Underpinning much of what we do at Adventure Junky is the desire to reimagine travel. Mass tourism in its many guises - packaged tours, large cruise liners, theme parks, bus tours - now dominates our planet, in much the same way the junk food industry does, with equally dire consequences for our well-being, environment and cultural identities.
The Tourism industry is like an iceberg. It constitutes 10 percent of the world’s GDP and indirectly creates 1 in 10 jobs, yet is so woven into our lives it often goes unnoticed unless we’re on holiday. Tourism is a complex, layered, and pervasive industry and therein lies the problem. The best way to unpack the iceberg analogy is with one of the icons of mass travel – large cruise liners.
We have a top secret, patent-pending algorithm which we use to create a score for each adventure (travel experience) on the Adventure Junky App - but when you boil it down there’s two simple selection criteria we apply: 1. Is it ‘high’ on experience? (Is it unique, authentic, meaningful); 2. Is it ‘low’ on impact? (does it respect people and place). I’ll begin with the question of ‘impact’.
Friend’s of the Earth produce an annual report card on Cruise Liners if you are thinking of cruising. Only 4 out of 17 companies received pass marks this year. What strikes you instantly from an impact perspective is the fact that cruise liners legally only need to be 3 nautical miles (5.5 kilometres) from shore before they can dump sewage into the ocean - potentially up to 25,000 gallons of sewage daily from toilet systems alone.
Then there’s the water from the laundry, pools, medical facilities, spas and dry cleaning stations. It all has to go somewhere. The argument here is that the ocean has miraculous purifying qualities for the fecal matter, bacteria, viruses, pathogens, hazardous waste and pharmaceuticals contained within this sewage. Or it could just be a case of out of sight, out of mind. This sewage is actually extremely harmful to human health and aquatic life. One can imagine the furore if the same was tried on dry land.
According to Ocean Planet, one study of a cruise ship found that an anchor dropped on a coral reef completely destroyed an area about half the size of a football field, and half as much again was covered by rubble and later died. It was estimated that coral recovery would take 50 years. In 2015, Carnival dropped an anchor in the wrong place in the Cayman Islands; over a thousand square metres of live coral was damaged or completely destroyed. Officials said it could take 60 years to grow back.
There is of course a considerable argument for the positive impacts of cruising made by the industry itself. Many of these centre on the economic benefit cruise ships bring to local destinations. Having worked in tourism development with indigenous cultures in remote tropical locations I have an intimate understanding of the role tourism can play in sustainable development for such communities. Tourism needs to be conducted on the local community’s terms.
Local people are not generally employed by the ships. It’s true the ships bring an influx of visitors with money to spend, but cruise companies do everything they can to encourage passengers to spend where it suits them - onboard. Stopovers are also very brief and passenger time on the islands is almost non-existent. The estimated amount a cruise passenger will spend on an island excursion, if they do chose to disembark (many don't) is less than $100.
Cruise companies in the Caribbean are now purchasing their own islands, or parts of islands to completely bypass the local communities. On these ‘passengers only’ islands cruise companies reap the profits of selling drinks, souvenirs, boat rides, and renting equipment for snorkelling, etc. Of the eight major cruise lines operating in the Caribbean, six own private islands which they include on their itineraries cutting out local ports of call.
But what of the cruise liner experience? This gets to the heart of what we believe at Adventure Junky. Adventure is a powerful force. Being in nature and engaging respectfully with other cultures, stepping out one’s comfort zone is the best way for us to develop individuals and learn about ourselves and the world around us. The latest cruise ships now come complete with wave machines, ice rinks and climbing walls - but these things exist in the natural world and if you want to get a maximum score on ‘experience’ that’s where they are best enjoyed - authenticity is what makes for the best adventures.
Yet the cruise industry steams ahead. In 2016 and 2017, 15 more new cruise ships will come online adding 8.1% to global passenger capacity and add $3.6 billion in annual revenue. Weeks of fresh sea air, endless sunshine, and having every whim catered for does have its appeal. Many cruise passengers report returning home with a sinking feeling. It may be more than simply post-holiday blues. Most cruise passengers gain a pound a day in weight during a two-week holiday at sea - coming back a stone heavier than when they left.
So whilst I haven't held back in my criticism for large cruise liners, there are companies that care. On the whole though the industry represents many of the problems inherent of mass tourism. My point is not - not to travel - but to instead consider your choices wisely and think about the broader implications. There's plenty of 'high' experience, 'low' impact holidays on the Adventure Junky App.
The mountains are calling and I must go!