Cruise Holidays, Quantified

We’ve just submitted a paper for ‘Contemporary Perspectives in Tourism and Hospitality Research: Policy, Practice and Performance’. In this I’m teamed up with co-worker and tourism professional Christine for our second study of the cruise industry. In our first paper, we looked mainly at the effects upon a host community in the early stages of its development as a tourist destination. This time, though, we went straight for what Leslie [2012] called the Achilles heel of responsible tourism: transport. Leslie argued that the vast majority of a typical holiday’s contribution to climate change is likely to come from this.

If that’s considered true for most holidays, imagine how much greater the emissions are when your ‘hotel’ not only accommodates you and provides you with entertainment, but also moves from place to place. Moving a hundred thousand tonnes of ‘hotel’ is never going to be easy, even when it floats… and it turns out to be a particularly messy business.

Comparison between Boeing 747, Allure of the Seas, and the Eiffel Tower

Yes, cruise ships are big. The largest, Oasis-class ships consist of approximately 100,000 tonnes of metal.

Cruise ships typically use Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) – also known as bunker fuel. It’s a wise choice when you have to figure your fuel consumption by the tonne, because it’s cheap: when fuels are distilled from crude oil, yielding valuable products such as propane and gasoline, HFO is the residual sludge that’s left over. It has to be heated with steam just to get it to flow along a fuel line, and it’s nasty stuff in terms of the particulates and sulphur that are released when it is burnt. Our primary interest was in the climate change potential, though: we’ll worry about acid rain and carcinogens another time.

Sample of Heavy Fuel Oil

Heavy Fuel Oil: at room temperature it‘s more like grease. [photo: ‘Glasbruch2007’]

It was actually quite hard to ignore all the ‘other’ things that are reported about the cruise industry, like the dumping of sewage with little or no treatment, and other substances as well such as chemicals from on-board photo processing, dry cleaning and printing. In 1998-99, Royal Caribbean paid out millions in penalties following US Coast Guard surveillance showing the Sovereign of the Seas (then the largest cruise ship in the world) discharging oil en-route to San Juan. An investigation revealed the installation of a secret bypass pipe that discharged waste oil – with a similar device in use on every Royal Caribbean cruise ship [US Department of Justice, 1999].

In a single paper of less than five thousand words, we had to concentrate on just climate change, though. DEFRA [2012] quotes a figure of 3766.5 kg CO2e emitted per tonne for HFO consumption. (This is what would normally be called “well-to-wheel” analysis, looking at the greenhouse gases released by obtaining, refining, transporting and then burning HFO. The ‘e’ denotes carbon dioxide equivalency when assessing a mixture of greenhouse gases.) The exact fuel consumption will vary, depending on the ship and its itinerary, but 130 tonnes per day is a good starting point… which equates to 489,645 kg CO2e emitted per day – just for moving the boat and providing electrical power for services such as air conditioning. We went further, with a full life cycle analysis taking into account not just fuel usage but the provision of food and drink, excursions, travel to and from the port of embarkation and so on. Another thing that has to be ‘paid for’ is the ship itself: its footprint is affected by the materials used in construction, the number of cruises it will make during its life, and its likely fate. Only when all these things are known can we have a full picture of the contribution to climate change that is made by a cruise holiday.

Full details will have to wait until the proceedings of the conference are published (assuming our paper is accepted by the reviewers) but for now, if anybody is reading who cares about the environment but it also interested in taking a cruise holiday, the abridged version of the study is…




DEFRA (2012) 2012 Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors for Company Reporting, available from:

Leslie, D. (2012) Responsible Tourism: Concepts, Theory and Practice, Wallingford: CABI

US Department of Justice (1999) Royal Caribbean to pay record $18 million criminal fine for dumping oil and hazardous chemicals, making false statements, available from:


3 thoughts on “Cruise Holidays, Quantified

  1. Pingback: The Liebster Award - Shed ProjectShed Project

  2. Pingback: Assessing the full environmental impact of cruise holidays - Travindy

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