New report finds that the cruise industry is more environmentally responsible than they've been in the past.

The cruise ship image, long tarnished by reports of octogenarian sex, violent shuffle-boarding and, of course, the illegal dumping of waste materials in ecologically precarious oceans, may be due for a revision, says a new report.

The study, issued by environmentally-conscious non-profit Conservation International‘s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), finds that in many cases, cruise lines are cooperating well with local governments to minimize ecological damage caused by the roaming tourists they carry.

“Some 70% of cruise destinations are in biodiversity hotspots, primarily the Mediterranean and the Caribbean basin,” Jamie Sweeting, senior director for travel and leisure at CELB and coauthor of their “From Ship to Shore” report. “And we wanted to look at what actually happens when all those millions of passengers get off of the ships in these locations in these key biodiversity areas.”

Their study focused not merely on the cruise lines themselves, but also on the interactions between local governments, community groups and NGOs, as well as the local industries that serve tourists.

“All of these players,” Sweeting said, “have a vested interest in protecting the cultural and natural aspects of the places that they’re doing business in.”

CELB found that many cruise lines were taking positive action to protect local habitats, including setting up funds to maintain cultural and ecological environments and offering programs on board that educated passengers in appropriate behavior and local customs.

One example of a successful collaboration was in Belize, where the government has initiated a Protected Areas Conservation Trust that is paid for with tax money from cruise passengers and other tourists, and goes to support the preservation of Belize’s rainforests. Sweeting admitted that his report focused on the positive but claimed that providing examples to replicate was more helpful than criticizing.

In the 1990s, cruise lines were accused of dumping vast amounts of waste products into the oceans, harming the delicate ecosystems of marine wildlife. CELB’s first article on cruise ships, published in 2003, looked at onboard ecological disasters like waste product dumping, concluding that the picture was not so grim as had originally been thought: Many major cruise companies were taking steps to reduce dangerous emissions and were abiding by international and US laws on water dumping and waste disposal.

“Even though the popular press would make it sound like the cruise industry was not a good environmental steward,” Sweeting said, “we found that, while they had problems in the early and mid-‘90s, they’d really turned their businesses around and had some really good practices.”

Originally published March 22, 2006

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