symphony of the seas

Cruise Ship Pollution in the Caribbean

Cruise ships are recreational sea vessels that allow people to travel to various destinations while providing entertainment, accommodation, meals, and many more services on board. The Caribbean is a popular cruise destination bringing both benefits and drawbacks to the local population. This post explores the cruise industry, its importance in the Caribbean. Most importantly, it looks into how the cruise ships endanger marine life and harm the marine ecosystem, thus posing environmental, social and economic challenges to the Caribbean.


What are cruise ships?

A cruise ship is a large recreational ship that provides leisure and entertainment to passengers onboard. The cruise allows people to travel to various destinations and enjoy experiences according to their interests for a certain duration of time, which could last a few days or weeks. The trip starts at a port and ends at the same port. The ships are equipped with amenities to provide accommodation, meals, and entertainment for passengers onboard.


Brief evolution of cruise ships 

1815, steamboats were made to transport goods and passengers. A few years later, the royalty would set off for voyages in private steamboats for leisure. Cruising as we know it has been around since 1844 when the company, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company first offered sea tours to various destinations around Europe. Then in the early 1900s, the first ship only for the purpose of cruising, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise was built in Germany.

prinzessin victoria luise
Image of the Prinzessin Victoria Luise. Image Credit:Cruise Line History

Over time, as travelling became a popular activity, cruise ships were the preferable choice as that was the common mode of transport to travel across countries. When jet aeroplanes emerged in the 1960s, the demand for these ships declined. In the 1980s, ships began adding the value of entertainment along with transporting people from one destination to another. As a result, large ships with spas, bars, casinos, retail outlets, restaurants, swimming pools, gyms, etc. were built.


Reasons for Cruising 

Today, many decide to go on a cruise holiday to travel to destinations that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit, for relaxation and leisure in a luxurious setting, the vast choices of available activities and, mostly because of the value. The all-in-one experience that includes not only transportation costs and arrangement but also meals, accommodation, and entertainment, makes it worth the cost of the trip.

inside a cruise ship
Interiors of a modern cruise ship. Image Credit: Royal Caribbean

Though there are several types of cruise ship and experiences based on budget and interests, it is safe to say that a boat ride in the middle of the sea with all possible amenities feels luxurious no matter the type. As such special occasions such as honeymoons, weddings, proposals, Christmas, and birthdays become motivations to cruise. It isn’t limited to celebrations; post-retirement, summer holidays or any sort of spare time also encourage people to go on ocean cruises.


The Cruise Industry 

Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, the cruise industry was one of the fastest-growing sectors within the tourism and hospitality industry. The industry, as of 2018 was worth USD150 billion providing services to approximately 28.5 million people every year. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Carnival Corporation & plc.,  Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises are some of the major cruise companies in the business. Popular cruise lines such as P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International all operate under the aforementioned companies.

The cruise industry definitely plays an important role in tourism as it is a tourism product that caters to a large group of people, notably the affluent.

Popular Cruise Destinations 

The most popular destinations are the ports cities and islands in the Mediterranean and of course, the Caribbean. Initially, people in North America would look for warmer places to visit during the winter holidays, so, the Caribbean islands became a popular choice for them. Similarly, in Europe, the warmer Mediterranean climate would attract travellers from across Europe to escape the colder weather elsewhere. Port cities in North America, Asia and Oceania are also interesting destinations. More recently, destinations with colder climates such as the Nordic countries and Alaska have also become popular cruise destinations.

As this post focuses on the Caribbean as a cruise destination, let us dive into the cruise industry and its effects in the region.

The Caribbean is the most preferred cruise destination, with cruise companies offering choices of several itineraries and at least 24 types of ships to board. Most of the cruise lines offer trips to the Caribbean and some, like the Symphony of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world and managed by the Royal Caribbean International, go there all year round. The most popular time to vacation in the Caribbean is between December and April.


The Caribbean

The Caribbean is a region with approximately 7000 islands and 28 sovereign countries and overseas territories located around the Caribbean Sea. The area lies southeast of the Gulf of Mexico, north of the South American continent and west of the Atlantic Ocean.

Map of the Caribbean region. Image Credit: Workers World

Some of the Caribbean countries and territories include Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados, The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, UK and US Virgin Islands, Belize, Aruba, The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Curacao, Sint Maarten, Grenadine, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti, etc.


Why visit the Caribbean?

People visit the Caribbean primarily because of its weather as the tropical climate ranges from 25 to 35 degrees Celsius all year round.

It is also sought after for its natural landscapes consisting of sunny sandy beaches with clear blue waters, rivers, mountains, jungles, and volcanoes. Its flora and fauna onshore and underwater also attract tourists from around the globe.

The coral reefs in the area are an element of curiosity that encourage water sports such as scuba diving and snorkelling. Moreover, there are even opportunities for other outdoor activities such as plantation tours, trekking, zip-lining, climbing, and cycling.

Lastly, depending on the type of tourist, many go there to experience the unique and diverse culture. Their culture has African influences due to the large population of immigrants and European influences due to colonization by the Spanish, English, French and Dutch. These influences are seen in their music, dance, museums, architecture and of course the lifestyle and languages spoken by the locals.

pitons, st. lucia
The Pitons, the conic twin volcanic plugs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in St. Lucia.. Image Credit: PlanetWare.


Cruise Industry and The Caribbean 


Why cruise to the Caribbean? 

People choose to cruise to the Caribbean for the reasons mentioned earlier however with the added experience of being in a fun cruise ship and to celebrate special occasions, notably honeymoons and marriage proposals.

They also decide to board a cruise ship as the travel itineraries arranged by the companies stop at different islands, some more popular while some more remote. Therefore, allowing people to visit places that would otherwise not come to mind. This also makes the trip more flexible in case of emergencies such as political unrests, bad weather, diseases, etc.

Another reason is that most of the Caribbean nations, the outlets in the cruise ship and the embarkation and disembarkation port in Miami, Florida, accept the US dollar, meaning only one kind of currency is required to visit all a bunch of places, making it more convenient for passengers to purchase items.


The Benefit to The Caribbean 

Apart from the amusement of tourists, the locals also benefit from the cruise journeys to the Caribbean. Tourist expenditures generate revenue for the locations and generate employment opportunities. Cruise tourism expenditure in the Caribbean amounted to USD 3366 million and employed nearly 7900 people in 2018. Shopping especially is promoted as the most popular activity both by the islands and the cruise companies thus, promoting expenditure.

A shop in The Bahamas. Image Credit: The Telegraph


Negative Impacts 

The impacts of cruise tourism in the Caribbean are not all positive. There are downsides to it too that threaten the unique ecosystems and pristine waters. The Caribbean region has been one of the badly affected victims of cruise ship pollution in the world.

Cruise ship pollution refers to noise, air and water pollution caused by the waste generated by the cruise ships.

They are known to emit 10 times the amount of Sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere than vehicles on roads and even just 1 ship is capable of generating as many pollutants as 700 trucks. The exhausts from the engines contribute to the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. When this combines with water is one of the chemicals that cause acid rain, which in turn alters the marine environment and even harms coral reefs.

Underwater noise pollution by the cruise ships also affects whale and dolphins, which in turn modifies the marine ecosystem.

The main reasons, however, behind marine pollution are the type of fuel that they use for the ships and, the waste generated within them.



The fuel is a type of cheap oil known as bunker fuel, that contains heavy amounts of carcinogens, heavy metals. Some countries have strict environmental standards regarding the fuel and, will impose a heavy fine if violated. As such, many cruise ships use open-loop scrubbers to cheat, showing that the standards are met on the surface, but really, pollutants are released into the sea.

Countries like Norway, Singapore and China prohibit the use of scrubbers for their own waters but have no such restriction in international water. That is why the Caribbean is susceptible to the release of these oils.

The amount of required fuel is in large volumes, up to 250 tonnes of fuel per day. Often cruises last 1 week on average and cleaner fuel is expensive so, companies are compelled to stick with cheap fuel to reduce costs.


Types of waste

The waste generated by the ships are categorized into the following:

Ballast Water: Ships fill their ballast tanks with salt water or fresh water to aid the vessel in navigation and maintain stability, especially when there is insufficient cargo. The water is re-filled and released between ports or stopping points. Sometimes marine animals and plants are carried along with the water, as it is drawn and released in different places. Consequently, these organisms are introduced to different marine environments and at times, could deem invasive to the native marine habitat. Moreover, they could also carry diseases such as cholera causing food poisoning to the people of the Caribbean, who depend on the sea for their survival.

Blackwater or sewage: This pollutant contains human waste collected from toilets. Approximately  795,000 litres of it is generated into the oceans in a week.

Greywater: This refers to liquid waste collected from laundries, sinks, showers, kitchens, etc. These consist of chemicals from cleaning products. 3.8 million litres of it is generated per week.

Bilgewater: This refers to the oily water that is released through a piping system meant to get rid of water collected due to condensation from within the ship. It also refers to the release of fuel oil as a result of the occasional accidents and faulty engines directly leak fuel into the oceans. Cruise ships generate 95,000 litres of bilge water on average.

Toxic waste: Includes paint, batteries, electronics, pharmaceutical products, etc. that release highly toxic chemicals into the seas. This forms 500 litres of the total waste produced.

Garbage: This includes solid waste such as aluminium, paper, glass and, perishable products like food, etc. 8 tonnes of it is produced by cruise ships.


The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships or the MARPOL convention, International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships in 1973 restricts the dumping of pollutants especially by oil, sewage and toxic liquids and plastics. Moreover, waste is supposed to be treated or incinerated using facilities within the ship before releasing them into the ocean. Unfortunately, this is not always what happens. Cruise companies need to carry their weeks’ worth of trash and pay an amount for their disposal. Some ports, especially in the smaller islands, lack the infrastructural facilities to process and manage the waste, due to financial constraints.

Plus, many find it a hassle to actually treat the waste before dumping it so, they illegally dispose of the waste into the ocean. Many major cruise lines have been guilty of this crime and have even been penalized for it.

It is interesting to note that, in the Caribbean, cruise ships are allowed to dump any treated waste, except plastic 40km from the shoreline.


The Problem

Pollution is a human activity and affects a large group of humans in the Caribbean, making it a social and economic issue along with an environmental one.

The waste disposed of usually contain bacteria, algae and organisms that alter the marine ecosystem and the quality of water in the Caribbean region. The debris of the waste remains on the ocean floor while the lighter one’s float on the surface. The waste doesn’t just stay put in the Caribbean Sea, it is carried to the Atlantic Ocean from where it is further transported, all the way to the other side of the world.

Clusters of litter, mainly plastic floating in the Caribbean Sea, are excellent spots for mosquitos carrying diseases like dengue, zika and chikungunya thus, posing a health issue to the local population.

plastic pollution
Plastic pollution in the Caribbean Sea. Image Credit: Inside Hook

The waters are crucial for the tourism industry and fishing industry. The islands with poor waste processing facilities find it difficult to maintain their waters hence, also finding trouble to stay in businesses. This is because tourists expect to see clear pristine waters in this area. Once they don’t find what they expect, the destination no longer remains desirable.

The local population in the islands, also depend on the waters for fish, the staple food in the Caribbean cuisines and the main source of protein. Pollutants harm marine life, also includes fish thus, limiting the source of food, and hampering the fishing industry.

jamaican fried fish
Jamaican fried fish with salsa and rice. Image Credit: JCSKitchen

The mangroves and corals that maintain the local marine ecosystem are contaminated by pollutants. Plus, cruise ship anchors in the Grand Cayman even destroyed nearly 1.2 million square metres of coral reef.

Corals prevent coastal erosion and absorb wave energy, protecting the coastlines from the impact of hurricanes, which are prevalent in the Caribbean region. The islanders not only depend on the corals for protection but also for nutrition, employment and spirituality.

Coral reefs in the Caribbean. Image Credit: Fox Magazine


Tackling the Issue 

To tackle this issue of pollution, many organizations and experts suggest that there is a requirement for policy reforms related to dumping pollutants in the oceans. There is also a need for cruise ships to install new and updated technologies to process as much of the waste on board without much hassle. The Symphony of the Seas ship is a good example of their methods and technologies of treated waste.

There is a need to invest in infrastructure to establish waste management and treatment, recycling, disposal facilities and clean-ups, especially in the smaller Caribbean ports.

Public educational campaigns to raise awareness of the value and importance of the environment and, the consequences for not acting on it, is another requirement.

There have also been talks on banning bunker fuel to the less polluting liquified natural gas. However, switching to fossil fuel will just further contribute to the ongoing global climate change crisis.

So far, 14 Caribbean countries have banned the use of plastic and Styrofoam and, have begun to raise awareness campaigns and working toward policy reforms to control marine pollution.

For the protection of the marine ecosystem, there are plans to dock ships away from sensitive areas such as places with a high coral population and continental shelves.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several cruise services have halted while some continue with restrictions ensuring the health and safety of the passengers in place. Though the effects of marine pollution remain due to other shipping activities, the effects on the marine environment in these tourist destinations have been positive such as the reduction of underwater noise pollution allowing whales to return and thrive. It is important to understand however that banning cruise services aren’t the solution here but, a more sustainable approach to operating them is.


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