Cruising comes with a lot of positives – it’s fun, relaxing, convenient and often relatively affordable. But when it comes to the environment, it isn’t all smooth sailing. According to recent research, a large cruise ship can result in a carbon footprint greater than that of 12,000 cars. Another study found that an individual traveler’s carbon footprint is roughly eight times greater than the carbon footprint of a person vacationing on land.
“When we measure sustainability, it’s important to look at the whole picture, and overall, cruise ships are too big, too dirty and too invasive to pristine ecosystems to be considered sustainable or environmentally conscious,” says Marcie Keever, director of oceans and vessels at environmentalist group Friends of the Earth. “Their significant carbon footprint and ongoing use of polluting scrubber technology that continues to result in the dumping of toxic chemicals into the ocean are two major issues.”
So, how does that translate for the average cruiser – and what can you do to make a difference? While some environmentally conscious travelers may choose to take a vacation on land, those who would like to stick with a cruise getaway should consider their options carefully. Not all cruise lines are created equal, and some are making more progress than others in implementing policies around more sustainable fuel types, hybrid-electric ships and their commitments to a cleaner future.
If your heart is set on taking a cruise vacation, consider these tips to leave less of an impact on the environment during your trip.
- Opt for a shorter voyage (or a smaller ship): One simple way to keep the environment in mind during your vacation at sea is by choosing a shorter itinerary and avoiding massive megaships built to carry thousands of people. “Some cruise lines are limiting the length of cruise runs which is a good start, and [they] are also commissioning smaller vessels to travel shorter distances for shorter periods of time,” says Keever. Opting for a midsize ship or a small ship and a three- or four-night voyage over a cruise lasting seven to 10 days will keep the mileage to a minimum, which in turn will limit the carbon emissions and other damage inflicted upon the environment.
- Choose a cruise line that values transparency: In an effort to keep cruisegoers in the loop, many cruise lines have begun making public commitments to improve their operations. On top of that, some have also started including annual sustainability reports on their websites. Major lines like Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Virgin Voyages, Disney Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line all earned an “A” for transparency on Friends of the Earth’s 2022 Cruise Line Report Card, which the organization based on the cruise lines’ willingness to provide detailed information about environmental practices when asked.
Below, you’ll find six cruise lines around the world that are working toward a greener future on the high seas.
The largest expedition cruise line in the world, Hurtigruten highlights four pillars on its journey toward sustainability: emissions, people, community and nature. To protect destinations from the effects of overtourism, the line avoids popular areas during peak seasons, restricts the number of guests on shore and limits the size of its vessels. Hurtigruten’s ships also source about 80% of their food from local providers and work to minimize the amount of food waste on board.
Perhaps most impactful is Hurtigruten’s current work to develop state-of-the-art, eco-conscious vessels. Between 2020 and 2021, the expedition line debuted three battery-powered hybrid-electric ships, and all 14 vessels can be connected to shore power while in port (if the option is available at that destination).
“Hurtigruten is looking to launch zero-emissions ships, which will reduce the amount of heavy fuel they use,” notes Keever. The first of these ships is set to launch by 2030; the line is aiming for carbon neutral operations by 2040 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
The cruise provider also uses other eco-conscious equipment and transportation options on tours, including power through solar panels, electric snowmobiles and tour buses, hybrid sightseeing boats and battery-powered catamarans.
Ivan Sarfatti|Courtesy of MSC Cruises
With the goal of achieving a 40% emissions reduction by 2030 and total net-zero cruising by 2050, MSC Cruises‘ commitment to the environment spans each of its 20-plus ships. The line has been steadily working toward a more sustainable future for the past 15 years: Since 2008, it has reduced its carbon emissions by 35%. Much of the more recent success stems from MSC’s use of liquid natural gas (LNG). The line currently operates two LNG-fueled vessels – MSC World Europa and MSC Euribia – and a third natural gas-powered ship is in the works. Euribia’s inaugural sailing in June 2023 was the first net-zero greenhouse gas emissions voyage in history, saving 43 tons of fuel.
Additional environmental efforts include the use of shore energy when in port (as of 2022, 65% of MSC’s ships were fitted or retrofitted to use shore power), water-saving technologies that allow ships to self-produce almost all of their water supply on board (to the tune of almost 800,000 gallons maximum per day) and smaller scale features like energy-efficient lighting and ventilation systems.
The eco-conscious initiatives continue on land, where travelers can opt for special shore excursions called “Protectours.” These outings are centered on low-impact transportation – think: walking, kayaking, cycling and use of electric or hybrid shuttles. Select Caribbean itineraries may also visit the unspoiled beaches of Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, the line’s private island in the Bahamas. Formerly used as an industrial sand excavation site, Ocean Cay covers 64 square miles of marine reserve and is home to 400 restored coral reef colonies, as well as a variety of bird, fish and other marine species. The island runs on a mix of solar panels and energy-efficient power sources; and single-use plastics are prohibited.
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(Courtesy of Aurora Expeditions)
Billed as 100% climate neutral and a member of two sustainability groups – the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators – Aurora Expeditions is committed to responsible cruising. The line carries small groups of adventurers on 10- to 26-day voyages to the Arctic, Antarctica and other less-traveled destinations, such as the Patagonia wilderness.
To offset its greenhouse gas emissions, Aurora Expeditions invests in two climate action initiatives: a renewable energy wind farm in Taiwan and a conservation program in Australia. Environmentally focused cruisers may feel most at home aboard the Sylvia Earle expedition ship, which has seven decks all named after well-known ocean preservationists. On day six of each itinerary on the Sylvia Earle, Aurora hosts a Sustainable Sea Day, when seafood is not served on board to help protect marine populations.
Additional environmental efforts include specialized water and waste management systems, efficient onboard energy sources, reduced single-use plastics, locally sourced food, eco-friendly products on board and more. On top of that, two of Aurora Expeditions’ ships, Greg Mortimer and Sylvia Earle, feature a fuel-efficient bow design that can travel at higher speeds while reducing wave-load vibrations, which in turn produces fewer emissions.
Havila Voyages debuted in late 2021 and operates four small ships along the Norwegian coast. Hybrid vessels are equipped with the largest ship battery packs found among passenger ships, which power each ship for up to four hours with zero emissions. The ships utilize LNG for the remaining route; between the natural gas and battery power, carbon emissions are cut by 35%. Havila has the goal of reaching climate-neutral operations by 2028 and emission-free operations by 2030.
On board, Havila serves locally sourced meals and is committed to reducing food waste; as such, there are no buffets. In 2022, the line successfully limited the daily average food waste per passenger to 71 grams (about 2.5 ounces). Havila ships also minimize the amount of paper and plastic products on board, encouraging guests to bring and refill reusable water bottles instead.
Travelers looking to go the extra mile have the option of participating in Havila’s Eco-Voyager Program, which challenges guests to make environmentally friendly choices while on board. Items on the checklist include reusing towels and opting for room service every other day, recycling any trash at the ship’s dedicated stations, unplugging device chargers when not in use and more. The line also offers eco-excursions in port; tour groups are kept small and Havila partners with local providers that utilize eco-friendly transportation, like battery-powered buses.
(Courtesy of Virgin Voyages)
Like other lines on this list, Virgin Voyages aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Virgin’s ships are all on the newer side (the line’s first ship, Scarlet Lady, debuted in 2021), so they benefit from modern technology that optimizes energy and fuel usage. Additionally, the ships boast futuristic features like in-room energy-saving sensors to operate the lights, curtains and air conditioning, as well as smart wearable bands (used as room keys, for boarding and more) made of recycled ocean plastic.
Virgin’s ships serve ethically sourced seafood and other local ingredients, and they do not have any buffets, which helps lower food waste on board. There is also an onboard recycling system, and single-use plastics are not on any ships. In fact, Virgin primarily offers sustainable products for all of its paper, plastic and other disposable items (using materials like wheat and sugar cane stalks).
All three of Virgin Voyages’ vessels utilize bipolar ionization (BPI) systems shipwide. “Dozens of cruise companies have made their ships more sustainable by adding BPI technology to their HVAC systems,” says Steve Levine, president and CEO of sustainable indoor air technology company AtmosAir Solutions. “BPI devices make ships more energy efficient by lowering the amount of outside air that needs to be brought into a ship, essentially recycling and treating the air indoors and saving energy.”
(Courtesy of Ponant)
Founded in 1988, PONANT is a French-owned luxury line of expedition yachts. The line is working toward six major environmental goals: minimizing nitrogen and sulfur oxide emissions, reducing carbon emissions, banning single-use plastics, reusing and tracing all waste, investing in scientific research and supporting the development of protected marine areas.
In practice, PONANT utilizes high-quality wastewater treatment systems, navigation technology to help reduce fuel usage, and locally sourced food and drinks. On top of that, 60% of packaging on board is recycled, and PONANT regularly organizes beach cleanups. In 2018, PONANT founded the PONANT Foundation, which aims to support conservation efforts across the oceans and polar regions.
PONANT’s Le Commandant Charcot expedition ship runs on a combination of battery power and LNG, and the line was the first to be awarded Green Marine certification for its commitments to improving its sustainability.
Why Trust U.S. News
Nicola Wood is a senior travel editor who manages the U.S. News Best Cruise Lines rankings. She is always reading up on the ways cruise lines are evolving and working toward a more sustainable future. Her passion for the environment extends beyond the cruising industry; in fact, she and some of her colleagues recently worked with EARTHDAY.ORG to pick up almost 750 pounds of trash along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., in celebration of U.S. News & World Report’s 90th anniversary. Wood used her researching skills and guidance from environmental experts to write this article.