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Cruise Lines Are Starting to Promote "Social Justice Tourism." Here's Why We Should Be Skeptical

United States Sustainability
by Amanda Machado Apr 14, 2016

A RECENT BLOOMBERG ARTICLE announced Carnival’s new initiative promoting “social justice tourism.” Starting this month, the company will allow tourists to participate in a seven-day trip to the Dominican Republic, spending three days in Puerto Plata “cultivating cacao plants and organic fertilizer, teaching English, or working with a local women’s cooperative to make artisanal chocolates. Others will help to build household water filters from clay.” According to the article, Carnival isn’t going to disclose how much tourist money from these trips will actually support charity work. The company spokeswoman only claimed that the business model was made “to make enough profit to sustain the business to continue for the long term, as opposed to a model to maximize profits.”

It’s a conflicting initiative considering that Carnival, along with several other cruise lines, have had a long history of criticism toward their environmental, labor, and sustainable business policies. Consider the following:

1. Many major cruise lines have taken advantage of lax labor and tax laws to underpay and overwork their employees.

Unlike traditional American companies, cruise lines are not accountable to many U.S. labor laws. International law for cruise workers allows them to work up to 77 hours a week for as little as $600 a month, or a little less than $2 an hour. They also can be forced to work long periods without a day off. In August of 2007, BBC radio ran a segment depicting the horrible conditions workers experienced to maintain their jobs.

Meanwhile, though cruise lines enjoy exemptions from American traditional labor law, they also enjoy American tax breaks, paying only around 1.1.% of its 11.3 billion profit in corporate tax payments in 2011. As Ross Klein, the author of “Paradise Lost at Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations, stated in a Salon article “Carnival trades on the New York Stock Exchange, its corporate offices are in Miami — but it pays no taxes because it’s a Panamanian corporation. It’s a great deal.”

2. More often than not, local people have not been employed on these ships, nor benefited from their tourism.

Even though cruise ships technically visit countries that could benefit from the tourism industry (like Mexico, Haiti, and etc.), companies often go out of their way to make sure money is rarely invested in local economies. Cruise companies often arrange agreements with big businesses in their stopover countries to drive passengers to specific locations that benefit both parties. Some companies have even purchased their own private islands to include as stopover destinations so that passengers don’t ever have to interact with locals at all. This gives local small business no chance to attract customers or gain any benefit at all from the industry.

3. For every day at sea, an average cruise ship emits more sulfur dioxide than 13 million cars.

According to the EPA, emissions from cruise ship engine contribute overwhelming amounts of air pollution. In addition to sulfur dioxide, they emit nitrogen bodies, carbon dioxide, as well as soot, all of which can contribute to acid rain, climate change, habitat destruction, and can be damaging to human health.

Cruise ships could reduce emission by not running their engines while at dock (which many do to provide electrical power for air conditioning, heating, regeneration, and lighting to passengers and crew). Or they can adopt a technology known as “cold ironing” which allows ships at dock to receive their power from sources on shore instead of having to continuously run their engine.

4. An average 3,000-passenger cruise ship will generate enough sewage each week to fill 10 backyard swimming pools.

Cruise lines have permission to dump sewage from their toilets directly into the ocean without treatment, so long as they are at least three nautical miles from shore. This waste contains bacteria and pathogens that can contaminate marine life in the area, and even ultimately affect humans who swim in the water. Sewage also creates a surplus of nitrogen and phosphorus in the ocean which can promote excessive algal growth and ultimately reduce available oxygen levels in the water. Some have argued that increased algal growth contributed to the death of 150 Florida Manatees

According to the EPA, the average cruise ship creates 150,000 gallons of sewage per week, adding up to more than one billion gallons of sewage a year. Most cruise ships use traditional sanitation devices (known as Type II MSDs). Some use more advanced technology (knowns as AWTS) that provide better screening and treatment. Yet even after using this technology, significant amounts of bacteria, metals, and nutrients remain at levels that far exceed federal water-quality standards. The most environmentally friendly option would be for cruise ships to hold sewage — even treated — onboard. Or, at the very least, ships could agree not to dump sewage next to protected marine areas. Yet most continue choose not to.

5. Some studies show that 90% of countries with coral reefs experience coral reef damage by cruise ships.

Around 70% of cruise destinations are in biodiversity hotspots, meaning a biologically rich area that has already lost a significant amount of its original habitat. With such fragile areas, cruise ships should be demonstrating extreme caution. But instead, they’ve harmed natural environments in a variety of ways. Sewage, as mentioned earlier, can affect the biological make-up of an area. Cruise anchors can also destroy coral reef for years. According to data from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Planet exhibition, a cruise ship anchor dropped in a coral reef for one day could destroy an area the size of half a football field.

6. Cruise companies have been called out several times for their lack of social responsibility.

From 1992-2012, cruise companies have racked up a long list of environmental fines. The 2007 Observer Good Companies Guide listed Carnival as one of the worst companies in terms of concerns for shareholders and environmental issues. None have been highly regarded for their transparency or willingness to acknowledge the consequences of their tourism practices. When an organization called Friends of the Earth evaluated and graded cruise companies on their environmental practices, not one company received a grade higher than a C plus. Every single company received an F in the category for transparency, meaning that no company responded to requests for information regarding their environmental practices.

7. An article in The Guardian argues it’s actually far more environmentally friendly to fly in a plane than to take cruise.

According to Climate Care, a carbon-offsetting company, an average cruiseliner will emit around .43kg of CO2 per passenger mile. A long-haul flight: 0.257kg.

The Bloomberg article rightfully questions whether this program will ultimately continue in this legacy: “Is a shipload of well-meaning travelers making a significant contribution or just dropping into the Dominican Republic for poverty tourism?”

It’s of course too early to make a final verdict on whether Carnival’s new programs will help or hurt. But a track record like this definitely adds skepticism to any claim of cruises as socially impactful. Bloomberg titled their article on this initiative “Take a cruise, Save the World: Will millennials buy social-justice tourism?” If this history is any indication, unless policies change, there’s little evidence to believe we should.

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