Attack of the Oversized Floating Playpens

Who loses when you go on cruises?

Illustration: Aimee van Drimmelen

By Ross Klein

November 2006

What could be more idyllic than a cruise vacation—-clear blue skies, gently rolling seas, the cold temperatures of home a distant memory, and a variety of encounters with different places and people in a single week? This is the kind of imagery that the cruise industry has successfully played on for decades, making it the fastest growing segment of the leisure travel industry worldwide. But beneath this placid surface lurk a number of serious problems, including poor treatment of workers, negative environmental impacts, and exploitative relationships with ports. Conscientious tourists should seek out a complete picture of the industry before climbing aboard.

The modern cruise industry

]The cruise industry has grown rapidly in recent decades. In 1970, approximately 500,000 North Americans took a cruise; that number will exceed 10 million in 2006. The ships themselves have also grown. In 1970, the first purpose-built cruise ship—-Royal Caribbean’s Song of Norway—-weighed 18,000 tonnes and carried 724 passengers. In 2006, Royal Caribbean International introduced the Freedom of the Seas —- a 160,000 tonne ship that typically carries 4000 passengers and 1300 crew members.

North America’s cruise industry is dominated by three corporations. Carnival Corporation, the largest, controls over 50 percent of the North American market and owns 12 brand names (including Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, and others). In 2005, Carnival Corporation posted a net profit of $2.257 billion and paid virtually no income tax. This is because the corporation, headquartered in Miami, is registered in Panama, where it is not taxed; it only pays US taxes on its few US-based holdings. Carnival’s closest competitor, Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited, has approximately 27 percent of the North American market. Royal Caribbean is also headquartered in Miami, and is registered in Liberia. The third largest player, Norwegian Cruise Lines, with its NCL America brand and Orient Lines, is owned by Malaysia-based, Bermuda-registered Star Cruises. These three corporations control over 90 percent of the North American cruise market.

Being foreign-registered has more than just tax benefits. A foreign-flagged vessel operating in US (or Canadian) coastal waters is in many respects governed by the laws of the country where the ship is registered. Thus, employment contracts and labour and environmental practices are governed by the more permissive laws of the Bahamas, Panama, the Philippines, or elsewhere, even though the ships operate from US ports and serve a primarily North American clientele.

Sweatship labour

]The cruise industry is notorious for its exploitative labour practices, including long hours, low wages, and unpaid overtime. This situation has been well documented, including in US Congressional Hearings on the subject. In 1993, the US Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations heard testimony about “a seafarer who signed for $192 a month to work seven days a week for one year. He was to be paid overtime for any hours over eight hours per day and while he was required to work 12 hours a day, the company refused to pay the overtime… When he complained he was relieved of his duties and sent home.”

According to a 2000 report by the International Commission on Shipping entitled “Inquiry into Ship Safety: Ships, Slaves, and Competition,”

“[T]he [cruise] industry has its own variants of the general shipping industry’s undesirable practices and problems. The Commission was told of many practices that disadvantage cruise ships’ crew in both hotel and marine departments, including long hours of work, disadvantageous contractual and pay arrangements, significant racial discrimination in the lengths of crew contracts, prevention of access by seafarer missions and unions and lack of safety training for hotel staff.”

Some of the cited “unethical employment practices in the US cruise industry” include requirements to work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week (one baker interviewed had been working 17 hours daily for several weeks); requirements that crew members carry out additional functions totally unrelated to their regular positions for no extra remuneration; and strong disincentives against crew members complaining about hours or remuneration.

Although some workers earn a decent living, a 2001 survey done by the International Transport Workers Federation found that 54 percent of cruise ship workers still earned less than $1000 per month. As well, workers in positions where there is tipping are sometimes subject to “skimming” schemes. In the late 1990s, the International Transport Workers Federation documented dining room managers who were taking in as much as $14-20,000 a year by skimming workers’ tips. The UK-based War on Want understandably assigned the label “sweatship” to cruise ships in its 2002 campaign calling attention to crew members’ long hours of work, low pay, and poor working and living conditions.

Travelling garbage dumps

As might be expected, a cruise ship produces lots of waste. The Freedom of the Seas, for example, produces more than half a million gallons of waste water every day, including about 35,000 gallons of sewage. While all of its waste water is treated, it is not without environmental risks. By law, in most places ships can discharge ‘treated’ sewage within three miles of the coastline; they can discharge untreated sewage beyond three miles. Cruise lines claim to “meet or exceed all international regulations,” but the international regulations themselves are far from strict.

Cruise ships produce other wastes as well. Each passenger accounts for an estimated 3.5 kilograms of solid waste per day, some of which is incinerated—-that’s almost 15 tonnes per day on the Freedom of the Seas alone. This poses a dual environmental risk, since the ash is discharged into the sea and the smoke and soot are discharged in the air. If plastics are being incinerated it is likely that furans and dioxins are part of the emissions. Plus there’s oily bilge—-the average ship produces about 7000 gallons per day —-discharged into the oceans, as well as diesel exhaust equivalent to the emissions of 12,280 automobiles. These figures, remember, are for a single ship. Carnival Corporation alone has 70 ships, each contributing its share of pollution.

Concerns about cruise ship waste have led some jurisdictions to legislate and enforce more strict requirements. Alaska, for example, has limits on air opacity readings in its cities and requires ships to have their waste water treatment system certified if they want to discharge wastewater in Alaska’s waters. Otherwise ships must go beyond three miles of the coast line. California is even stricter—-it permits no wastewater discharges within three miles of its coast, limits incinerator use in coastal waters, and regulates ballast water discharges. Other states have legislation or memorandums of understanding, but in few cases are regulations sufficient to the threat. British Columbia residents are in the unenviable position of being sandwiched between Alaska and Washington, both of which have more strict environmental regulations than Canada, which means that BC serves as the toilet bowl for ships traversing from one US state to the other.

Economic relationships with ports

The environmental impact of cruise tourism ignited a public outcry in Alaska that, in 1999, resulted in a $5 head tax for each cruise passenger arriving in Juneau. This was the first time any US intermediate port charged a passenger tax. Public concern was again at the root of a successful ballot initiative in August 2006, when a 33 percent tax on casino revenues and a requirement for Ocean Rangers (environmental watchdogs) on all ships in Alaskan waters was imposed. The initiative requires disclosure of profits on shore excursions and money earned from shore side businesses. These last two items are responses to what some would call unjust industry practices in relation to ports of call.

Cruise lines cultivate beliefs within port communities that their passengers spend lots of money and that many return as land-based visitors, but both claims are unsubstantiated. People in port communities around the world have been led to believe that there is an international standard of US$100 spending per passenger per port. On this basis a port assumes the Freedom of the Seas, with its 4000 passengers, will leave behind $400,000 in passenger spending, plus another $75,000 by crew members. The two largest areas of passenger spending are shore excursions and at onshore shops and restaurants. However, most passengers buy their shore excursions onboard the ship, with the shore excursion provider receiving as little as one-third of what the passenger pays—-the other two-thirds is split between the cruise line and any “middlemen” in dealing with local providers.

Cruise ships also take a cut of passenger onshore spending through their “preferred shopping” programs. Before visiting a port, passengers are given a map of the town with stores and restaurants marked as “preferred” or as endorsed by the cruise line. Sometimes the map includes in small print that the stores have paid a fee for the promotion—-fees that can be substantial. A retailer in Nassau said in 1995 that he paid $100,000 per year for a single cruise line—-presumably the amount is much higher today. Some store owners in Alaska’s ports say they pay commissions of as much as 40 percent of gross sales, most of which goes back to the cruise line; some goes to the middle-person who sets up the shopping program for the cruise line and who may also provide the ship’s port lecturer. Knowing how much cruise lines make off of such commissions is one goal of the Alaskan ballot initiative.

To cruise or not to cruise

The cruise industry is making enormous profits while exploiting workers, damaging the environment, and leveraging its power to squeeze port communities—-a fact that potential cruise hounds should be aware of.

Whether or not you choose to take a cruise is an ethical decision; a decision this brief overview has ideally helped inform. There are alternatives to the dominant players in the cruise industry, even some who claim to be environmentally-sensitive, but they are limited and for many of us are cost-prohibitive. Most operate small ships (100 passengers or less), which theoretically minimize the environmental footprint. For the most remote locations, not otherwise easily accessible, these may be the best option. But it is hard to justify cruise ship travel as a means for getting to a location or as a vehicle for spending scarce holiday time—-especially as cruise ships increasingly are becoming resorts at sea. A cruise ship does not allow one to truly experience an island or a country and its culture—-it gives a snapshot but not a full taste. A land-based visit also has side-benefits. Because you arrive on your own terms, the economic benefits from your visit have a greater chance of accruing to local sources. Environmental impacts are also minimized, and you avoid the people pollution of a cruise ship and of cruise ship visits to ports.

Ross A. Klein, PhD, is Professor of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. He has authored three books on the cruise industry, the most recent being Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas, as well as numerous articles and chapters. He is on-line at

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