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Responsible Tourism: Can Cruise Ships Deliver Sustainable Travel?

Welcoming a record 29.7 million passengers in 2019, the cruise industry caters for a significant number of travelers each year and is one of the most popular ways to vacation (Statista, 2021). While the COVID-19 pandemic saw passenger numbers plummet, the industry is experiencing a steady resurgence, with 96% year-on-year growth in 2021 (Nilson, 2022).

Like all travel operators, cruise lines are consistently looking for ways to increase bookings and meet passenger expectations, and the rising popularity of responsible tourism and sustainable travel presents new and exciting opportunities for cruise lines.

What Is Responsible Tourism and Sustainable Travel?

Responsible Tourism

Responsible tourism can be described as, “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit” and the responsible tourism definition was laid down in the Cape Town declaration as travel and tourism which:

  • “minimizes negative economic, environmental and social impacts;
  • generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry;
  • involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life changes;
  • makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world's diversity;
  • provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues;
  • provide access for people with disabilities and the disadvantaged;
  • is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.”

Sustainable Travel

Sustainable travel has a broader definition and typically refers to transportation methods that have zero, minimal or reduced negative environmental impacts. A sustainable traveler may choose to explore their destination on foot, by bike or using an electric vehicle, rather than relying on fossil fuels, for example. Similarly, sustainable travel incorporates the transportation methods people use to facilitate a vacation or trip. Traveling by boat can be a more sustainable option than flying due to the reduced carbon emissions, for example.


Although the terms ‘responsible tourism’ and ‘sustainable travel’ are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between the two. In general, however, both responsible tourism and sustainable travel are concerned with reducing and eliminating environmental damage and enhancing our surroundings.

How Popular is Responsible Travel and Sustainable Tourism?

There are lots of factors to consider when making travel-related decisions but sustainability is becoming increasingly important amongst consumers. At the Travel Weekly Sustainability Summit, Google reported a 70% rise in the number of searches for sustainable travel options in 2021 yet 37% of survey respondents ‘do not know how to make their travel choices more sustainable.’ (Travel Weekly, 2021).

Similarly, research published by digital travel company, Booking.com, confirms that 81% of the 30,000 travelers surveyed cite sustainable travel as ‘important to them’ and 71% want to travel more sustainably in the next 12 months. Crucially, 51% of respondents view ‘lower-to-no CO2 transportation emissions as a key element of sustainable travel and 40% actively look for sustainability information when booking transportation (Booking.com, 2022).


With the ecotourism industry forecast to grow significantly in upcoming years, reaching a value of $333.8 billion USD by 2027 (Statista, 2021), it’s clear that sustainability is becoming a key decision-making factor for consumers. As a result, transport and travel companies can not only capitalize on the rising trend of responsible tourism but must increase their sustainability efforts if they are to fulfill customer demand.

How Sustainable is the Cruise Industry?

The shipping industry in general accounts for 2.89% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (IMO, 4th GHG Study, 2020) but the cruise sector is estimated to produce just 0.2% of global CO2 emissions (Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard, 2018).

While tourism-related transport produces 1,597 million metric tonnes of CO2 per year, it is air transport that produces the most CO2 in relation to international travel and cars which produce the most CO2 in terms of domestic travel (Statista, 2021). However, this is likely to be due to the increased number of people traveling by plane or car in comparison to ships.

In fact, various studies have shown that cruising can produce more pollution than flying, based on ‘per passenger’ calculations (Geeky Explorer, 2020). The Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard, in conjunction with Griffith University, estimates that a cruise ship passenger accounts for 0.82 tonnes of CO2 emissions (GSTD, 2018), while a passenger taking a round-trip economy flight from Sweden to London accounts for 0.289 metric tonnes of CO2 (ICAO, 2022) and a passenger taking a round-trip economy flight from France to New York is responsible for 0.664 metric tonnes of CO2 (ICAO, 2022).

The data collection, methodology and route obviously have a bearing on the accuracy of ‘per passenger’ calculations but there’s no doubt that the shipping industry can, and should, enhance its environmental performance. In fact, many cruise ship operators are already embracing responsible tourism and making sustainable travel a reality:

Sustainable Travel Companies: Virgin Voyages

Determined to deliver an ‘Epic Sea Change For All’, Virgin Voyages is already increasing shipping sustainability and is well on its way to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Offering luxurious cruises to sustainable travel destinations in Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and elsewhere, Virgin Voyages’ ships are designed and built with sustainable travel in mind. 

Complete with Climeon HeatPower modules to generate clean, onboard electricity, Virgin Voyages is embracing the opportunity to promote responsible tourism, both at sea and on shore. 


Learn more about its operations and find out how cruise ships can become more energy efficient, take a look at our Virgin Voyages case study now.

Can Cruise Operators Deliver Sustainable Travel?

The decarbonization of the shipping industry and the increased demand for eco friendly travel points to a pivotal moment for cruise ship owners and operators. With 83% of travelers maintaining that sustainable travel is important, a cultural and worldwide shift in the way we view travel and tourism appears to be underway. In response, travel companies must increase their sustainability to fulfill demand for responsible tourism options.

When surveyed, however, global travelers cited the cruise sector as making the least effort to be sustainable (Statista, 2021), which could significantly damage the industry as sustainability becomes an increasingly important decision-making factor for travelers.

So, can the cruise sector become more environmentally friendly and deliver truly sustainable travel options and, if so, how?

New Ships

The cost of maintaining vessels throughout the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many companies chose to retire ships early, rather than continuing to finance them. As a result, more new-build ships are in production or at sea. While new vessels aren’t necessarily more environmentally friendly, they have the potential to be much more sustainable. By incorporating energy saving and emissions reducing technology, like marine waste heat recovery, into the ship’s design, new-build cruise ships can be far more eco friendly and, therefore, provide a more sustainable option for passengers.


Along with the entire shipping industry, the cruise sector is under increasing pressure to meet strict environmental regulations. Applicable to the new-build vessels, the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) is a measure of technical efficiency that mandates how efficient a vessel must be by design. Similarly, the Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI) applies to existing vessels and ensures that current fleets are optimized to increase energy efficiency.

In contrast, the incoming Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) measures ‘CO2 emitted per cargo carrying capacity and nautical mile’ and is an operational measure of energy efficiency. This, along with other requirements, such as a Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP), will be used to enhance operational performance in relation to energy efficiency, thus requiring cruise ships to sail in a more energy efficient manner.

As owners, operators and design houses are forced to comply with increasingly stringent environmental regulations in a bid to fulfill the IMO’s decarbonization goals, shipping is set to become more sustainable. Due to this, cruise travel will inevitably be more environmentally friendly than it has been in the past, thus giving passengers an added incentive to explore the world by sea.


New marine Technology, or ‘MariTech’, is consistently delivering new innovations, many of which are helping to reduce GHG emissions throughout the industry. Climeon’s HeatPower 300 Marine system is one example of marine technology that improves onboard energy efficiency, reduces fuel consumption and cuts carbon emissions. Our maritime waste heat recovery (WHR) system captures and repurposes the waste heat that’s produced on board a vessel and transforms it into carbon-free electricity, which supplies power to the ship’s generators and, therefore, reduces fuel consumption.


To learn more about Climeon’s HeatPower system and discover how waste heat recovery can increase shipping sustainability, download our White Paper, ‘What is Heat Power and how can it increase energy efficiency in the shipping industry?’ now:

Low-Carbon Fuels

While zero-carbon fuels aren’t expected to become available in the marine industry until at least 2030, low-carbon fuel represents a viable opportunity to reduce shipping emissions. However, low-carbon shipping fuels are unlikely to deliver a holistic solution to the maritime climate crisis.

From cost-intensive engine modifications to increased methane emissions and increased storage requirements, the widespread use of low-carbon fuels is not as straightforward as it may seem. Despite this, the transition from heavy fuel oils (HFOs) to low and zero-carbon alternatives, such as LNG, LPG or biomass, could enable cruise operators to offer more sustainable travel options.

Sustainable Travel Example: Viking Line

Operating in the Baltic region, Viking Line has seven vessels traveling between Sweden, Finland and Estonia and transports approx. 6.6 million passengers every year. 

Eager to increase energy efficiency, reduce emissions and make sustainable travel more accessible, Viking Line commissioned Climeon’s HeatPower modules for an existing vessel, Viking Grace, back in 2015. 

Viking Glory cruise ship is shown sailing in deep blue, calm waters.
Viking Glory with Climeon's HeatPower waste heat recovery system installed.

Following a successful retrofit installation on Viking Grace, Viking Line chose to install Climeon HeatPower modules on board its new vessel, Viking Glory, too. Now, Climeon’s HeatPower system is generating enough clean electricity on board Viking Glory to fulfill 40% of passenger operations - making Viking Glory one of the most climate-friendly cruise ships in the world.

Find out more about how Climeon is increasing sustainability in shipping with Viking Line in our case study. 

Making Shipping More Sustainable

The decarbonization of the maritime industry has been mooted for decades but a confluence of factors now makes sustainable shipping more achievable than ever before. As demand for responsible tourism soars, increasing regulation requires reduced emissions, vessels are retired in favor of new builds and new MariTech becomes operational, shipowners face an unprecedented opportunity to increase energy efficiency and make shipping a leading form of sustainable travel.

To find out how Climeon HeatPower is helping to decarbonize the industry, take a closer look at our world-leading technology or get in touch with our team today: