Written by 4:00 am EU Investment

The cruise ship conflict: Europe’s port cities vs floating hotels

Every Sunday before sunrise, the world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, sweeps into Barcelona’s port.

When most of its almost 7,000 passengers disembark, the cabins are deep-cleaned for new arrivals and the best part of $1mn worth of food is loaded on board to supply the ship’s 20 restaurants for the week ahead. Twelve hours later, the 236,857-gross tonne vessel sets sail again, its foghorn echoing across the coastline.

“You can see it from everywhere in the city,” says Damià Calvet, president of the Port of Barcelona, gesturing to the ship’s berth out of his office window. “We only have the best cruise ships in Barcelona. That’s why people come here from all over the world.”

After two years encumbered by Covid-19 lockdowns and travel bans, the cruise industry is back in action.

Having recently removed the need for unvaccinated passengers to apply for exemptions to travel, Carnival — the biggest cruise operator — said its daily bookings were double the number on the same day in 2019. Carnival’s major rivals — Royal Caribbean and Norwegian — will also welcome unvaccinated travellers with a negative Covid test from September.

In Barcelona, the number of cruise passengers travelling through Europe’s most popular cruise destination edged past 1mn in the first seven months of the year. About 1.6mn travellers transited the port over the same period in 2019.

Aerial view of Wonder of the Seas cruise ship on its way to Spain
Residents of port cities have mixed feelings about the return of giant cruise ships like Wonder of the Seas after the pandemic © Wayleebird/Alamy

But despite cruise enthusiasts’ eagerness to climb back aboard, residents and politicians of the cities where they step ashore have not all welcomed them back with open arms.

The pandemic gave European cities, which had been grappling with overtourism, time to reflect on what a sustainable industry might look like. The respite was bittersweet: while feeling the pain of the knock to their economies, residents in cities like Barcelona felt they had their city back following decades of being crowded out by an ever-increasing stream of visitors.

In port cities, political leaders have set their sights on cruise ships, which campaigners describe as a disaster for the environment. Resistance to these “floating hotels” is gathering momentum, spurred on by an increase in tougher climate policy.

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau is pushing regional authorities to restrict the number of cruise ships allowed in port, which would halve the number of cruise tourists during the peak summer season to 200,000 a month. The city ranks as the worst cruise port for air pollution in Europe, according to research from the Transport & Environment campaign group.

The pressure comes after the Balearic government signed an agreement in May with the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry body, to limit the number of vessels docking in the port of Palma in Mallorca, another stop-off for the Wonder of the Seas, to three a day from next year. Only one of them can be a mega cruise ship, carrying more than 5,000 passengers.

Environmental demonstrators aboard small boats wave flags saying ‘No’ in front of cruise ships in Venice lagoon,
Environmental protesters in Venice last year. Large cruise ships have been banned from the lagoon due to the environmental damage they cause © Marco Sabadin/AFP/Getty Images

Benoît Payan, the mayor of Marseille, home to France’s biggest cruise port, is also agitating against the industry, which he claims is “suffocating” the coastal city due to air and maritime pollution. And, in 2021, Venice banned large cruise ships from its lagoon after the city’s Unesco world heritage status was threatened because of environmental damage and the knock-on effects of overtourism. Dubrovnik, Dublin, Amsterdam and Santorini have in recent years also clamped down on cruise activity.

Meanwhile, EU-wide regulations, expected later this year, will ratchet up pressure on the cruise industry and container ship operators, as the bloc works towards its goal of hitting net zero emissions by 2050.

Marie-Caroline Laurent, director-general of CLIA Europe, says cruise ships are often “unfairly maligned”. “Our ships are very visible in the ports and that creates a perception,” says Laurent, adding that the industry is “constantly challenged to improve. That can be a good or a bad thing, but we welcome it.”

Relationship reset

The 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona kick-started the boom in the city’s tourism industry, attracting more than $10bn of investment in the Catalan capital, but it also brought the first cruise ships to the city’s port.

Some 15 cruise ships spent two weeks in Barcelona’s port, providing 11,000 rooms — almost half the city’s hotel room capacity — to accommodate corporate bigwigs from the likes of Coca-Cola and Visa, as well as officials from the International Olympic Committee.

“We knew nothing about cruise tourism before the Olympic Games,” says Calvet. “That’s the way we discovered cruise tourism, and the way cruise tourism discovered Barcelona.”

Barcelona’s rise as a must-visit destination over the past three decades mirrors the rapid growth of the cruise industry, marking them out as some of the biggest beneficiaries of travel becoming more affordable.

Annual visitors to Barcelona shot up from 1.8mn in 1992 to a peak of 12mn in 2019 before the pandemic hit. Over the same period, the global cruise industry had a seven-fold increase in passengers to a high of 30mn a year.

Industry projections suggest cruise passenger numbers will surpass 2019 levels next year, but some of Barcelona’s residents object to the return of business as usual.

“We don’t want to go back to before. The pandemic was a chance for a permanent reset in our relationship with the cruise industry,” says Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s deputy mayor in charge of urban planning.

Sanz, who spearheaded the city’s clampdown on Airbnb holiday rentals, says cruise day-trippers turn Barcelona into a “theme park”, doing a whistle-stop tour of famous sites like the Sagrada Familia and Las Ramblas, before leaving a few hours later having spent little or no money. “All they do is take photos,” she adds.

Passengers walking along the promenade deck of a cruise ship are reflected in the glass ceiling
With all the facilities on board, up to 40 per cent of passengers don’t leave the cruise ships when they docks © Anthony Devlin/Getty Images for MSC Cruises

A study looking at the popular Norwegian cruise destination of Bergen found that up to 40 per cent of passengers never left the ship, and half of those who did disembark spent less than $25. Researchers found cruise ships provided the least benefits for the local economy of any tourism business. The cruise industry challenges this, saying its research puts the daily spend of cruise passengers in port at more than $100 a day.

But it’s the environmental impact of cruise ships that provokes the most concern. In May, a total of 125 cruise ships docked in Barcelona. While there each one burns 12 times the energy of a comparable land-based hotel, according to a study from the University of Exeter.

In 2017, cruise ships in Europe produced 10 times the amount of sulphur oxide emissions as the continent’s 260mn cars, says Transport and Environment. A cleaning system known as scrubbers, which removes sulphur from the ship’s exhaust to comply with a cap put in place by the International Maritime Organization in 2020, will have reduced this figure. This is largely achieved, however, by collecting the air pollution and disposing of it at sea to the detriment of marine life.

“It’s absurd that everyone in the city is making efforts to reduce emissions while we have a cruise highway in the harbour,” says Sanz.

Disembarking passengers pulling red wheelie suitcases walk past Wonder of the Seas
While in port, each cruise ship burns 12 times the energy of a comparable land-based hotel © Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

The CLIA says that cruise lines were the first in the maritime sector to publicly commit to reducing the rate of carbon emissions 40 per cent by 2030. And at COP26 last year, Carnival was one of 500 organisations to sign the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, committing to halving its emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050.

The industry has vowed to power its boats when in port using electricity from 2030 in line with incoming EU regulations. But only a third of global cruise ships have the technology to support it and, currently, there are only seven berths across Europe’s 350 cruise ports equipped to accommodate it.

Faig Abbasov, the shipping programme director at Transport & Environment, says the cruise industry’s ESG agenda amounts to nothing more than a “smokescreen”.

“Given its resources, I would put the cruise industry at the bottom of any ranking for environmental consciousness,” adds Abbasov. Industry figures point to an IMO study that says cruises account for just 3 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.

Floating cities

Even as Barcelona’s mayor turns the screw on the cruise industry, two new cruise terminals are under construction down in the port.

The first new terminal, costing €33mn, is a diagonal glass building designed by Ricardo Bofill, the Catalan architect behind the city’s sail-shaped W hotel, and is owned by MSC, Europe’s biggest cruise operator. It will open in 2024 followed a year later by Royal Caribbean’s new terminal.

In 2018, the port of Barcelona agreed to limit the number of terminals to seven. But now the mayor, Colau, wants to follow the lead of Dubrovnik and Mallorca where local officials signed a memorandum of understanding with the cruise companies to limit the number of ships.

Currently, rules governing the port rest with the Catalan government and beyond the jurisdiction of City Hall, which is pressing for more say in how it operates. “We have always said that we are not a port with a city, we are a city with a port,” says Sanz, pointing to the city council taking control of the smaller Port Olympic as a sign of progress. Colau is up for re-election next year and onlookers expect the campaign to focus on the issue of overtourism.

Paul Peeters, a tourism sustainability professor at the Breda University of Applied Sciences, says greater awareness of the impact of tourism on climate change means people are “increasingly uncomfortable” with cruise ships, which he describes as “floating cities”.

“They’re not really modes of transport. They’re just very carbon-intensive hotels,” adds Peeters. “People are not taking them to get somewhere, they are just sitting on the ship and having their fun there.”

In Marseille, City Hall is looking at approved measures to crack down on car pollution, such as a low emission zone which starts in September, as a template to argue for increased regulation of cruise ships at its state-run port.

“How can we ask for such an effort on the part of our people, if at the same time they open their windows and see black smoke spilling out of a smokestack chimney of a ship,” says Laurent Lhardit, the city’s deputy mayor in charge of tourism. City Hall has offered to help fund a study into the impact of the air pollution caused by cruise ships on human health.

Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona, stands in the doorway of her office in City Hall
Ada Colau, Barcelona’s mayor, wants to restrict the number of cruise ships allowed into port © Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

A petition, launched by the mayor’s office last month, calls on the French government to introduce a regulated emissions control area in the Mediterranean Sea that would ban the worst offenders on days when air pollution peaks. So far, it has received almost 50,000 signatures.

“We are fighting a fairly powerful adversary — the cruise lobby,” adds Lhardit. “But we’ve been elected to try to solve problems, and one of the problems to be solved is that of cruise pollution.”

Earlier this year, CLIA unsuccessfully lobbied the IMO to amend the way carbon pollution scores are calculated for shipping companies, pushing for a rule change that would have boosted the cruise industry’s standing.

Laurent says the formula, which measures total emissions against the distance travelled, was “completely crazy” for cruise ships, which spend more time in port and don’t sail as far. This would negatively skew their scores, she adds.

In Palma de Mallorca, Jaume Garau, from local campaign group Platform Against MegaCruises, says the deals being struck to limit the number of ships works in the industry’s favour and should include a monthly cap on passenger numbers.

He thinks Barcelona and Marseille will struggle to tighten regulations. “The cruise companies know they will face pressure from other towns to do the same as they did here,” he adds. “But they won’t budge easily.”

Green credentials

The cruise industry touts its transition from heavy fuel oil to liquefied natural gas as a mark of its green credentials. LNG almost entirely eliminates sulphur emissions, cuts nitrogen oxide by 90 per cent and carbon emissions by 25 per cent. Only nine ships of the 272 currently in operation, however, are powered by LNG, rising to 26 by 2027.

Nick Rose, associate vice-president at Royal Caribbean in charge of environmental programmes, says that while LNG is “a step in the right direction, it’s not the answer” to the industry’s emissions problem.

A US-based NGO, the International Council on Clean Transportation, has also highlighted that engines fuelled by LNG leak unburned methane, a greenhouse gas that has a warming impact 80 times greater than carbon dioxide.

The industry’s most immediate challenge is how to pull off a switch to shoreside charging, instead of using fuel to power ships when docked, by 2030 to align with EU regulations, the FuelEU Maritime initiative.

Critics say cruise ship passengers don’t contribute to the local economies of ports they stop in with half of those who do disembark spending less than $25 © Quique Garcia/EPA-EFE

Isabelle Ryckbost, secretary-general of the European Sea Ports Organisation, an industry body that represents more than 500 of the continent’s seaports, says that ports will struggle to keep up.

“Cruise companies should not overestimate what a port can do,” says Ryckbost. “Having onshore power supply in the ports is having a plug, having cables that connect to the grid and then having enough power from the grid to feed the ship. That’s quite an undertaking.”

Bigger cruise ships can require up to 15 megawatts while at berth. “If you have five or six cruise ships at port at once, that can be like adding an extra neighbourhood to the electricity grid,” she adds.

But the industry is “not just paying lip service” to the transition to shoreside charging, according to CLIA’s Laurent. In Marseille, the mayor has approved £10mn of investment to expand the city’s electricity grid, and since 2019 the cruise companies have committed £5mn.

The industry is also searching for a viable replacement to fossil fuels. Earlier this year, a 1,300-passenger, battery-powered cruise ship entered service on China’s Yangtze river. Viking Cruises have promised a partially hydrogen-powered boat by the end of 2024.

The world’s largest electric cruise ship, sails in the Xiling Gorge of the Yangtze River in Yichan
Ships powered by hydrogen or batteries, such as China’s Three Gorges 1, the word’s largest electric cruise ship, are possible alternatives to those powered by fossil fuels © Costfoto/Future Publishing/Getty Images

“The cruise line industry has not done itself a lot of good” on the issue of overtourism and environmental impact, says Torstein Hagan, the founder and chair of Viking Cruises. “We’ve spent more time on this than anybody else . . . our philosophy is we’d rather do than talk.”

Back in Barcelona, the city council, the Catalan government and the port authority are set to hold talks again in September, and more limits on cruise ships for next summer are on the agenda. Wonder of the Seas will stay in Barcelona until October before heading to the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the war of words continues.

“Some people would like my city to be free of this kind of tourism, but they are the minority,” says Calvet, adding that reneging on compromises with the cruise industry would be bad form.

“We are seeing more and bigger ships [despite] fewer terminals. This cannot be the model for Barcelona,” says Sanz, the deputy mayor. “There must be rules and they must be obeyed because they . . . affect coexistence, public services and, above all, the environment.”

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