Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Ten days ago, travel advisors and media transferring by bus from Seattle to Vancouver ran into a delay. They were scheduled to board Hurtigruten's first hybrid-electric powered ship, the Roald Amundsen, for a key and plaque ceremony. But students rallying to bring attention to climate change had massed in front of Vancouver's City Hall, blocking a major artery along the route to the cruise terminal.

The juxtaposition of the protest and the ceremony was not unrelated; both were intentionally scheduled for the final day of climate action week.

For five days, the world heard two parallel soundtracks. The first was the roar of people crying out for governments and industries to reduce carbon emissions. The second was a symphony of industry and government events coordinated to call attention to their environmentally friendly plans and actions.

For me, sitting on the delayed bus, the convergence of these two tracks in Vancouver seemed a fitting end to a week in which the travel industry, whose increasing prominence on emission pie charts has put a target on its back, showcased a range of activities that perhaps raised as many questions as they answered.

The week kicked off with the World Travel & Tourism Council's (WTTC) Climate and Environment Action Forum, during which the WTTC interspersed critical voices with examples of steps the travel industry is taking to address emissions.

At midweek, Norwegian Cruise Line announced the introduction of water in plant-based cartons to reduce single-use plastics on its ships, and the Travel Corporation's Treadright Foundation held an event to highlight its multiple conservation, social responsibility and environment-related activities, while also introducing its Make Travel Matter pledge.

But the most sustained event was the Hurtigruten reveal. The company's CEO, Daniel Skjeldam, whose expedition ships spend the majority of their time in or near polar regions, stepped out on thin ice by not only promoting his company's experiments with emissions-reducing propulsion systems but by calling out the practices of others in the cruise industry.

As Skjeldam spoke, I heard echoes of Norwegian's aggressive moves to dominate Hawaii interisland cruising when it launched NCL America in 2004. To get to that point of differentiation required stepping on the toes of competitors that subsequently, under the banner of the International Council of Cruise Lines (now part of CLIA), unsuccessfully sought legislation to block NCL.

Likewise, to underscore the point that Hurtigruten's environmentally friendly positioning is truly a point of differentiation, it won't join CLIA.

"We feel that the cruise industry has to change significantly, to operate in a much more sustainable way," Skjeldam told me. "Nothing against CLIA, but we don't feel that's their perspective. If we cannot agree on that, it's not 'one industry, one voice.' If we cannot agree that's the direction we're going, and fast, it's better we're not there."

It's a "holier than thou" strategy to create outsize attention for a line that carries just under 1% of all cruise passengers but has big ambitions.

While Skjeldam has bragging rights by being the first to deploy batteries and to invest in biogas to blend with liquefied natural gas, there are other cruise companies that have more quietly pursued an environmentalist path.

Lindblad Expeditions, like Hurtigruten, uses marine gas oil rather than heavy bunker fuel oil. Additionally, it buys offsets to achieve 100% carbon neutrality.

Also, liquified natural gas, considered the cleanest of fossil fuels, will be used to power or partially power ships on order from Royal Caribbean International, Ponant, Disney Cruise Line, MSC and Carnival Corporation's Carnival Cruise Line and the Costa Group.

Many ships in major cruise line fleets have employed "scrubber" technology to reduce emissions, though its reliability has been challenged by environmental groups.

The German line Aida, which is within the Costa Group, has purchased batteries (from the same company supplying Hurtigruten) to retrofit one of its ships to hybrid propulsion.

But large-scale deployment of batteries and biogas by public cruise companies has structural and financial impediments. The scarcity of slots in shipyards has motivated lines to place orders for ships that won't be delivered until as far out as 2027. To later make adjustments to those orders is extremely costly and would impact return to investors, possibly affecting share prices.

Which means, regardless of advancements in emission controls in propulsion technology, new ships in 2027 may be using state-of-the-art 2019 technology.

Most speakers at the WTTC summit suggested businesses, not governments, must lead the way or face government mandates.

Indeed, mandates have begun. The International Marine Organization, the United Nations-sanctioned body, will tighten emission standards on Jan. 1. Meanwhile, countries along the Baltic Sea have already implemented some of the strictest emission standards in the world. And Norway, where Hurtigruten is headquartered, will require ships wishing to sail its fjords to be emission-free by 2026.

Sentiment in Norway is not likely to be swayed by concerns about economic repercussions should cruise lines abandon the country in response. In fact, should Hurtigruten reach its corporate goal to be emission-free by 2025, it could realize more benefit from a "buycott" than Norway would lose from a boycott by cruise lines.

The industry had a week in which to grab the spotlight and demonstrate what it's doing to mitigate its environmental footprint. That same spotlight, it seems, also revealed barriers to moving forward. The target on travel's back will not be easy to remove.

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