Can a cruise ship be sustainable?
By Rachel McCaffery
Travelmole Sustainability Expert and Director of Green Case Consulting
Lounging on the deck of Valiant Lady, sipping champagne, while the sun sinks low and Barcelona disappears in a haze of diesel… sustainable isn’t the first word that springs to mind.
It definitely feels decadent, indulgent and exhilarating, but environmentally responsible? Not so much.
The cruise industry has such a bad reputation, I genuinely feel guilty to admit how much I enjoyed the few days I spent afloat but, as the saying goes: there’s no smoke without fire. The vast majority of motorised marine vessels have a huge carbon footprint, made worse by the low grade diesel used as standard, which gives off high levels of sulphur and nitrogen dioxide when burnt.
Despite, (or perhaps because of) recent record penalties – Princess Cruises were fined $40 million in 2016 for illegal dumping of liquid waste and Carnival paid a $20 million fine for environmental breaches in 2019 – the cruise sector is tackling air pollution faster than others in shipping. This is predominantly through the installation of high tech Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems or ‘scrubbers’ which remove the worst particulate pollution from funnel smoke. Virgin Voyages have top notch scrubbers – but they still generate huge amounts of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
Despite the public’s professed concern over climate change, searches for cruise holidays are on the rise again. Pre-Covid, growth in cruise had been skyrocketing, with increasing interest from the demographic that grew up with Virgin and recognise it as a company that shakes up whatever it touches.
In many ways branching into cruising is a shrewd move by the Virgin brand. There is definitely an appetite for a cruise experience that rates banging poolside tunes, edgy cabaret and a come-as-you-are approach, over perfectly creased trousers and dinner at the captain’s table. So a cool, child-free, super stylish cruise concept is clever. But can Virgin square the whopping carbon impact of cruising with the views of their famous figurehead, who claims to want to take bold action on climate change?
Virgin’s approach certainly feels different. Branson’s brands aim to be purpose-driven, meaning they take their responsibilities to people and planet seriously. Under the guise of their Epic Sea Change programme, sustainability was built into Virgin Voyages offering from the outset. This aims to secure a healthy future for the ocean, build positive entrepreneurial relationships with communities and amplify sustainability impact through like-minded partnerships. What’s also important is that they intend to show the competition how things should be done – and if any section of the travel industry needs dragging into the modern world and encouraged to operate responsibly, it’s cruise.
Yes, the carbon footprint of Virgin’s cruise ships is high (Voyages estimate that a 5 day cruise equates to a four hour round-trip flight), but the streamlined design of the custom built ships reduces fuel burn, Climeon technology on board reuses waste energy as heat, and port plug-in technology facilitates cleaner power while docked where ports are set up for this (most aren’t yet).
The emissions the ships generate are also carbon offset for now, though Voyages recognise this is an imperfect solution and have set a (relatively unambitious) net zero target for 2050. I’m hopeful they’ll achieve this considerably sooner. Research is already underway into more sustainable fuels, building on a lot of the pioneering work by Virgin Atlantic in this area.
For now, the carbon footprint is still a big problem. Unlike in a car, or on board an aircraft where the environmental damage your trip is generating is only visible to others, the trail of smog behind a cruise ship is a constant guilty reminder. Plus, on a flight the engines stop when the flight ends. On a cruise they chug away 24/7. No wonder so many residents near ports are objecting. The incessant arrival and departure of cruise ships was likened to living next door to floating factories by the group of anti-cruise protesters meeting Valiant Lady as she docked in Ajaccio, Corsica.
Air pollution and its impact on health was the local community’s principal concern, though they also felt cruise day trippers contributed little in return for clogging the little town’s streets with traffic and people. This, at least, is something Virgin is trying to address with small group excursions that benefit local communities. However, these aren’t cheap, and from what I saw, most passengers prefer to wander off (mainly in the same direction) and clog the streets on their own.
Meanwhile, there is a big focus on the areas Virgin Voyages is more directly able to influence. The zero tolerance approach to single-use plastics on board is very evident. There are no plastic bottles; all takeaway food comes in reusable boxes; and drinks are served in an impressive array of high quality reusable plastic alternatives to glass, which would otherwise be a sustainable option but can’t be used for safety reasons.
I was fascinated by these ‘glasses’, many of which are virtually impossible to tell from the real thing. Each one apparently costs over $20 and there must be tens of thousands on board. Quite a commitment when you think how many plastic single-use cups $20 would buy (about 2,000 if you’re interested).
There are two areas that put Virgin Voyages head and shoulders above its cruise competitors when it comes to doing the right thing. The first is the way food is managed to maximise quality and minimise waste. This is a huge deal. According to the UN, global production of food that is ultimately wasted takes up land equivalent to the size of China and is responsible for around 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
On Valiant Lady and her sister ship (Scarlet Lady), the dining concept is all-inclusive, but rather than the usual overflowing buffet, which results in ridiculous amounts of wastage with food trays kept full right until close, Voyages take a much more considered approach. All meals in the themed restaurants and the main ‘galley’ are ordered from and served by friendly waiting staff. Food is cooked to order as guests book tables at each dining spot via an app. You are welcome to order as many servings as you can cram in, but the usual ‘eyes bigger than your belly’ buffet effect is removed in one fell swoop.
I left the ship feeling healthier than when I arrived, though that was also due to the ‘veggie forward’ menu which encourages plant based and healthy eating. The watermelon with tahini, homemade granola and berries that I ate in the Razzle Dazzle restaurant (named after the famous navy camouflage) was up there with the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.
The other big difference is in how Virgin Voyages treats its people. Cruise (and shipping in general) has long been synonymous with poor labour standards, but Virgin seems to have turned this on its head. Rather than base rates of pay on staff country of origin, (which is standard practice and leads to huge disparities), remuneration for each job is role-based. So, Bangladeshi or British, if you do the same job you’re paid at the same rate.
The company goes out of its way to encourage diversity and staff are encouraged to express, rather than hide, who they are. (From what I can tell, the ship also seems well set up for the differently abled). Crew members aren’t forced into excessively long contracts and they also have access to guest facilities. Being able to move freely around the ship, as opposed to hidden below deck, elevates their status and must make their jobs more enjoyable. Staff members also get free Wi-Fi as standard. (I’ve heard that all too many cruise lines sign crew up for two years at sea and then scandalously charge them for the basic facilities needed to keep in touch with family back home).
The team on board Valiant Lady are noticeably joyful. It’s rare to walk past someone without them cracking a huge grin and asking how you are. They are also well versed in explaining the differences in Virgin’s approach and their pride in it is evident. This positivity is incredibly infectious and lifts the whole mood on board – which, to be fair, is already pretty high.
Overall, operating sustainably has hugely enhanced the experience for customers rather than compromising it. The ship may look like a branded, tower block from outside, but on board, it is nothing short of spectacular. An adult playground, it has everything you could imagine, plus lots of fun touches that stamp the Virgin brand with big red boots.
Sometimes it’s a little too try-hard (‘Lick Me till I Scream’ frozen yoghurt anyone?) but mostly it works well. See-saws and basket swings on deck tempt drunken shenanigans, while the handmade hammocks on each balcony offer indulgent repose. The boxing ring, tattoo parlour and super high tech experimental kitchen are modern, edgy additions and the way the different spaces throughout the ship are delineated with thoughtful, but very distinctive design is very cool (I especially loved the James Bond themed portholes in the casino). This, the constantly changing scenery and the creative entertainment programme means there is always something new to see or do.
Overall, the ongoing dilemma of self-gratification versus sustainability remains largely intact. While I think operations on Valiant Lady have a lot to teach the rest of the industry, right now, the only truly sustainable cruise holiday is NO cruise holiday. But there are degrees of everything, so you (or your customers) are dead set on a holiday afloat, it’s worth supporting those companies, like Virgin Voyages, who are taking a lead in innovating for a low carbon future and offering fantastic experiences into the bargain.