In the Caribbean, many cruise companies have bought islands and turned them into private resorts for the exclusive use of cruise passengers who cavort in enormous wave pools, rush down 135-foot water slides with names like Daredevil’s Peak, and zip-line across wide beaches.
But on Ocean Cay, an island 20 miles south of Bimini that MSC Cruises began leasing from the Bahamian government in 2015, there is no theme park, no giant water slide.
Oh, there are plenty of bars, shops and wave runners. But the general aim is to provide a serene getaway and largely quiet activities — snorkeling, swimming and lounging on beach chairs — while scientists and students from the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale research how toreverse the decline in coral reefs and develop reefs that can withstand climate change.
MSC, which has a 100-year lease with the Bahamian government, invested $200 million to transform the island from a barren industrial site that had once been used to mine sand into a 103-acre haven of native plants and trees, surrounded by a 64-square-mile marine reserve.
The island, according to MSC, is the centerpiece of an overall plan to make the company more sustainable. It is only one among a flurry of plans and initiatives cruise companies have been announcing in recent years as they try to convince the public they are serious about combating climate change.
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Viking, a luxury line whose passengers tend to be wealthy and college-educated, said it is building ocean ships that will run on hydrogen fuel cells, an investment that its chairman, Torstein Hagen, said will cost the company an additional $40 million per ship. Royal Caribbean Group, a behemoth in the industry which owns three cruise lines, said it will launch a ship in 2023 that will be equipped with “a large-scale, hybrid power source,” a combination of fuel cells, batteries and dual-fuel engines that use liquefied natural gas.
Virgin Voyages, an adults-only cruise line with four ships, has partnered with three companies working on biofuel solutions — from cooking oil to animal or even human waste — that could power its engines in the future.
As the cruise industry continues to recover from the pandemic, addressing climate change and the ways cruising contributes to it has emerged as a major challenge. Industry officials project a “full recovery” from the pandemic in 2023 and as cruises enter the winter season, typically their busiest time of year, a survey of 4,000 people showed that demand for cruise holidays was greater than in 2019, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade organization.
It is a comeback environmental groups said they have been dreading.
“If you care about the environmental footprint of your vacation, a cruise is not the first vacation I would choose,” said Marcie Keever, director of the Oceans and Vessels Program at Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that among other things, grades cruise ships on their green practices. “I don’t even know if it would be the second or the third.”
Cruise ships represents .6 percent of total travel carbon emissions, the least of any sector of the travel industry and far less than aviation, which represents 17 percent of carbon emissions, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
But most cruise companies still rely on heavy fuel oil, a dirty, but cheap fuel, to help power the engines of behemoth ships that carry thousands of people around the world. Finding an energy source that will both reduce pollution and greenhouse gases remains the biggest obstacle to the industry reaching a goal CLIA announced in 2021: to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and, as an intermediate step, reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030.
“This is the biggest challenge that the industry will face in maritime history for sure,” said Linden Coppell, the vice president of sustainability at MSC Cruises. “Nothing is off the table for us for now as we look for new solutions.”
But the industry’s continued reliance on heavy fuel and the plans of many cruise lines to transition to liquefied natural gas — a cleaner, less polluting fossil fuel that also emits methane, a major greenhouse gas — have led to doubts over how serious companies are about fulfilling their pledge.
“There is a lot of greenwashing,” said Sönke Diesener, the transport policy officer at the Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union in Germany (NABU), an environmental organization that studies the industry and ranks cruise companies according to their sustainability plans.
“If you still burn the most toxic fuel on Earth,” he said, “it doesn’t matter if your customers don’t sip drinks from plastic straws.”
A pact to get to zero
Cruise companies do not get enough credit for the steps they are taking and the improvements they have already made to ships, said Anne Madison, a spokeswoman for CLIA.
More than 15 percent of vessels scheduled to launch in the next five years will be equipped with engines that can be powered with fuel cells or batteries. Eighty-five percent of the ships being built in the next six years will be able to plug in to shore terminals and use electricity when they are docked, rather than having to keep their engines running the entire time they are in port and burning fuel.
“The commitment is clear,” Ms. Madison said. “The effort is aggressive. The path is complicated and full of challenges.”
Among those complications is the pace of technology and the debate among cruise lines over which fuel to use.
CLIA has touted liquefied natural gas as a cleaner alternative fossil fuel than heavy fuel that can act as a stopgap until a more sustainable energy source becomes available.
But environmental groups said methane, the primary component of natural gas, traps even more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide emitted from heavy fuel.
“LNG is totally a false solution,” said Ms. Keever of Friends of the Earth.
Industry officials say that concerns over methane are antiquated and do not take into consideration technological advancements that have reduced the levels of methane that escape into the atmosphere.
Still, said Mr. Diesener of NABU, a better, temporary alternative is marine gas oil, which is similar to car diesel, but does not carry the methane risks and is far cleaner than heavy fuel oil.
Cruise lines are also investing in vessels that can operate on shore-side electricity when they’re at port, using berths as plug-in stations instead of running their engines, which emits tons of carbon dioxide. A single cruise ship docked for one day can emit as much diesel exhaust as 34,400 idling tractor-trailers, according to an independent analysis verified by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But only about 2 percent of ports worldwide — 29 of them, including eight in the United States — offer shore-side electricity, Ms. Madison said.
Twenty more cities and communities are planning to offer shore power, including in the Florida Everglades and Miami, but “these installations are expensive, and they require public-private funding,” Ms. Madison said. Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation, two of the world’s biggest cruise lines, which together own more than 150 ships, announced in November that they would work with the port of Galveston, Texas, to develop a plug-in station.
Cruise lines have also been criticized for their contributions to overtourism, especially when large ships dock in fragile places like Dubrovnik or Venice and send a flood of thousands of passengers ashore, overwhelming destinations.
The engine control room of the MS Roald Amundsen, a ship that relies on battery power and marine gas oil. Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
When residents of U.S. port towns have voted for restrictions to control the crush of passengers coming into their communities or protect national parks and natural resources, state governments have rolled back their efforts. In 2006, Alaska voters approved the Ocean Ranger program, which used state funds to pay for inspectors to make sure cruise ships going into places like Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve were complying with state environmental and health laws.
Governor Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, defunded the program in 2019.
In November 2020, residents of Key West, Fla., voted by a more than 60 percent margin to restrict the number of cruise passengers allowed in the city to 1,500 per day. But eight months later, Governor Ron DeSantis reversed the decision when he signed a law that voided any local referendum or initiative that restricts maritime commerce.
In both cases, CLIA opposed the local efforts, balking at a proposal to have a tax on cruises to help pay for the Alaska program and contemplating supporting litigation or legislation that would pre-empt ship bans like the one in Key West. Ms. Madison said that CLIA did not lobby against the local efforts and that the group and its members “cooperate with cruise destinations to support their tourism management needs.”
Cruise companies should support such voter initiatives, which are aimed at preserving tourist destinations their passengers want to visit, Ms. Keever said.
Under the current way of doing business, she said, “the places that they depend on for their business model are going to disappear.”
Does greener = more expensive?
Below the deck of the MS Roald Amundsen, which in 2019 became the first hybrid cruise ship to set sail, are two enormous battery packs. They are each about four yards in length and help power the four-engine vessel, which also relies on marine gas oil.
The technology reduces the ship’s fuel consumption and carbon emissions by 20 percent, according to Hurtigruten Expeditions, the Norwegian company that owns it and has developed climate protection measures that usually send it to the top of rankings by groups like NABU.
The ship is one of Hurtigruten’s four vessels that run on hybrid power. Two other ships will be upgraded by early 2024 to run on hybrid power and five others will be outfitted with selective catalytic reduction systems that would cut emissions by 80 percent, according to the company.
“We don’t speak about zero emissions in 2050,” said Daniel Skjeldam, the chief executive of Hurtigruten Group. “We say that our target is to have the first ship with zero emissions by 2030.”
Traveling on the Amundsen is not cheap.
A 13-day Caribbean cruise in April on the ship, which carries about 530 people, starts at $4,547 per person. A similar trip on the MSC Divina, which carries up to 4,345 passengers and runs on heavy fuel oil, starts at $1,700 for two people.
It’s expensive to take passengers to remote places like the Galápagos and Antarctica while adopting new technology that cuts emissions, Mr. Skjeldam said.
“Customers must be aware of this when booking their travel,” he said. “Just as they would by choosing an organic product in the supermarket, they must be willing to pay a little more for a more sustainable and responsible travel experience.”
Owen O’Shea, a marine research program manager at the MSC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of MSC, said he knows most passengers do not book with MSC to support coral reef restoration.
“I don’t think people choose to cruise with MSC because of the sustainability goals,” he said. “It’s mainly people who want to get away for a few days on a cost effective break.”
Do passengers care?
That was true of many of the passengers on the MSC Meraviglia, who went on a three-day cruise around the Bahamas in September that left from Port Canaveral and stopped for a day at Ocean Cay.
Carole Sincic, a dental hygienist from Orlando, Fla., said a cruise line’s sustainability plans are not a priority when she is planning a vacation. Her focus, she said, is on “what is the easiest, cheapest way” to cruise.
Ms. Sincic, 69, compared spending more to cruise on a ship with a hybrid engine to buying an electric car — it’s a nice idea but she cannot afford it.
“I’m not rich,” she said. “I don’t have the ability to absorb the extra costs and the extra hassles.”
In surveys, cruise passengers say they do care about sustainability. A recent poll by Cruise Critic, a cruise review website, found that 61 percent of respondents said they are “very concerned” about the impact cruises have on the environment, said Aaron Sanders, a senior editor at the site. “But it’s not impacting their booking decisions yet,” Mr. Sanders said.
Cruise lines recognize that more passengers are scouring environmental sites to see how cruise companies rank, said Robert Kritzman, a partner at Clyde & Co., an international law firm in Miami, who advises cruise companies and spent 13 years as general counsel for Norwegian Cruise Line.
“People save up for a vacation and you have to deliver a product that you think is worthwhile,” he said. “Cruise lines are very, very sensitive to the negative publicity.”
Ms. Sincic, the dental hygienist, said her visit to Ocean Cay changed her thinking about what to prioritize when booking a cruise.
She met with Dr. O’Shea during her visit to the island and listened carefully as he described how the restoration of the island appeared to be drawing stingrays, sea turtles and even woodpeckers.
She visited one of Ocean Cay’s beaches and was moved when she heard the story of a staff member who found heavy tracks in the sand while putting out lounge chairs early one morning. A sea turtle had laid eggs there the night before. The staff members quickly alerted researchers, who placed posts around the small patch of sand and a sign warning beachgoers to keep away.
“I’d book because of this island,” Ms. Sincic said. “I was going to go on a cruise. I might as well go on a ship that helps something.”
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