Cruise Ships Bigger …

Joe Guzzardi
4 min readApr 17, 2023

But not Better for the Environment

The cruise ship industry puts out beguiling advertisements intended to attract more customers on board. Showing couples in summer wear, sipping cocktails and looking out over the ocean to watch the setting sun as they sail off to a distant, romantic destination, ads appear everywhere, from television, social media and movie previews to subway cars.

A closer look at the cruise ship business and its harmful effects on the ecosystem paint a far grimmer picture than advertisements convey. Hakai Magazine, an online publication that focuses on science and society in coastal regions, created the route of the Oceanic Topaz, a fictional but representative cruise ship, on a seven-day journey from Seattle to Alaska. The weeklong trip stopped at various ports like Juneau, Ketchikan and Victoria, before returning to Seattle.

This year, an estimated 700,000 passengers will depart Seattle on hundreds of different cruises. Travelers’ voyages are on increasingly massive ships that house, feed and process the waste of upward of 4,000 passengers. From 2015 until today, the average weight of a major line’s new cruise ship was 164,000 gross tons — more than twice the size of a ship built during the 1990s. The Symphony of the Seas weighs a staggering 228,081 gross tons.

Touted as inexpensive, all-inclusive vacations, Pacific Northwest cruises deliver thousands of people to the glaciers, fjords and small towns of southeast Alaska. Cruises are an integral part of the Pacific Northwest’s tourism economy, but they bring with them significant environmental degradation and deleterious human consequences. Carbon emissions, wastewater discharges, engine and propeller noise, mountains of trash and an unmanageable tourist influx have had a damaging cumulative impact on the ecosystems of tiny communities. As they move from stop-to-stop, the massive vessels disrupt fish, whales and birds; while docked, residents.

This tourism season, 13 ships will make 291 trips between Seattle and Alaska; the imaginary Oceanic Topaz will begin its journey in Seattle which derives significant economic benefits from cruise passengers. In 2022, cruise tourists spend around $900 million in the greater Seattle area, income that supports about 5,500 jobs. That’s the good news. On the other hand, as an Alaska-bound ship sets sail, its 3,600 passengers go about their daily business of flushing toilets, showering and brushing teeth. Each passenger will produce a daily average of 7 gallons of sewage — also known as black water — and about 66 gallons of wastewater from showers, pools, laundry and other non-sewage runoff known as gray water. For a ship carrying 3,600 people, that amounts to about 400 eight-person hot tubs worth of sewage and over 3,000 hot tubs worth of gray water each day.

A grand ship voyage with dramatic views and promised nonstop fun on board is hard for tourists to resist. But add together the carbon emissions, wastewater pollution, noise impacts, trash, thousands of tourists and the impact on wildlife, and the negative effect of cruising is overwhelming.

The argument for economic gains for small communities is understandable and persuasive. But as the Oceanic Topaz example shows, the regions that host these mammoth floating hotels also have a lot to lose. In 2019, in Victoria, where cruise ships have the option to offload accumulated garbage rather than return it to their home port of Seattle, the equivalent of 100 fully loaded garbage trucks were dumped in the region’s Hartland Landfill.

Pre-COVID, the cruise industry’s aggregate revenue hit $27 billion. The U.S., with its long coastlines and easy access to Caribbean ports, leads the world in cruise revenue. By 2026, cruise revenue is expected to reach $35 billion.

Cruise lines have a powerful presence in Washington, D.C. Unlike U.S. airlines and hotels, cruise lines did not benefit from generous government subsidies since they are not registered in the U.S., and therefore American laws do not entirely bind them. Consequently, lobbying by cruise lines spiked from the average $3.5 million between 2009 and 2019 to $4.4 million in 2020 and $5.3 million in 2021. The objective: to get those floating hotels back on the water after the sharp COVID-19-related decline.

An all-out ban on cruise ships is unrealistic, but daily limits at ports-of-call make sense. Based in part on a 2022 commissioned study that the Juneau Assembly requested and in which 74 percent of residents supported limits, the final approval urged a five-ship limit. But such an obvious idea to at least reduce the adverse outcome for residents and the ecosystem has little chance against Big Money interests.

Joe Guzzardi writes about immigration issues and impacts. Find his immigration pieces at Immigration News on Substack.

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Joe Guzzardi

Syndicated columnist Joe Guzzardi writes about American baseball history and immigration issues.