people within whose backyards we operate,” said Michael Travers, director of marketing and communications.

To date, the company’s efforts have included plastic waste reduction, use of bulk products instead of individually wrapped versions, and increased local sourcing of items such as soaps and toiletries.

SeaTrek has undergone an audit by the World Wildlife Foundation and, not satisfied with its three-star rating, is aiming to add another by the end of the year.

“We are also very close to achieving our Green Fins certification, acknowledgment from the snorkeling and scuba [initiative run by The Reef-World Foundation] NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] that regulates best practice for snorkeling or diving on coral reefs to minimize human impact and eliminate damage to corals,” Travers added.

Travers said while some of the impetus comes from guests, “it’s more than matched by a desire from within the company culture to be doing good.”

Seattle-based UnCruise Adventures is among the cruise operators experiencing an uptick in questions about its operating procedures and sustainable business practices, said CEO Dan Blanchard.

“As an adventure travel company, we are very concerned with ensuring we are traveling lightly in the wild places we visit,” he said. “We have a unique niche in the industry; we’re at the intersection of adventure and small-ship cruising. Our focus is on nature and wildlife. By keeping our numbers small, 22–90 guests on our ships, we are able to take small groups out into these scenic areas while minimizing our impact.”

The company’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint include using less number 2 light diesel fuel. It’s also avoiding long cruises from Seattle or Vancouver to the far reaches of Alaska and back, instead operating mostly out of Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka.

“The company was also the first to employ four-cycle outboards on all its small boats and is seeking out ways now to switch to electric-powered units,” Blanchard said. “Generators and main engines are under a replacement program that is moving the company toward higher-tier-classed engines.”

Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder of Aqua Expeditions, said his team is “incredibly passionate about keeping the great rivers of the world clean and beautiful for future generations.”

The company’s responsible ecotourism practices and standards include fuel efficiency (using a specialized wet exhaust system on its ships’ engines to minimize carbon dioxide emissions and reduce its carbon footprint), waste management, and the use of eco-friendly products such as biodegradable cleaning products on board its vessels, as well as community outreach.

Tom Power, co-founder of United Kingdom-based tour operator Pura Aventura, has been advising travelers to opt for longer cruises as the best way to minimize negative impact.

“Shorter cruises encourage more flights, which have a greater impact on this fragile environment and increase risks of the introduction of invasive species,” he said.

For destinations like the Galapagos Islands, Pura recommends seven nights, including two or three nights in a locally owned hotel on one of the islands, which is “a good way to get a sense of how people live here and to distribute some of your money into the community.”

Avoiding Overtourism

Besides their negative environmental impact, giant cruise liners have been slammed for contributing to overtourism. ExpeditionTrips’ Palmer noted that small-ship operators have a clear advantage since most are actively engaged in giving back to the destinations they visit.

“Examples include funding for conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands, engaging with small communities in the South Pacific who rarely receive visits, and hiring local guides and specialists to impart local knowledge,” he said. “Since most trips we represent visit wilderness areas with little or no infrastructure, there is less risk of the overtourism that occurs in ports frequented by larger mass-market vessels.”

Travel agency consortium Travel Leaders, which says it’s fighting overtourism, does not have specific data on the phenomenon in the cruise industry, but CEO Ninan Chacko noted that cruise traffic is responsible for some of the overcrowding in some destinations.

He said he expects at-risk cruise destinations and seasons to be identified in the second phase of his group’s collaborative research with New York University’s School of Professional Studies.

“We want to work with all of our supplier partners to find viable business solutions, which result in better experiences for our travelers,” he said.

Growing Interest

For now, it seems like cruising’s green credentials are only a factor for a niche market of environmentally aware travelers, but travel advisors should expect growing interest.

Marketing experts have identified increasing social awareness as driving purchase decisions, and in the case of cruising, this is now being reinforced by more rigorous government regulation.

Earlier this year, the European Commission adopted a proposal to revise the European Union system for monitoring, reporting, and verification of CO2 emissions from maritime transport. The proposal will make it easier for authorities to collect and monitor emissions data at individual ship level, making it hard for today’s megaships, many of which emit as many air pollutants as millions of automobiles, to continue to evade consumer scrutiny.

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald is speaking at Skift Global Forum in NYC Sept. 18. Get tickets now

As SeaTrek’s Travers put it: “Healthy clean seas and reefs and rainforests are central to our business and indeed our very survival as humans.”

Those consultants who are already questioning the green credentials of their suppliers will surely have an advantage as the issue gains more prominence.

Photo Credit: Costa Fortuna in a panoramic view in Nagasaki port in Japan. Expedition cruisers are generally more attuned to sustainability issues than other cruisers, according to some travel advisors. Carnival Corporation