‘Our planet is a blue planet: over 70% of it is covered by the sea. The Pacific Ocean alone covers half the globe. You can fly across it non-stop for twelve hours and still see nothing more than a speck of land.’
So said David Attenborough in the Blue Planet television series, piquing our fascination with the earth’s oceans: from familiar shores to the mysteries of its deepest seas. Cruise travelling, operating over some of the world’s most fragile eco-systems, historically has a less than glowing reputation when it comes to sustainable practices, but change is afoot in the industry. A trip to the Caribbean with P&O shows how cruise companies are teaming up with Jonathon Porrit’s Forum for the Future in the Sustainable Shipping Initiative. From opportunities to see whales, dolphins and parrots close up, to the shore line excursions with a green conscience, the company offers a glimpse at how existing travel sectors can begin to make the transition towards more sustainable practices.
Sitting watching fishermen return with their day’s catch, the sun setting over the palm-fringed golden sand beach, it is difficult to imagine a place more befitting the tag ‘paradise’. It’s easy to become blasé about this kind of scene when travelling around the Caribbean and I had nine islands to get used to waking up to the kind of views you assume have been photoshopped before being pasted up on holiday agents’ windows. From the majestic twin peaks of the volcanic Pitons in St Lucia, to cascading waterfalls in St Vincent, the grand-scale, virgin rainforest in Dominica, not to mention the beauty of the tropical fish-laden sea which you travel across between islands, the Caribbean provides a hi-resolution, multisensory reminder of the beauty of our planet.
Cruising is a luxurious and tranquil way to travel. It provides a near stress-free experience for passengers with everything provided accompanied by a smile; from breakfast overlooking the new port of the day to shore excursions as well as beautifully-prepared five course meals and entertainment in the evening. For those who are older or for whom mobility issues prevent them from throwing on a backpack and travelling the world under their own steam, they are perfectly suited. But with such luxury comes a price. Critics have been quick to point out the cruise industry’s unsustainable elements, from the carbon dioxide and pollution emitted by the ships, to the fact that many passengers first fly to their cruising destination, compounding their carbon footprint.
However, one thing is for sure. The cruise industry isn’t going to disappear any time fast. Worldwide, it has grown by an annual average of seven per cent each year since 1990 with almost 21 million passengers taking to the seas on cruise ships in 2013 alone. And all this despite the economic downturn. With its ships travelling over some of the world’s most fragile eco-systems, P&O’s owner Carnival Group joined the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI). Established by Forum for the Future and the WWF but now a standalone charity, this brings together leading companies from around the world, including ship owners, charterers, operators, builders, engineers and even financiers to discuss how the shipping industry can reduce its environmental footprint. Rightly so, scrutiny of the industry has been stepped up, and change seems to be afoot.
Shipping giant Maersk recently launched the 400m long Majestic Maersk, the first of a new generation of ships called Triple-E: their three design principles being economy of scale, energy efficient and environmentally improved. The SSI aims to achieve its vision of a shipping industry, which is both profitable and sustainable, by 2040. It has already put several practical programmes into place, including providing the industry with a finance model for large-scale retrofits of fuel-saving technologies and running three pilot schemes to demonstrate how 97% of the materials used in the construction of a ship can be logged and tracked.
Carnival UK are also founding partner of Tourism 2023, backed by Forum of the Future and supported by DEFRA. As Sublime’s regular will be more than aware of, climate change, population growth, shortages of oil and other resources will have dramatic impacts on how we live at all, perhaps the least of which will be how – and even if – people travel. Tourism 2023 brings together big-hitters like British Airways, Thomas Cook and The Co-Operative Travel to answer such questions as: ‘Will mass tourism, swollen by the Chinese and Indian middle classes, cause huge overcrowding in popular destinations? Will soaring oil prices make air travel so expensive that families have to save for years to fly abroad? Will we see Doomsday tourism, with visitors rushing to see glaciers and coral reefs before they’re gone for good? Or will household carbon quotas see Britons go back to holidaying at home?’
The scenarios were illustrated in four animations by students at Goldsmiths College in London and then posed to the companies to bear in mind while trying to plot a way forward.
One of the solutions most often proposed when trying to define the future of tourism is eco-tourism. Though a concept with multiple interpretations and often used in its most loose sense to promote questionable holidaying practices, at its heart it seems to make good sense. Taking the Caribbean as an example, where so-called ‘peasant producers’ of crops such as bananas have been out-competed by growers in India and Africa, it feels right to envisage a new type of tourism.
Something along the lines of a community of local residents, perhaps among them fishermen and farmers, acting as guides and wardens of the environment which provides such a draw to so many, and will continue to do so if it is allowed to flourish. Not only would this help poor communities to survive, but it would place the region’s eco-system at the heart of its future: wildlife conservation would become automatic, given its role to support the tourism industry.
Glimpses of this were visible on all the Caribbean islands we visited. Leroy, 45, a father of four, who lives in Scotland during the Scottish summer and returns to the tiny island of St Vincent to work as a taxi driver come guide during the tourist season, explained that he sees the island’s natural beauty as its prime attraction. ‘You can go to the bars on the beach or look around the shops, but I always encourage visitors to let me show them the island’s real sights,’ he explained as he negotiated the steep, winding road out of the port of Kingstown.
‘Everyone says their island is the most beautiful in the Caribbean but St Vincent really is. We have rainforests, waterfalls, incredible beaches and a volcano. It can be difficult to make enough money because a lot of the bigger companies dominate what tourists choose to do, but I think that can change. I absolutely love coming here every year. This is the place to be.’
Whether it is scouring the horizon for whales on sea days, identifying the neon-coloured fish, which tickle your toes as you swim in the shallows, or spotting the myriad species of exotic birds in the Caribbean’s lush and seemingly underrated rainforests, cruising offers opportunities for some truly excellent wildlife watching. P&O has already incorporated animal conservation into some of its cruise routes, offering passengers a chance to witness the release of baby turtles in Mexico, for example, as well as visit a donkey sanctuary in Antigua and a sea turtle conservation centre in the Thai city of Laem Chabang. Ideas such as these, though they represent a small step in the great scheme of things, seem promising in their ability to foster a sense of responsibility to the landscape and the natural world in which passengers travel.
As we come together globally to consider a resource-straightened future which will be so different to today’s reality, we will be forced to rethink how we holiday, how we travel the world and indeed, how we value our planet and its fragile natural beauty. We are at a time of transition, and as such, bodies like the SSI – taking a pragmatic yet positive approach to greening and positive change in global industries – are crucial. Whether it is our exquisite oceans, virgin forested mountainsides or the flora and fauna, which inhabit them, we will be forced to shift the way we view our delicate yet ever-giving planet. We need to be bigger, and bolder but a start is a start, and we must begin with foundations for a new way of exploring the world.