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The Places We Love IV: Heritage Advocates Want Cruise Ships Tamed

“After what we’ve heard today, I can’t imagine why any community would want to be a cruise port.” So spoke Gustavo Arroz, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, ICOMOS, which seeks to protect historic and archaeological sites around the world. What we had heard last Thursday, February 7, were mostly negative findings...

“After what we’ve heard today, I can’t imagine why any community would want to be a cruise port.” So spoke Gustavo Arroz, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, ICOMOS, which seeks to protect historic and archaeological sites around the world.

What we had heard last Thursday, February 7, were mostly negative findings and opinions about the effects of large cruise ships on historic ports. The three-day international “Harboring Tourism” symposium was turning out to be a cruise-line roast. That wasn’t the original plan. The World Monuments Fund (WMF) had convened the 150 or so attendees with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation Society of Charleston, host of the conference. WMF didn’t want it to be a roast, but an apparent boycott by most pro-cruise invitees left it that way.

The venue, Charleston, South Carolina, was no coincidence. As I reported last year, the charming, historic city has been locked in an increasingly nasty fight over a proposed cruise ship pier and its continuing role as home port for the Carnival Fantasy. Little has changed, except for a flock of lawsuits. Last week pier opponents attended; pier supporters, including Mayor Joseph Riley, mostly stayed away.

Some of the 150 "Harboring Tourism" attendees learn about the effects of cruise ship exhaust. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Some of the 150 “Harboring Tourism” attendees learn about the effects of cruise ship exhaust. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot


One of the few exceptions, Craig Milan, a consultant and Royal Caribbean veteran, presented a keynote Wednesday night, Feb. 6, about cruise ship trends. The industry is big: Some 20 million passenger embarkations annually.  Among his key points was the customary cruise-line claim about economic benefit to port destinations, on the order of $140 per passenger.

“Oasis” juggernauts

His presentation sounded a few tone-deaf notes, as when describing the colossal new Oasis-class ships. High as a 20-story building, a fifth of a mile long, one ship can carry 5200 passengers and 2200 crew. When one of these behemoths casts its mighty shadow across your pier, you are seeing one city about to meet your own. Large though they are, Milan assured us they do not feel crowded on board, because “the passengers are so well segmented.” He moved on, leaving his audience of heritage preservationists likely thinking, “And what happens when 5,000  passengers descend on our historic district? How well segmented are they then?” Yet Oasis, Milan said, represents the industry trend. Ships will continue to get larger.

Milan took no questions and departed, leaving further defense of the cruise lines to the symposium’s only other industry representative, Jamie Sweeting, Royal Caribbean’s environmental man. Sweeting was expecting a tough sail into headwinds of criticism. He was right.

Doubts from Around the World

From what subsequent speakers said over the next two days, the biggest cruise-ship concerns come down to numbers: Too big, too many passengers, too little money left on land, too much air pollution, too much disruption in the home ports.

According to Milan’s figures, every week on average the cruise industry takes about 400,000 vacationers out to sea.  That’s an excellent place for them, as I pointed out in my own remarks. The panel I moderated (disclosure: my expenses were paid) looked at what happens when these megaships come into port, especially into small historic cities like Charleston or Venice.

Dr. Ross Klein of Memorial University, Newfoundland, a renowned industry gadfly, cited Dubrovnik, Croatia and Key West, Florida as two small ports suffering from cruise overkill. The cramped medieval old city of Dubrovnik, he said, now gets a million or so passengers a year, deposited by 469 ship visits. By 2004, Key West was also getting a million passengers a year, up from 132,840 in 1990.  Many Key Westers are pressing for a rollback, but those who benefit from the high traffic resist. (Think taxis and T-shirt shops.) Both cities have economic studies that refute the sunny numbers presented by cruise lines.

According to Klein, local tour operators hired to take passengers around on land get less than half what the passengers actually pay. The discrepancies between industry and shore-side figures may lie in the cruise companies’ mastery of “vertical integration,” meaning that, as a passenger, a big chunk of the money you spend on excursions or at recommended stores on land goes right back to the cruise line.

Kristian Jørgensen of Fjord Norway said communities should do their own research sooner, not later. He showed how soaring cruise traffic has added crowding and air pollution to Norway’s once-pristine fjords. Visits to the historic resort village of Geiranger can multiply its daytime population by a factor of 40, to 10,000—visitors who nevertheless leave little money in their giant ships’ wake, according to research done by universities in Bergen and Stavanger..

In Norway's scenic Geiranger, cruise ships can send the 250 population soaring to 15,000 some days. Photo: Courtesy Fjord Norway
In Norway’s scenic Geiranger, cruise ships can boost the population of 250 to 15,000 some days. Photo: Geiranger Heritage Foundation


Jørgensen said one reason for the increase was Norway’s consistent showing at the top of National Geographic’s destination stewardship surveys from 2004 to 2010. “We weren’t ready,” he said. “I don’t think Norway would score as high today.”

A Central American Study Challenges Cruise Claims

An extensive study funded by the Inter-American Development Bank found numbers very different from those presented by Craig Milan the night before. Evaluation of cruise ship costs and benefits to ports in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Belize revealed net on-land income of only $67.40 per passenger, versus $934 to $1260 per average land-based vacationer staying nine days. (Download a copy of the study at the Center for Responsible Travel.)

In Victoria, B.C. economist Brian Scarfe reported that the industry exaggerated its economic benefit claims, that cruise ships contributed less than what it cost the local economy to harbor them—$24 million in, versus $28 million out. New emissions reductions may get it down to a break-even, as health costs and premature deaths decline.

South Carolina economist Harry Miley basically concurred, saying his review of more than a dozen impact studies showed an average overnight visitor to be spending 14 times more in the community than a cruise passenger. (A point to note: Dr. Miley’s work was commissioned by the cruise-skeptical Historic Charleston Foundation.)

In Valetta, Malta, said Italian urban planner Paolo Motta, the European Union spent 17 million euros to improve access from the cruise piers into the historic old town, enough to serve two ships at once. “The return to the local economy was absolutely nothing.” Now traffic has climbed to six ships a day, facilities are again overwhelmed, and Maltese officials are considering ways to pull back the welcome mat.

For me, Venice was the real shocker. I knew the cruise load there was high, but 2.5 million passenger visits annually to a city whose population is dropping past 50,000? “You are arriving Venice, you are getting squeezed like a sardine,” said Motta. “On some summer days, 25,000 people coming by sea.”

Some planners hope to move Venice’s outsize cruise-ship pier (gray area at left) north across the lagoon to the mainland. Passengers would visit by rail (causeway, upper left). Photo: ESA
Some planners hope to move Venice’s outsize cruise-ship pier (gray area at left) north across the lagoon to the mainland. Passengers would visit by rail (causeway, upper left). Photo: ESA


It changes the city, Motta emphasized. “They are losing all the traditional skills and handicrafts.” Shops sell false Venetian masks, made in Taiwan. Prosecco yields to Coca Cola. This is what’s called loss of “intangible heritage”—the customs and knowledge and traditions that give a place its cultural flavor.

In Charleston, my cabbie had paused to wave a car at a corner in front ahead of him. How much would traffic have to thicken before he would instead have raced to close the gap? How long before local artisans would give up their distinctive basket weaving and turn to selling cheaper wares from Asia? Thus poorly managed tourism fouls its nest.

Only Valparaiso, Chile delivered a favorable report, in part since this hilly, sizable port city hosts only 50 ships a year, according to city heritage manager Paulina Kaplan. She called the arrival of a ship an “urban event,” welcomed by locals and land-based tourists alike who enjoy watch a virtual moving building take its place. Someone observed, “Maybe that’s because Valparaiso’s hills make it one of the few places you can look down on the ships. They don’t tower over everything else.”

Environment: The lone remaining representative from the cruise industry, Royal Caribbean’s environmental consultant, Jamie Sweeting, gamely kept countering and responding throughout the meeting. He got his say in the environmental panel, noting Royal Caribbean’s progress in reducing overall air pollution by 20 percent and his initiative for “Sustainable Shore Excursions”—an important change for an industry that has tolerated irresponsible local tour operators whose behavior damages reefs and other fragile sites.

The panel addressed pollution problems—visual, water, noise—and especially the unhealthy effects of ships’ burning bunker fuel, considered the dirtiest of petrofuels, for power while in port. Sweeting bristled at the “F” grade that Friends of the Earth had assigned Royal Caribbean for in-port air pollution. He said the alternative, a dockside power supply, would not be as effective overall.

Polarized Charleston

The National Trust for Historic Preservation put Charleston on its watch list list last year—one notch below “endangered”—and the World Monuments Fund did likewise. The actions cheered local opponents and infuriated the mayor. Many attendees last week were from the affluent Ansonborough neighborhood, right next to the Carnival pier and its traffic jams. The angry residents have spent extensively to fix up their historic houses—so well that their neighborhood is itself a tourist attraction.

However cruise opponents may have let slip a tone-deaf note of their own; in a town where the pro-cruise rallying cry is “Jobs, Not Snobs,” organizers had to defend the $300 attendance fee for the one-and-a-half day conference. Chastened, they dropped per-session prices, but too late to entice any working-class Charlestonians to join the discussions.

More significant, both sides in the Charleston debate have become so entrenched, slinging verbal bombs and lawsuits at each other, that the opposition refused to attend, save for one lone Port Authority man. (“I’m the only one not being sued.”) So the data presented by the economists did not fall on deaf ears; those ears weren’t even there to hear. The city may have missed a chance to become a world leader in cruise port management.

That’s too bad, because the symposium did reveal some positives.  Cozumel, Mexico is moving to protect its reefs from excessive cruise traffic. Paolo Motta is promoting a scheme to move Venice’s giant cruise piers across the lagoon to the mainland. Houna, Alaska had won an award for good passenger management and a one-ship limit. Aruba is developing a plan for cruise passengers to help revive a neglected historic district. Barcelona, Spain has developed a reputation as a leader in sustainable management of cruise operations.

 What Did We Learn?

While the pollution issue received its due, the symposium made it clear that size matters. Almost every port under discussion involved problems with ship size or high passenger numbers. Notably, few attendees directed any hostility toward the passengers themselves. If anything, the prevailing wish was that they would stay around longer. Just in fewer numbers, please.

Whether you love megaships or hate them, the symposium revealed some important take-away lessons:

Cruise lines behave like the profit-making enterprises they are. They are tough negotiators, they resist taxes, they take advantage of economic trends, and they use regulatory loopholes until they are closed. Since many regulations stop at the waterline or a few miles from shore, the result is an awesome business model with little accountability to the cities that host its ships.  Lesson: Cities should negotiate with the cruise lines directly. Added one veteran of the Central America study, “Cruise lines don’t need subsidies. They should build their own infrastructure.”

Many of the world’s port authorities operate almost like independent principalities, driven by the bottom line. Accountable only to independent, usually unelected boards, they negotiate port deals with cruise lines with an eye to profit, not community benefit. Lesson: Same as above.

Port jurisdictions are taking action, but almost always after damage is done. Even in super-sustainable Norway. Even in super-preservationist Charleston. Lesson: Don’t wait too long. If your community or island is a likely port of call, and you not take charge of cruise policy there, someone else will. Someone with different priorities. (Eight attendees from Savannah, Georgia were listening with that in mind; a cruise pier is under consideration there.)

A rhetorical cloud of war hangs over inflamed cruise-pier debates, making it hard to choose reasonable policies. Lesson: Industry-sponsored studies are suspect. Do your own. Opposition-funded studies may also be suspect. Seek objective evaluators.

Volume drives out value. Excessive crowds—“people pollution”—can spoil the feel of an old port town as surely as spray-painting scarlet graffiti over the historic walls. The more beneficial stay-over visitors begin to shun the city. “Too touristy.” Real estate values decline. Lesson: Communities should push for more benefit to local businesses from passengers curious about the city, but also avoid overcrowding. Let less interested passengers remain comfortably inside cruise-related shopping malls and dedicated spaces.

And last, cruise lines may be slowly poisoning their own well. Demand is flattening in North America and Europe. Port towns are becoming increasingly overloaded. Lesson: This can’t go on indefinitely. As has been postulated for “peak oil”—the year after which the world’s oil consumption will decline—will there come a “peak cruise” beyond which the industry and its piers simply cannot grow? As Sweeting hinted to me, if the industry wants to protect its huge investment in giant ships built to last a quarter century, it would be wise to protect the ports they visit and the seas they sail in.

That’s the kind of constructive discussion many would like to see.

On my departure from Charleston, security at the airport was slightly backed up. A cheerful, friendly TSA agent—yes, they exist—explained that Carnival was changing crews. Cruise ships don’t generally hire local, they outsource. That would account for the several gentlemen with accents and foreign passports on either side of me. “Every six months,” one told me. He looked tired but happy, headed for home.

A longer security line? That’s something even the harshest critics hadn’t brought up.

Postscript: Another peril of ship gigantism became apparent this week for the 4,000 overheated souls aboard the stricken Carnival ship Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico. Its size makes it hard to tow, needing four days to reach the closest suitable pier, in Mobile, Alabama. Height of irony: Years ago Mobile taxpayers went into debt to build that pier for Carnival, but the company subsequently abandoned the city, deciding to base its ship elsewhere.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jonathan Tourtellot
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC