June 8, 2020

New Cruises: New Dangers for the Environment and Public Health

By Monim Benaissa

For several years, tourism has ruled the top of the world economy. Basing on this success, cruise tourism, in particular, has continued to prosper thanks to significant investment in this industry. However, this has changed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic (UNWTO Tourism News-Special Edition 2020).

Historically, the movement of tourists was provided by airplanes, considered to be the most widespread means of transport. However, this causes irreparable damage to the environment. But what about tourist trips aboard cruises? While some criticize it, others appreciate it, and say that it slightly affects the environment. In reality, it depends on the company that served it and on the environmental awareness of tourists.

Overall, cruise tourism is reflected in an intensification of global social relations. So that activities onboard can have an impact on the people on land. If careless and precautionary, this tourism activity can not only damage the environment but also affect public health. This circulatory dynamic occurs on a global scale and with such a degree of complexity (Mikhail, 2018, p. 4).

Obviously, cruises are daily confronted with epidemics and classic illnesses on board. These vessels are breeding grounds for the transmission of viruses from person to person. Despite the widely circulated reputation that cruise lines take harsh health measures compared to resorts on earth, in reality, this is not the case. The dispersion of COVID-19 has proven the contrary. Currently, several countries have banned cruise ship travel due to the outbreak of the pandemic.

From ecological pollution to diseases on board cruises, the sea remains a vital environment for the economy of several countries, as many populations depend on this natural environment for their livelihood. Overall, what is the impact of pollution from cruise ship traffic on the marine environment? how dangerous is the movement of tourists on board cruises for public health? Finally, what is the international legal framework for responsibility and guilt?

Cruises: between the satisfaction of tourists and the destruction of the environment

In response to the expanding tourist market, the companies have made available to tourists ships that can accommodate up to 5,000 people. So, these are small floating cities. In addition, this growth has given rise to high consumption of energy, and therefore of pollution. Consequently, a cruise ship generates thousands of liters of wastewater in a week, which contain bacteria, harmful food, and viruses, the untreated discharges of which can cause bacterial poisoning of fisheries and crustaceans, which will destroy marine biodiversity (Butt,2007, pp.591-598). Pollution from cruises comes precisely from wastewater, detergents, oils, greases, minerals, organic compounds, petroleum hydrocarbons, materials, food waste, and medical waste. This ecological pollution leads to an increase in oxygen toxins and reduces the concentration of oxygen in the water (Lemke,  2019).

As a result, cruises are a major source of air pollution, with harmful effects on the environment and public health. Scientific studies show that even a relatively small number of cruise ships emit large amounts of air pollution. The high emissions are due to the insufficient rigor of the standards of quality of the fuels and the emissions of engines. These are further compounded by the large size of marine engines and the longer operating times of cruise ships in ports (Abbasov, Earl, Jeanne, Hemmings, Gilliam, and Ambel, 2019, p. 11).

That said, the danger of waste is distinguished by quantity and quality, and by the functional characteristics of the cruise, the number of crew, the number of passengers on board, the number of stops in ports, and the size waste storage available. In some cruises there are complete systems for the treatment of household waste and sewage, while other cruises give less importance to international waste disposal standards. Also, the Nationality of the ship greatly influences the level of legal responsibility of the captain and his crew. Noting that since the 1990s, cruise ships have been implicated in several cases of illegal disposal of petroleum products, and toxic waste in the seas (Bowers, 2016).

In addition, on average, a passenger on a cruise generates 1 kilogram of solid waste per day. This figure will be multiplied for large cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers. The daily quantities of solid waste will be enormous for large cruise ships which can reach up to 8 tonnes per week. It is estimated that 24% of the solid waste that contaminates seawater worldwide is produced by cruise ships. Although many cruise ships burn waste, but it is not possible to burn all waste, such as aluminum and steel, and the combustion is generally thrown into the seas (Olmer, Comer, Roy, Mao & Rutherford, 2017, p. 12).

New Cruises: New dangers to public health

Despite the serious consequences of the 2008 economic crisis, cruise tourism industry quickly recovered. Unlike land-based tourist complexes, cruises have successfully avoided areas of economic turbulence. Thus, cruises have moved to conquer the most profitable markets. Unfortunately, currently with the COVID-19 pandemic, this mobility advantage has not been of much use. On the contrary, this situation turned against the reputation of cruise tourism, since these floating buildings are seen as the epicenter of the diseases, COVID-19 included. These vessels were the target of port refoulement by health authorities in coastal States.

Based on the fact that cruise lines take health precautions seriously, the epidemics spread quickly in these ships, as it is a very tight environment in space and with a very concentrated population. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that cruises once welcomed for economic reasons in ports around the World, could also be turned back in the event of a public health crisis. Cruises are seen as floating hotbeds of disease that no Country dares to welcome, despite the fact that these pushbacks are contrary to the law of the sea. First, concern about the protection of public health is used as a pretext by these States to refuse the stopover of these ships in their ports. Secondly, the medical resources and capacities of the port Countries may be limited. Thus, medical services cannot cover an additional number of foreign patients. Finally, the process of repatriating sick people to their country of origin is very complex, as it poses administrative and diplomatic problems between States.

For several months, cruises have been in the media with the spread of COVID-19 around the World. In Japan, the Diamond Princes Cruise was a floating city that was quarantined with hundreds of tourists on board by the authorities. The company initially underestimated the effects of COVID-19. The same scenario was repeated in California with the quarantine of the Grand Princess Cruise in the inland waters of California. The same fate is suffered by the Zaandam Cruise in the ports of Latin America. Clearly, the image of the cruise industry has been seriously damaged in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While some of the tourists on board have survived the epidemic unscathed, many have caught the virus, some of which have lost their lives.

As a result, there is a very visible link between cruise exhaust and several cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. This assessment was established by authentic academic research (the University of Rostock and the German Environmental Research Center Helmholzzentrum Munich 2019). Moreover, according to studies by the France Nature Environment (FNE) NGO, these fumes cause thousands of deaths each year in Europe and cost billions of euros in health services. Unfortunately, these consequences do not stop at a single isolated region, but it affects the whole planet (Chen, Zhao, Nelson, & Wang, 2016, pp.10-18).

International Law: harmonizing the use of the sea for leisure purposes and the protection of the environment

Clearly, tourist activity on cruises depends on the safety of shipping lines. Indeed, this industry is closely linked to freedom of navigation. This principle is considered to be one of the foundations of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In addition to this convention, the management of waste at sea from ships and cruises is framed by a diversified legal instrument. Thus, the main international organization that regulates transport at sea is the International Maritime Organization, a technical body of the United Nations (Basaran, 2016, p. 101).

The SOLAS Convention (Safety of Life at Sea) is the most important and the most general of these legal instruments. It dates back to 1912, ratified by thirteen states following the sinking of the Titanic, first amended in 1929 than in 1948 and 1960, recast in 1974 and supplemented by two protocols in 1978 and 1988; it concerns ship equipment, safety rules to be observed, alert and rescue procedures, port state controls. To concretize the implementation of the SOLAS Convention and the other aforementioned conventions, the International Ship and Port Facility (ISPS) Code has entered in force on July 1ST 2004. One of the main objectives of the Code is to ensure that there is the early and efficient collation and exchange of maritime security-related information at different levels, national, regional, and international. Otherwise, the International Code for the management of maritime safety (ISM Code), approved in 1993 and entered into force in July 1998 and July 2002 (according to the types of ship) is a guide for shipping companies to follow guidelines and protocols (IMO Publications 2020) (Goldberg, 2001, p.80).

In 1954 we adopted the OIL POLL Convention on the prevention of contamination of seawater by hydrocarbons, amended in 1962 and 1969 following the sinking of the Torrey Canyon (Vaughan 2017). At the same time, the 1969 Convention on Intervention on the High Seas of Coastal States in the Event of an Accident Which May Result in Oil Pollution is drawn up. These texts are included in the MARPOL Convention of 1973 and the Protocol of 1978, aimed at preventing pollution by ships both in terms of oil and harmful substances and discharges. They were supplemented in 1990 by the International Convention on Preparedness Response and Cooperation in the Field of Oil Pollution (OPRC, 1990).

Thus, the MARPOL convention covers all technical aspects of pollution from ships and cruises in ordinary outings. The main objective of the MARPOL Convention is the total elimination of pollution in a maritime environment caused by the spillage of oils and other dangerous products by ships. Thus, this convention contains general matters which examine the concepts, the engagements, the violations, and the granting of the certificates, the inspection, the cooperation to discover pollution, and the reports of accidents. (Nanda, 2018, p. 230).

Legal instruments such as; the Convention on the prevention of marine pollution resulting from the dumping of waste and the 1992 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their elimination are considered to be the first texts to codify the precautionary principle prevention of hazardous pollution (George, 2012, pp. 157-169). These conventions are seen as the basis of international law for the control and monitoring of the movement of hazardous waste by sea. Faced with rising security risks for ships and maritime facilities, the IMO Diplomatic Conference in December 2002 supplemented the SOLAS Convention with the International Code for the Safety of Ships and Port Facilities (IMO Publications 2020).

In addition, the UNCLOS is the international legal instrument which is intended to regulate human activities at sea. Some of its provisions are specifically devoted to the protection of the marine environment. In Part XII, UNCLOS deals specifically with the issue of protection of the marine environment. The commitment of all States is clearly identified in this section. Thus, the States signatory to the convention must adopt national laws that align with the provisions of the UNCLOS, to put them into force, and to determine the modalities and the methods of alternatives in matters of treatment, recycling, and hazardous waste disposal. In spite of what has preceded, one can underline the relevance of the UNCLOS on this subject, and which draws up the list of activities considered to be harmful to the marine environment by pollution. For example, article 211 allows coastal states to adopt international rules and standards aimed at preventing, reducing and controlling pollution of the marine environment from ships and strive to promote adoption, aimed at minimizing the risk of accidents likely to pollute the marine environment.  (Nanda, 2018, p.).


Cruise tourism may be the last of the economic sectors to recover from the consequences of COVID-19. Just a few months ago, tourism surfed as a flourishing industry with enormous development prospects. However, mass tourism on cruises was still a source of danger for both the environment and public health.

There are several solutions to protect both the environment and public health as this industry grows. We can say that cruises will have to adapt to the new socio-economic reality. First, on the level of environmental protection, the use of renewable energy can reduce ecological pollution and soften the consumption of polluting energy. Thus, in order to gain the confidence of tourists and authorities in the countries of call, the strengthening of sanitary measures onboard cruises becomes a necessity.

The truth is that de-containment will lead to a race for excursion and the pursuit of relaxation once the restrictions are lifted, no doubt negligence will have negative consequences for public health and the environment. This is how tourists will pay the price of strengthening sanitary measures by increasing the prices of stays on board. Thus, we can say that the misfortune of one makes the happiness of the other if COVID-19 destroyed the economy, however, it did give breath to the defenders of the environment.



Protocol relating to intervention on the high seas in cases of pollution by substances other than oil, 1973 (with annex and final act of the International Conference on marine pollution, 1973). United Nations-Treaty Series, 2 November 1973.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1184, p. 2, and annex A in volumes 1198 and 1208. 1 November 1974.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as modified by the Protocol of 1978, (MARPOL 73/78).

The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol 1046, p120. 16 June 1977.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 10 December 1982, UNTR.9 (Effective: 16 November 1994).

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1673, p. 57; and depositary notifications C.N.302. 1992.TREATIES-9 of 25 November 1992


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Coralie, Lemke. 2019. ‘Cette pollution colossale émise par les bateaux de croisière’, Sciences et Avenir.

Chris, Bowers. 2019. ‘Pollution and damage from floating cities are creating conflict’ Transport & Environment.

Chen D, Zhao Y, Nelson P, Li Y, Wang X. 2016. ‘Estimating ship emissions based on AIS data for port of Tianjin’, China Atmos Environ, Vol 145.

Faig Abbasov, Thomas Earl, Nicolas Jeanne, Bill Hemmings, Lucy Gilliam, and Carlos Calvo Ambel. 2019. ‘One Corporation to Pollute Them All, Luxury cruise air emissions in Europe’, Transport & Environment European Federation for Transport and environment AISBL.

Goldberg, William A. 2001. ‘Cruise Ships, Pollution, and International Law: The United States Takes on royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’, Wis Int’L LJ, Vol. 71, No. 19.

Ilker, Basaran. 2016. ‘The Evolution of the International Maritime Organization’s Role in Shipping’, J Mar L & Com, Vol 47, No.1.

Mary, George. 2012. ‘A Note on and a Proposal with respect to the Transportation of Nuclear.

Cargoes in International Straits’. Ocean Development & international Law, Vol. 43.

Olmer, N., Comer, B., Roy, B., Mao, X., and Rutherford, D. 2017. ‘Greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping, 2013-2015’. The International Council on Clean Transportation.

Sofiev, Mikhail. 2018.’Cleaner fuels for ships provide public health benefits with climate tradeoffs’, Nature Communications, Vol 9, No. 406.

Ved, P Nanda. 2018. ‘U.S. Perspective on the Legal Aspects of Cruises’, Am J Comp L, Vol 66, No. 213.

International Organizations



NABU measures air pollution from cruise ships, available at: https://en.nabu.de/issues/traffic/air- testing.html

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