The 2023 Seatrade Cruise Global provided a wealth of information, insights, and networking opportunities for the cruise industry; not travel agents. And Goldring Travel, as a journalist, was there, as we have been for well over a decade; and it was invaluable.
One of the highlights for me was the focus on “sustainability”. I think the word needs to be modified; akin to using “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it sets out, in a more readily understood way, the issues and concerns we face. The issue isn’t really about “sustaining”, but rather “environmental impact reduction”. And with that…
Pierfrancesco Vago, Executive Chairman of MSC Cruise Group, (MSC Cruises and Explora Journeys), as well as Chairman of CLIA (Cruise Line International Association), gave an inspired State of the Cruise Industry speech focused on sustainability and the need for the cruise industry to truly lean into it.
The goal is for the cruise industry to be carbon neutral by 2050. He emphasized that it requires far more than shoreside power (almost 40% of cruise ships are now able to “plug-in”, but only about 2% of the ports have the facilities for it), but the accelerated development of such things as economically viable biofuels and hydrogen-based batteries; with such things as LNG and methanol being an important interim step. (I note that these things are necessary, but also with a focus on the reduction of carbon (CO2), sulfur, and nitrogen oxide emissions.)
An example of Mr. Vago’s and the Aponte family’s – who privately own the behemoth MSC Shipping which includes the MSC Cruise Group – commitment is Explora Journeys. The Aponte family has a plan to build six Explora Journeys ships, with a progression in environmental impact reduction technologies utilized in each series. The first two (Explora I and II: 2023 and 2024) have more traditional propulsion systems and shore power capabilities, but with a heavy emphasis throughout on both the behind-the-scenes and guest-focused areas on sustainable practices. The second two ships (Explora III and IV- 2026 and 2027) will be slightly larger to accommodate LNG storage (and utilize the additional above-deck space to have more premium suites rather than maximize the number of guests). The third set of ships (Explora V and VI – 2027 and 2028) will be fueled by – still being developed – hydrogen batteries…fingers crossed!
This focus on sustainability was enthusiastically embraced by Royal Caribbean Group and Carnival Corp. The outlier was, of course, Frank Del Rio – the alleged soon-to-be retiring CEO of Norwegian (NCLH), who blatantly asserted that profits come first, so the emphasis should not be on environmental responsibility…or on calling people “guests/passengers” because they are nothing other than mere “customers”; something that was roundly criticized during and after the session. (I received some heated emails and social posts after I attacked Del Rio’s antagonistic belief in filling the ships with “fresh wallets”: What the Heck is Happening at NCLH (Norwegian)? – Goldring Travel, but there he was -at Seatrade – pontificating the same thing and being criticized by the majority of the industry.)
During the Luxury Cruising CEO Panel session, having a sustainability agenda as an important part of the future of luxury cruise branding was enthusiastically promoted by Explora Journeys CEO, Michael Ungerer and supported by Silversea’s CEO, Barbara Muckermann, Ponant’s CEO (USA) Navin Sawhney, and Seabourn’s new president, Natalya Leahy. However, there was what I call an “old school” focus on how this message needs to be promoted to travel agents to be part of their sales program. I chimed in that – at least for now and with the demographic of who presently takes luxury cruises – being more environmentally responsible is not going to cause the vast majority of guests to pick that cruise line and that the vast majority of travel agents just want to get the booking so trying to encourage a different choice because of it just isn’t going to work.
Me being me, I suggested something different! The effective focus should not be to shout the message from the hilltops, but rather to have the cruise lines’ captive audience (the onboard guests – sorry Frank, but they are guests) receive the message through the onboard experience and, thus subtly be educated throughout their voyage. It started years ago with Royal Caribbean’s Save the Waves effort to have guests use towels more than once, developed into using sustainable caviar, eliminating small toiletry bottles, etc. (I was the guy who, among other things, questioned Seabourn about using paper cups with plastic lids for coffee, resulting in it using reusable ceramic mugs with silicone tops. My efforts for reusable water bottles kinda worked, but that is another topic!).
While many of the more environmentally responsible – and primary – efforts are not directly observable to the guests (waste disposal, recycling efforts, emissions scrubbers, higher grade fuels, etc.), having a more open and intensive process might just make the guests feel better about being on the more environmentally sensitive ship. And, possibly more importantly, as the younger generations that are, or will be, moving up to the luxury brands are overall more environmentally conscious, the efforts will pay far more realistic and greater dividends in multigenerational and future cruise bookings with the guests, rather than travel agents and cruise lines, being the first-hand promoters.
It was wonderful to see the excitement of the CEOs about this approach! Now, of course, the question is, “Will it happen?”
But with there now becoming a more impassioned environmental focus there is an ironic twist to this. In the Metamorphosis of Itinerary Planning session, there was an in-depth discussion of The International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s new regulation set to be implemented in 2026: Carbon Intensity Indicator or, as it is referred to, CII. This was also a topic of discussion in the Luxury Cruising Itinerary Planning and Operations panel.
CII effectively requires ships to spend more time at sea and less in port because it has nautical miles as part of its calculation. That may work to encourage cargo ships not to spend weeks or months at anchor, but it effectively will require cruise ships to skip ports so that each voyage has more nautical miles under their hulls. It won’t save fuel or create a less impactful environmental footprint, so…
Efforts are underway seeking to have CII modified as it relates to passenger vessels and, hopefully, they will be successful. Of course, there is another option, which is for the cruise lines to be functionally (rather than regulatorily) more environmentally responsible and pay whatever fine is established for violators. (And, of course, if there eventually is a fine, guess who is ultimately going to be paying it?!)
Personally, I am thrilled that environmental consciousness has become more than part of a marketing strategy. But I am also very much aware that part of the initial impetus for some lines, like Carnival Corp., didn’t come from the passionate belief such as of Mr. Vago and the Aponte family, but governmental oversight and, in fact, repeated criminal contempt rulings. Bad Things Happening at Seabourn/Holland America/Princess – AGAIN Held in Contempt by the Court! – Goldring Travel. And others, such as Norwegian, believe reduction of environmental impact should take a back seat (but still be in the car) to shareholder profits.
But whether environmental impact reduction comes to be from passion, marketing, guest demands, or sledgehammer, or a combination thereof, what matters is that it is truly starting to be an integral part of the cruise industry. And the more it is integral, the more buy-in, the more implementation of technology, and, of course, healthier oceans and air.
Just something to think about…And, if you are so inclined, something to ask about when deciding which cruise ships you want to travel on.