Skift Take

On World Oceans Day, a coalition of activists is calling on the cruise industry to use this unprecedented long-term pause in operations as a chance to reform. But how likely is it that change will happen — and where will it come from?

Calls for reform in the cruise industry are not new. But no one, not even the most fervent cruise industry critic, might have imagined a scenario midway through 2020 where no cruise line was sailing and the future shape and size of the industry was anyone’s guess. Canada has cancelled its summer cruise season entirely, and cruise lines are pushing their start date later and later — with some ruling out 2020 cruises altogether.

Activists in port communities most impacted by the cruise industry are seizing the moment. On Monday, which is World Oceans Day, they are organizing in a virtual rally to demand the cruise industry improve its environmental practices and use the coronavirus crisis as an impetus for change.

Representatives from communities as varied as Venice, Italy; Nassau, Bahamas;  Hoonah, Alaska; and Southampton, UK contend that the coronavirus crisis was not the first time the industry put profits before public health. They are calling for an environmentally-focused set of demands: switch to cleaner fuels, end ocean dumping, and adopt strong climate targets before passengers embark on future cruises after the Covid-19 pandemic ends.

Kashudoha Wanda Loescher Culp of the indigenous Tlingit people in Hoonah, Alaska told Skift “we are breathing so deeply and are grateful that there are no ships right now.”

Where Will Change Come From?

As Skift has pointed out before, much of what allows the cruise industry to operate with less regulation than other travel and consumer-facing industries is the antiquated maritime law framework it’s based on. The so-called “flags of convenience” system means countries with less enforcement muscle are the same ones tasked with regulating the cruise liners. This is no mistake, of course, but a function of where cruise lines choose to flag their ships.

While the pandemic has laid the deficiencies of such a system bare, it is unlikely to change at a global level any time soon. So if it’s not going to come in the form of reform to international maritime law, there are theoretically two other places change might come from: consumer demand, or stricter regulation from port states.

“This is a moment of if they don’t change now they never going to,” Kendra Ulrich, senior shipping campaigner at Stand.Earth, the environmental group organizing the rally, told Skift. “And I would add to that if they don’t change now, they’re not going to exist in the long term. Because future markets — millennials, Gen-Z — who the cruise industry is trying to appeal to care deeply about the environment and climate, and have been by and large horrified by what they’ve seen come out of this pandemic and the cruise industry’s role. The industry is really going to have to make some substantive changes in those areas.”

On the consumer side, it’s impossible to yet know whether the unprecedented amount of media attention that’s been paid to the cruise industry since the coronavirus crisis began will dampen demand. So far, the earnings calls for the large cruise lines have indicated lowered demand for 2020 but demand within historical ranges in 2021.

However, Ulrich points to the recent lawsuits that have been brought by passengers who allege the cruise line did not do enough to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in between itineraries. These class action suits will be difficult to win, due to the language on cruise passenger tickets which often limits liability. However, awareness of this fact may lead more consumers to be aware of the lack of consumer protections on board compared to other travel industries, Ulrich said.

Do U.S. Lawmakers Hold the Cards?

While Monday’s activism includes representatives from coastal communities all around the world facing the same issues, it is regulation in the U.S. that has the highest likelihood to spur change. Roughly half of the industry’s 30 million annual passengers are North American, and it’s been 10 years since Congress passed landmark legislation in the form of the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act, which provided more protection for American passengers on board cruise ships.

Critics have long said there is plenty of room for improvement, though, and now there are some signs of political willingness. To many people’s surprise, U.S. lawmakers left the cruise industry industry out of its bailout legislation in March, despite President Trump’s vocal affinity for it.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told cruise lines that they cannot continue to rely on American resources to repatriate crew or deal with public health disasters on board. (Tens of thousands of crew remain stranded on board, many without pay.) All this represents the cruise lines’ business model coming home to roost: If you don’t flag your ships in America or incorporate your companies there, you can’t rely on the help of the U.S. government.

Furthermore, U.S. representatives Doris Matsui and Jackie Speier have proposed legislation that would “address the industry’s abysmal history of negligence and evasion by requiring companies to incorporate and register vessels in the United States and adhere to strict standards in order to be eligible for federal aid, including forms of relief related to Covid-19.” Ulrich said she believes moves such as these are “definitely a wakeup call for executives.”

This awareness is growing not just in America. Sam Duncombe, one of the activists taking place in Monday’s rally, told Skift that public awareness of the cruise industry’s outsized role in the Bahamas is growing as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The Bahamas acts as both a common port state (place where cruise ships dock on their itineraries) as well as a flag of convenience state (where cruise lines register their ships). Duncombe said growing resistance to things like private island model of cruise tourism in the Caribbean has been gaining steam.

“We got headlines when they found Carnival dumping in our waters and people got really angry, but we seem to have a short memory. There hasn’t been enough of a sustained movement about the cruise industry,” Duncombe said. “Now there is. [The virus] has absolutely contributed to that.”

Similarly, resistance to new port facilities in the Cayman Islands and Seattle were already gaining steam before the coronavirus crisis.

Regarding the list of demands at Monday’s rally, the Cruise Lines International Association told Skift that “The cruise industry is passionate about clean oceans and is committed to exploring more and better ways to invest in new technologies and ships that will enable us to further build upon the progress we have made on the topic of environmental sustainability. Our members have already invested over $22 billion in this effort, and we believe this is just the beginning. ”

None of the four major cruise lines affirmatively responded to an invitation to attend the rally, Stand.Earth told Skift. The cruise industry trade group similarly said in a written response to Stand.Earth that it will not be able to attend the rally due to the “critical nature of its work” coming up with health and safety protocols to restart cruising.


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Tags: coronavirus, cruising

Photo credit: Fort Lauderdale cruise port. Prayitno Photography / Flickr

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