Responsible cruising

We don't need a bigger boat

At Responsible Travel we are keen to create a very clear distinction between small ship cruises and their cousins, the colossal cruise ships that are taking over the likes of Venice, Dubrovnik and, of course, the Caribbean. They are very distant cousins and have very little in common, passing like ships in the night, if you’ll forgive the irresistible pun, en route to moorings and marinas. As far as recent research shows, colossal cruising is heading for a bruising in terms of negative environmental and economic impact in destinations around the world. However, responsible cruising is not and, indeed, many of the companies offering small cruise vacations are beacons of responsible tourism, and should have flags to fly at the top of their masts to say so.

Environment, economy & culture

With new ships that can carry more than 8,000 passengers and crew, these floating cities pollute the air we breathe and the water we use and enjoy.
– Friends of the Earth

City giants

It is not hard to measure the economic and cultural impacts of the cruise industry. You just need to go to a city like Dubrovnik and watch it in action. The old section of this stunning coastal town, with a population of about 1,000 people, can sometimes have three giant cruise ships unloading in a day, with as many as 10,000 passengers crowding into the streets like a tidal wave. The port authorities have carried out sustainability reports and, consequently, have limited the average number of cruise ship passengers to a meagre 8,000, although in peak season they are allowed to exceed this.
In Venice, following an international campaign, the government was forced to restrict the size of cruise liners coming into its historic center. After a 60,000-tonne cruise ship ploughed into a jetty in 2019, ships were rerouted out of the historic center altogether, although they can still dock in the lagoon. Read more about how you can support Venetians campaigning against giant cruise ships.

Human rights

The giant cruise ships have had a bad record in how they treat their staff over the years. There has been much publicity around the ‘sweatshop’ nature of cruise ships. The labour conditions are such that wages are low and the hours are long in order for workers to try and make up their wages with passenger tips. Below deck, of course, there is no opportunity to earn tips, and what happens in the kitchens, laundry and engine rooms, for example, remains well hidden from the passengers. In the windowless bowels of the ship, 12- or 14-hour working days are not uncommon, and breaks, days off and vacations are rarely factored in, despite contracts lasting eight to ten months. Around a third of workers on cruise ships are Filipino, and the subsequent language barriers as well as the poverty of their homeland makes them easy to exploit with complex contracts and binding clauses. Cruise lines choose which country to register in; unsurprisingly, they opt for places such as Panama or Bahamas, which have extremely loose employment laws.

Hey, big spenders

If the cruise ship passengers were feasting on land it might keep the local people happier, but they pour out after breakfast and go back at 3pm, stopping only for coffees and ice cream. As a result, in many giant cruise ship destinations, local cafes have become fast food outlets, and craft shops are now junk souvenir shops, losing not only their culture but also their cash. There have been consistent claims by the industry that the average passenger spend is more than €100 in each port. However, in a report released by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Europe in June 2014, the average spend per passenger at each port was cited as just €62. This figure is considerably low when compared to other visitors. It is also important to remember that there are many passengers who do not disembark at all. For example, the Port Authority of Jamaica estimates that 15 percent of cruise passengers stay on board when a ship is in port. **

Then there are shore excursions, which are often run by small companies on the ground, such as cycle hire companies or tour guides. However, these companies are more often than not tied into contracts with the cruise companies, which enables the cruise company to make a tidy profit on these excursions, with as little as half to a third of costs going to shore excursion providers. ***

Sensitive habitats

In the Galápagos Islands, for example, there has been a strong movement among eco commentators to discourage the use of big, high end cruise ships and, thankfully, the Ecuadorian government intervened. The national park now restricts the size of the boats allowed to cruise the islands, with some islands such as Genovesa being limited to boats with no more than 40 passengers. Though the maximum size of passengers to be carried is now 100, this is still a lot of people landing on a highly protected beach, although they are then divided into small groups of 16, each accompanied by a guide. However, one thing that is good is that the boats are very well policed in the Galápagos.

Who is skipper here?

There is an understandable fear of losing cruise ship tourism, as it means big business for many destinations. And, indeed, to attract cruise business, ports often provide incentives for cruise ships to stop. Cruise companies can end up playing ports off against each other for concessions. If a port becomes too demanding or speaks out about cruise industry practices, they run the risk of losing the business as the ship can simply decide to go elsewhere. Which begs the question, who is really skipper of this giant cruise ship industry, which is growing steadily all the time and predicted to carry 30 million people around the world on floating, multinational, skyscraper hotels, by 2024?*

There is also the tax debate. Cruise companies are exempt from most of the laws in the countries that the ships visit. They pay little or no taxes. Cruise companies register in countries other than where they operate or are head quartered from. This means they avoid paying income tax in the country from which they sail. Carnival Corporation is registered in Panama, Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited in Liberia and Star Cruises in Bermuda. So, although they claim to bring huge income to countries where they operate, they pay little or no tax on that.
In December 2004, Antigua and Barbuda was threatened with a boycott by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Associations’ members when it raised charges by $2.50 per passenger. It ended up backing down.

Environmental impact

This is the story the world over when the big liners loom forebodingly, waiting to drop their load, so to speak. To date, there has been little research into the actual impact of giant cruise ships on the marine environment, until Friends of the Earth produced a league table of the leading players in this field, and how they fared in terms of their environmental footprint. The four main criteria being assessed were: how transparent the companies are about their environmental policies; how much they pollute the air when docked; how much they comply with water quality regulations, and how advanced their sewage systems are. The research reports on 16 major cruise lines and 181 cruise ships. You can check out the results here, and see how shocking the difference is between the Carnivals and Costas, Regents and Royals in terms of their heavy footprints.
What you can do
As well as supporting organisations like Friends of the Earth, it’s a no brainer. If you want to travel the seas, look into small, more responsible ways to do so, and there is no shortage of exciting alternatives out there. Alternatives which connect with local communities and culture, and where protecting the marine environment is at the core of what they do. There are also organisations which seek to lead the way in terms of responsible small ship cruise business, such as in Svalbard, where cruise companies should be working with and following guidelines laid down by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). And if you want to find an ecologically sound boat trip in the Galapagos, check out the Smart Voyager certification, created in 2000 in partnership with Rainforest Alliance. And if you feel that staff are being mistreated on any cruise ship, big or small, then contact us, or Tourism Concern.

* Mintel
** Cruise Ship Squeeze, Ross A. Klein (2005)

Responsible small ship cruising

There are issues with every form of tourism and small ship cruise vacations are no exception, because it is rare that tourism is perfect in terms of its impacts. Keep reading for a round-up of various issues arising in popular small ship cruise vacation destinations.

The Arctic

When it comes to environmental concerns, the Arctic has crept up in many people’s consciousness in the past few years. No longer perceived as an untouched wilderness, it’s now right up there with the razed rainforests in terms of precariousness and, with such a bleak outlook, it’s easy to question the ethics of going there at all. In fact, tourism here can be a force for good; traveling in national parks and wildlife reserves involves paying park fees, which support the maintenance, protection and monitoring of these wilderness areas, as well as encouraging the creation of new protected areas. Visiting remote indigenous communities creates much-needed income and supports a disappearing way of life. And on board lectures from Arctic experts offer an unrivalled chance to learn – creating a boatful of ambassadors who will return home to spread the word about the disappearing Arctic. See our Arctic Cruises guide for more details.


Antarctica is the only continent without a government since the 1959 Antarctic treaty agreed that no claims would be recognised, ending the threat of conflict over this uninhabitable land. There are annual meetings between country signatories to discuss scientific collaborations, the threats facing the continent and how to manage the growing tourism industry. This government-free land ironically seems to be one of the best managed in the world. It has never experienced war, and its delicate environment is wholly protected – an unprecedented step. Any travelers to Antarctica will be made aware of the fragility of the polar ecosystems, as one of the privileged few to set foot on the earth’s final frontier. See our Antarctic guide for more details.

The Galapagos Islands

The Galspagos Islands National Park was one of the first to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978, so when it was put on UNESCO’s "red list" of endangered sites in 2007, with concerns about booming population and tourism, overfishing and the introduction of invasive species, the government had to take urgent action. The number of boats allowed was reduced, the maximum number of passengers allowed is 100 per boat, and there is now a Smart Voyager certification for boat trips, created in 2000 in partnership with Rainforest Alliance. See our Galapagos guide for more details.


Whale watching and polar bears are both big business in Alaska, so make sure you seek out a responsible wildlife watching cruise company to run your trip. One that adheres to all the conservation must dos, such as not going too close to whales. Many visitors are shocked that whaling, i.e. the killing of whales for meat, is still legal in Alaska, carried out by nine different indigenous Alaskan communities, in keeping with cultural traditions. Although we understand the cultural significance, we do not support the eating of whale meat by tourists at Responsible Travel. Similarly, polar bear hunting is still legal for the First Peoples in Canada and is still a vital source of income for many people. This shocks many tourists, but there are complex cultural issues at stake here. Read more in our whale watching travel guide and bear watching guide for more details, or see our guide to Alaska.


It is ironic that whale watching cruises in Norway function alongside its whaling industry which still exists, in defiance of anti-whaling demands across the globe. The Norwegian government disputes that whaling decimates stocks by claiming they operate a sustainable quota system, and even now claim to use “humane” methods of slaughter! Norwegian authorities also argue that they firmly support the protection of endangered whale species, and only allow the hunting of ones they say are not at risk due to high numbers, such as the north-east Atlantic minke whale, which they say has a population of around 100,000. You will see plenty of whale meat on sale in fish markets in places like Bergen as well as on tourist menus. At Responsible Tourism we do not condone eating whale meat. We do condone supporting the whale watching industry however, as whale tourism can be a prime weapon in the battle against whaling. See our whale watching and Norway guides for more details.

The Azores

Since activities such as hiking, whale watching, scuba diving and exploring volcanic landscapes are key to the Azorean economy, the islands take conservation, both on land and at sea, pretty seriously. In 2013, the global sustainability certification programme Quality Coast compared the sustainable tourism credentials of 1000 island and coastal vacation destinations. The Azores came out top. In 2014, it became the first ever destination to be awarded the Platinum Quality Gold Coast Award. A proposal is now in place to unite the islands’ 11 separate Marine Protected Areas and the 3km-deep waters between them in a new Azores Marine Park covering the Azores and part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Read our Azores guide for more details.

Responsible tourism tips

One of the advantages of small cruise vacations is that it not only allows you to moor in far flung places, but also to immerse yourself in local communities. Just with all responsible tourism vacations, it is important to respect cultural traditions when you arrive as a guest in these small communities. You may have literally ‘just come in off the boat’ but remember to behave in a way that is informed and sensitive to your hosts’ lifestyles. So, don’t just barge in and take photos. That always offends, no matter what the culture. It is also worth learning just a couple of words in the local language. A smile takes you a long way in travel, but with a thank you in the local language, you will always get a smile back. If you are on a small cruise vacation in Norway, we do not recommend eating whale meat as it is a direct threat to whale species. Is one of just four countries which still allows commercial whaling, contravening the International Whaling Commission’s commercial whaling moratorium. In the Arctic, the term “Eskimo” is largely considered to be outdated and offensive. Broadly speaking, Aboriginal is the preferred term, especially in Canada and Greenland. However, some native Alaskan and Siberian communities – particularly the Yupik – still refer to themselves as Eskimo. If in doubt, ask your guide. Always listen to your skipper to respect the safety of your fellow passengers and crew, as well as protecting the environment. Use this as a time to really inform yourself about overfishing. Being on water all the time, talking with your skipper and crew, will be an eye opener when you ask about how quickly the waters’ stocks are being depleted. And when you go home, only buy line or pole caught fish. Always listen to your guide when you go on land, as many excursions travel into environmentally sensitive areas. In the Arctic, for example, you might visit a mixture of natural parks, designated wilderness areas and wildlife refuges and each will have its own set of visitor guidelines. In general, as with all wild places, take nothing with you, leave nothing behind and keep to designated trails. As well as practising Leave No Trace when at sea, commit to no longer playing a part in the plastic takeover of the oceans. According to the Marine Conservation Society, there are nearly 2,500 items of rubbish for every kilometre on a beach, it is killing wildlife from birds to turtles as they eat it, thinking the items are food. In many ways we are all guilty of contributing to this. So, try and change your ways when you get back home too and say pants to plastic. As well as supporting the big, vital charities such as Friends of the Earth, which are working to protect the planet from the destruction made by giant cruise ships, you might ask your skipper or guide about leading charities on the ground that would appreciate some support, whether it is financial, or simply on social media. Do not feed or touch the wildlife. End of. When taking photos of the animals, do not use flash photography and, if you are a professional photographer, you need special permission to shoot in the Galapagos Islands. It may seem obvious, but it is amazing how many people think it is fine to stick beach stones in their pockets as souvenirs. It isn’t fine. Same goes for black coral, shells, volcanic rocks, animal parts, native wood or flora. And again, same goes for if you see them for sale anywhere else. If you are swimming, snorkelling or diving while on your small cruise ship vacation, please do remember that any products you are wearing on your body get absorbed into the marine environment. Such as sun creams, body lotion, shampoos and so on. Bring environmentally sound products with you and keep the oceans clean.
Lara Paxton, from our tour operator The Small Ship Cruise Collection, says:
“Even though it is a cruise and most people speak English on board, do learn a bit of the local language for when you land and go in to visit local communities. Just a few words are really important. So, in the Galapagos you can have a few words of Spanish, and on the Amazon cruises just being able to say hello or thank you in Spanish in Peru or Portuguese in Brazil makes a big difference.”

Cassia Jackson, of our partners Heritage Expeditions, explains more:
“Conservation in the Russian Far East is severely underfunded. The Far East of Russia is nine time zones away from Moscow, and historically has often been ignored. Heritage Expeditions directly contributes to local conservation in this part of the world. An example of this is our partnership with conservation agencies: Birds Russia, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Birdlife International.”

Rodney Russ is an expedition leader and the founder of our friends Heritage Expeditions:
“As biologists and ornithologists, we are intimately aware of the many issues that confront wildlife and their habitats, the world's oceans and isolated ethnic groups. We aim to actively contribute to the conservation of the places we visit.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: The Small Cruise Ship Collection] [City giants: ianpudsey] [Sensetive habitats: Steve] [Cruise ship smoke pollution: Jason Thien] [Galapagos fishermen locals: Mikko Koponen]