The Cost of Cruising

Big shiploads of tourists pour a lot of pollution, but less and less money, into BC. And working conditions on board are hard.

By Ross A. Klein 21 May 2010 | The Vancouver Observer

Ross A. Klein is an international authority on the cruise ship industry and a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is online at www.cruisejunkie.com and www.cruiseresearch.org. A version of this article was first published by the Vancouver Observer -- "All local, all the time."

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Photo courtesy of troutworks, contributor to Your BC: The Tyee's photo pool.

[Editor's note: The Tyee is pleased to begin today a weekly feature showcasing the best of the Vancouver Observer, an online source of news, culture and blogs whose motto is, "All local -- all the time." This article, and 11 more to come, will better acquaint you with the V.O., one of B.C.'s independent media success stories in the making.]

Another cruise season is upon Vancouver. Long-time residents will recall when cruise tourism was a major feature on the city's waterfront -- at its peak, more than 340 ships bringing more than 1.125 million passengers.

Today, the numbers are much less -- 256 ships in 2009. Although the port spent $49 million in the early 2000s to redevelop Ballantyne Terminal, based on expectations of continued growth in cruise ship visits, in 2010 all cruise ships will dock at Canada Place; none at Ballantyne Pier. 

The City of Vancouver has spent millions of dollars to accommodate cruise ships, but the number of cruise ships has decreased significantly. It isn't that these ships are not visiting British Columbia -- most must in order to comply with U.S. laws that require a cruise ship with an itinerary involving U.S. ports to include at least one foreign port. Instead of Vancouver, which used to be the homeport for most ships visiting Alaska, many ships now leave from Seattle and use Victoria to satisfy requirements under U.S. law.

Seattle has grown from no cruise ship visits in 1999 to 100 in 2002 and to 223 in 2009. Victoria has seen a growth similar to Seattle, from 34 calls in 1999, 110 in 2002, and 228 in 2009. 

So Vancouver's loss has been Victoria's gain. However, the migration of ships has a negative impact on the economy of British Columbia. Most ships calling at Vancouver in 2002 were home-ported in the city, meaning passengers started and ended their cruise in Vancouver. They stayed at hotels, dined at restaurants, and visited sites pre- and/or post-cruise. They used taxis and had time to visit and spend money in stores. Their economic impact was significant.

The impact is much smaller for the number of ships that today use Vancouver or Victoria as a port of call rather than a home port. Passengers stop in Vancouver for eight hours or so and then continue on to their next port. The ship is their hotel, their restaurant, and a venue for shopping and entertainment. This fact is particularly an issue in Victoria, where over 80 per cent of cruise ship visits occur between 6:00 p.m. and midnight, the last night of the cruise. The economic impact is only a fraction of what is generated when a ship homeports in a city. 

Shrinking tourism dollars

Meanwhile, the average income of cruise passengers visiting Vancouver has dropped, and more of that money is spent aboard ship than 10 years ago. In fact, a cruise ship earns more money from passenger spending on-board than from ticket sales. In 2007, each cruise passenger's on-board spending accounted for $43 per day in the cruise line's net profit (more than $300 a week); the figure is significantly higher today. A big reason is that passengers have less reason to buy souvenirs and other items ashore because ships offer more shopping venues, increasingly sell the same products available in ports, and guarantee they will not be undersold. 

Another dent in passenger spending ashore comes when cruise ships take significant commissions for sales in stores they promote onboard as "preferred" – as much as 40 per cent of gross sales.

Cruise ships often also keep half or more of what passengers spend for shore excursions -- the tours passengers buy on board or through the cruise line for which the cruise line then hires a local tour provider.

That business arrangement can end up hurting a port's reputation as a great tourist destination. How? A passenger spending $50 for a tour expects a $50 product; but the tour provider is being paid $25 or less and can't provide a $50 product. If a passenger is unhappy, they will blame the tour provider and the greediness of Vancouver; they will not blame the cruise line. One cruise line reports that 30 per cent of its net profit is derived from sale of shore excursions. 

Garbage, sewage and graywater 
Cruise ships today are small cities and they produce all of the refuse and waste produced in a city. Unfortunately, cruise ships are not held to the same standards as cities when it comes to incinerators, fuel usage, sewage and waste water treatment; more serious is that their practices are not subject to the same level of oversight and enforcement as is common on land. Let's look at some of the common waste streams produced by a cruise ship.  

There is black water, otherwise known as human sewage. This is the waste from cruise ship toilets and medical facilities. A cruise ship produces more than eight gallons of sewage per day per person. The cumulative amount per day for a mid-sized ship is more than 40,000 gallons; almost 300,000 gallons on a one week cruise. These wastes contain harmful bacteria, pathogens, disease, viruses, intestinal parasites and harmful nutrients. If not adequately treated, they can cause bacterial and viral contamination of fisheries and shellfish beds. In addition, nutrients in sewage, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, promote algal growth. Algae consume oxygen in the water that can be detrimental or lethal to fish and other aquatic life.  

In Canada, sewage treated by a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD) can be discharged beyond four miles of the shore; sewage treated by an Advanced Wastewater Treatment System (AWTS) is unregulated. MSDs have been found to not perform up to standards, producing results labeled by Alaska's governor as "disgusting and disgraceful." The waste from an AWTS is considerably better, however there are still problems with nutrient loading and with inadequate treatment of constituents such as ammonia, zinc, copper, phosphorous, and nitrogen. In 2009, 72 per cent of the ships permitted to discharge waste from an AWTS in Alaska were found at least once to be out of compliance with Alaska Water Quality Standards. 

A second type of waste water is gray water. Its release is unregulated in Canada, which is out of step with our neighbours to the north (Alaska) and south (Washington), where there are clear regulations. Gray water is waste water from sinks, showers, galleys, laundry, and cleaning activities aboard a ship. It is the largest source of liquid waste from a cruise ship: as much as 90 gallons per day per person; nearly half a million gallons per day for a mid-sized ship.

Like sewage, gray water can contain a variety of pollutants. These include fecal coliform bacteria, detergents, oil and grease, metals, organic petroleum hydrocarbons, nutrients, food waste and medical and dental waste. The greatest threat posed by gray water is from nutrients and other oxygen-demanding materials.

Leaving a wake of waste

The cruise industry characterizes gray water as innocuous, at worst. A 2008 report from the U.S. EPA disagrees, stating that "untreated graywater... can contain levels of fecal coliform bacteria several times greater than is typically found in untreated domestic wastewater [and] cause adverse environmental effects..."

Cruise ships also produce sewage sludge -- about 4,000 gallons per day. The sludge poses the same problem as sewage, but in a more concentrated form. Sludge and biosolids are not permitted for discharge within 12 miles of the shoreline in Washington, but in Canada it can be discharged beyond four miles. This means that cruise ships empty their holding tanks in Canadian waters before crossing into Washington state waters.

Cruise ships also produce huge volumes of solid waste -- as much as 3.5 kilograms per passenger per day -- accounting for 24 per cent of solid waste from all ocean-going vessels. Some of this waste is recycled, some is incinerated, and some is thrown into the ocean. As long as the waste can fit through a 2.5 centimetre screen it can be discharged beyond three miles from shore.

These food wastes can contribute to increases in biological oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, and total organic carbon, diminish water and sediment quality, adversely affect marine biota, increase turbidity, and elevate nutrient levels. They may be detrimental to fish digestion and health and cause nutrient pollution. An additional problem with discharging food waste at sea is the inadvertent discharge of plastics.

Ash on the ocean breeze

Waste incinerated on board pose two problems. First, incinerator ash can be dumped into the ocean as long as the ship is beyond four miles from shore in Canada. This is contrary to recommendations from the International Maritime Commission saying that incinerator ash should be landed ashore given the constituents of the ash. Second, the air emissions from incinerators can contain furans and dioxins, both found to be carcinogenic, as well as heavy metal and other toxic residues. The Canadian government has specifications for on board incinerators, but there are no regulations regarding where these incinerators may operate, and there is limited if any enforcement of the specifications. 

Another serious issue regarding cruise ship waste is air emissions from engines. This will be addressed by the North American Emission Control Area, recently approved by the International Maritime Organization, which will come into effect in 2015. At that point, ships will not be permitted to burn fuel of 0.1 per cent sulphur content in Canadian and U.S. territorial waters. However, until then ships transiting the Inside Passage normally burn fuel of 1.8 per cent sulphur content. This dirtier fuel negatively impacts the environment and has serious implications for human health. According to the U.S. EPA, "The sulfur, particulate emissions and other harmful pollutants from large ships reach from our ports to communities hundreds of miles inland -- bringing with them health, environmental and economic burdens. Cleaning up our shipping lanes will be a boon to communities across North America."

Canada's soft enforcement

The polluting waste streams from cruise ships is one issue. However, equally serious is that the government of Canada has lower thresholds and is less vigilant in enforcing the regulations in place than are either Alaska or Washington. While Alaska has levied fines for more than 120 violations of air emission and water discharge standards over the past two years, and while Washington State has stringent regulations and enforcement, Canada appears to be unconcerned about cruise ship waste.

No cruise ships have been fined for environmental violations by the government of Canada. Are we to believe that ships caught violating laws in Washington and Alaska are abiding by Canadian regulations?

Job conditions aboard ship

Aside from economic and environmental issues, there are moral issues that concern some cruise passengers and cruise critics. One of these issues relates to those who work on cruise ships – an issue brought to the forefront by social action campaigns by Vancouver-based Pirates of Justice.

The issue is that cruise ships employ many workers from developing countries, at wages that may be reasonable by their home country standards but quite low by standards in North America. Most cruise ship workers have a mandatory 77 hour work week. They have no days off, and their contracts can run from three or four months for officers, to six or seven months for European workers, to 11 or 12 months for workers from Asia or Latin America.

Salaries also vary widely depending on the worker's country of origin and work role. While service personnel (waiters and room stewards) may earn a reasonable income -- as much as $1500 a month including gratuities -- others earn considerably less; in many cases $500 a month or less. It isn't only long hours for low pay, but the living conditions of crew members provide little privacy, and the food served is often limited and does not include sufficient fresh fruits and vegetables. Some cruise lines allocate 50 per cent less per person for the crew member's food budget than for the passenger budget – as low as $5 or $6 a day. 

Weigh the costs as well as benefits

Cruise tourism is a benefit to the Vancouver economy, however its value is considerably less today than it was a decade ago. While the cruise corporations are generating ever larger profits -- Carnival Corporation earns more than $2.25 billion per year in net profits and pays virtually no corporate income tax in the U.S. or Canada -- ports such as Vancouver and Victoria see less and less economic benefit.

At the same time, the cities and their surrounding region must grapple with cruise ship pollution (as well as people pollution/crowding from the volume of embarking and disembarking cruise passengers) and with social issues and problems associated with cruise tourism.

City officials and citizens need to be more attentive to the benefits and the costs, and they should be more proactive in protecting their economic, environmental, and other interests.  [Tyee]

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