In early December, 199 guests on the cruise ship Le Boreal will get a firsthand look at the impact of climate change as part of a two-week voyage to explore the icy shores of Antarctica.
They are part of the sold-out "Fighting Climate Change in Antarctica" cruise organized by Abercrombie & Kent USA.
Upon arrival, guests will zip around in Zodiacs, view seals and penguins affected by melting polar ice caps and swap stories with one of the leading academic experts on climate in Antarctica.
That has been a boon for Jane Hazelrig, an agent at All Seasons Travel in Birmingham, Ala. A warmer planet has made her expertise in arctic trips more valuable.
"As more attention has been paid to climate change, the polar regions are at the cutting edge of that," she said. "Of the people that are interested in [polar] cruises, quite a number of them are interested in learning more about climate change."
Cruises once were the poster child for a vacation that many linked to unsustainable environmental practices. Videos of garbage tossed overboard or an oil sheen trailing a ship left images that tagged the industry when it came to protecting the environment.
But for nearly two decades, cruise lines have been cleaning up their act, often prodded by regulators, sometimes on their own initiative. Today, agents can sell most cruises as responsible, some even as ecofriendly.
"Where the cruise lines have come from is a pretty shaky path," said Greg Nacco of Cruise Specialists, in Marin County north of San Francisco. But in recent years, he said, "They've come around greatly."
Nacco said mass-market lines remain a stretch for some. "The hard-core green folks, they probably aren't going to go on a cruise," he said.
Smaller, soft-adventure ships are a better bet. "They almost have to be sustainable," he said.
So how to sell the sustainable cruise? Just like any other passionate interest, said Scott Koepf, sales vice president at Avoya Travel/American Express.
Koepf said a good analogy is the cruise passenger with an avid interest in theater. The food, itinerary and service on a ship might all be good, but if the shows aren't up to snuff, that's all that counts.
"I think the same is true for the environmentally sensitive consumer," Koepf said. "They will absolutely do the research. They're going to know who has done what and completely make their decision based on that."
Agents confronted with this kind of customer might need to do some digging of their own to find answers to a passenger's questions.
More typical cruise customers, Koepf said, just want to be reassured that they're not violating social norms.
"As long as a cruise line is not on a 'bad' list, they'll pass muster," Koepf said. For many, a ship's environmental record won't even be a part of the decision of whether to take a cruise.
"In most cases, it plays to 'I feel good about the decision I made,' rather than 'It helped me make the decision,'" he said.
Still, there are some signs that more consumers are trying to be environmentally conscientious in their purchasing.
A 2012 Nielsen survey on global corporate responsibility found that 46% of consumers were willing to pay extra for products and services offered by companies that show a commitment to social responsibility.
Nic Covey, vice president of Nielsen Cares, the company's social responsibility program, said, "Knowing what causes are most important to the socially conscious consumer may help brands prioritize their social investments."
Sixty-six percent of socially conscious consumers ranked environmental sustainability as important, a higher score than any other cause listed in the study.
Travel agents in select communities have taken the time to bone up on cruise sustainability.
Although Dominique Harvey lives in Houston, she does a lot of business about 165 miles away, in Austin, a university town where counterculture activists strive to "Keep Austin Weird."
"It's a very environmentally conscious area," said Harvey, who is affiliated with Avoya Travel.
Through her brother, an Austin real estate agent, Harvey began to network there and found clients who had an interest in cruising but also expressed apprehensions.
"I had to learn specifically what cruise ships and what cruise lines were doing to appeal to that kind of customer," she said.
Most of the potential clients were interested in larger ships rather than small adventure cruises.
"Even for people who aren't super-concerned, they do ask questions," Harvey said. "It seems to be a much broader group asking these questions now."
Cruise lines have taken pains in recent years to shore up their credibility on the environment.
Major lines such as Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean International and Princess Cruises each compile richly illustrated annual reports on sustainability or corporate stewardship. They are treating their wastewater more thoroughly, recycling, scrubbing smokestack emissions and reducing energy consumption, a push that also cuts costs by millions of dollars a year.
Perhaps no major line has been more active than Royal Caribbean in promoting its image as a green company. Among its recent efforts was the co-founding in 2010 of the Sustainable Travel Leadership Network, a CEO-level forum that meets twice a year.
A dozen members, including Carnival Corp., Xanterra Parks & Resorts and Abercrombie & Kent, have so far shared best practices and, in the next year, will be developing projects for destination stewardship.
New initiatives from other cruise lines include:
- Holland America Line last year revamped purchasing so that 75% of its seafood is now ranked "best" on Marine Conservation International's sustainability scale, up from 37% in 2010.
- Costa Cruises picked the 3,750-passenger Costa Pacifica to test a new European Union directive to reduce packaging, paper and wet waste on passenger vessels.
- Disney Cruise Line helped host an experiential eco-camp for children in the Bahamas in which animal experts taught about marine life at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.
- Carnival Cruise Lines is one of several lines using shore power in port. The Carnival Inspiration is plugging in while docked in Long Beach, Calif., and the Carnival Miracle will be shore-power ready by the end of the year.
Air pollution became an issue this summer as the Environmental Protection Agency targeted sulfur dioxide emissions from ships. Tighter standards were especially onerous for Alaska, and the state sued the federal government to block implementation.
The rules say ships must lower emissions within 200 miles of the U.S. coastline. Alaska cruises sail almost entirely within the protected area, and the cost of buying low-sulfur fuel to comply could add $15 to $18 a day to the cost of a cruise.
Some worry that ports that can't find dependable supplies of low-sulfur fuel could be left with fewer or no cruise calls. A further reduction in the sulfur dioxide emissions is mandated starting in 2015.
Travelers intent on a sustainable vacation often gravitate toward smaller cruise lines, which tend to specialize in destinations with high value to the environment, such as the Galapagos Islands, with their distinctly evolved wildlife, or the Amazon River's vast but imperiled rain forest.
Such destinations often are best seen from the water, have limited lodging or are too environmentally fragile to sustain land tours, making cruise ships a logical option.
Since 2010, Lindblad Expeditions has marketed the 28-passenger Delfin II, which does 10-day cruises along the Peruvian Amazon. Under an 8-year-old partnership with the National Geographic Society, Lindblad operates five other ships on exotic itineraries.
"All of our expeditions address ecological issues onboard and in the field, with our naturalists speaking to it on various levels, depending on the region we are in and the issues they are facing," spokeswoman Patty Disken-Cahill said.
In 2001, Lindblad's interest in conservation led it to stop serving shrimp on its vessels after determining it could not find a supply that was being harvested in a sustainable way.
Other vessels, including Celebrity Cruises' 96-passenger Xpedition, sail to the Galapagos, while larger ships from Holland America Line and others venture close to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. (Click on the chart, left, for larger view of a list of cruise lines and the destinations they serve.)
Most such ships follow strict limits on the number of passengers who can visit fragile natural habitats. Holland America ships, for example, follow guidelines set by an Antarctic tour operators agreement.
Because its ships carry more than 500 passengers, HAL doesn't put them ashore. It spends less than 80 hours in Antarctic waters on each expedition, sails mostly at a distance of 12 nautical miles or more from shore and doesn't anchor or enter protected marine sanctuaries.
Other lines that observe the rules set by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators include Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity and Seabourn, whose Quest will take its first cruise to the region in November 2013.
The loss of polar ice and other effects of climate change create one of the thorniest issues facing the cruise industry.
While the past decade has produced advances on other issues, such as managing hazardous wastes, limiting exotic species in ballast water and preserving marine habitats, the biggest environmental issue for cruise lines in the future might be greenhouse gas reduction.
Cruise ships emit tons of carbon dioxide, burning fuel oil for everything from propulsion to heat and air conditioning to electricity. The resulting greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere, which a majority of climate scientists say contributes to warmer temperatures.
While reductions on the margin are possible, there appears to be no magic solution on the horizon that would tame the cruise industry's emission problem. Since cruising is leisure travel, not transportation from point A to point B, cruises are a nonessential product and thus have fewer defenses from critics who say greenhouse gas emissions aren't being reduced fast enough.
One solution that was tried and ultimately abandoned by Lindblad involved so-called carbon offsets, the system by which passengers pay in to projects designed to reduce carbon dioxide output in proportion to the pollution their cruise produces.
Carbon offsets have fallen from favor because some of the projects were of dubious effectiveness.
Lindblad stopped offering the credits in 2009 after receiving input from experts who said it was "not a particularly productive way to contribute resources," Disken-Cahill said.
Most cruise lines have relied on reduced energy consumption as their main strategy to curb gas emissions.
Royal Caribbean has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third between 2008 and 2015, but that's proving to be an ambitious mission.
"The first place we've focused on is, how do you use less fuel per person, per day?" said Jamie Sweeting, Royal Caribbean's vice president for environmental stewardship and global chief environmental officer. To date, gas emissions have come down by about 20%, Sweeting said, adding, "It's going to be very challenging to make the goal."
Alternative fuels have been advanced as one way to reduce greenhouse gases, but at least for the foreseeable future, none seems practical on cruises, Sweeting said.
Liquid natural gas burns cleaner than oil, but it has to be stored under compression and can generate methane if combustion isn't perfect. Fueling stations would also have to be built at ports.
So-called biofuels, which include oil created from plant matter, are currently not price-competitive with petroleum, Sweeting said.
Cruise lines have installed some solar power panels. Celebrity Cruises mounted 216 glass panels on three of its ships; the panels generate enough power to illuminate 7,000 LED lights onboard each vessel.
"It's only a small percentage of the overall energy load, but it's a start," Sweeting said.
Finally, some have floated nuclear power as a possible curb on greenhouse gas emissions. The technology is proven, with the U.S. Navy leading the way with its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.
But Sweeting said that in addition to being prohibitively expensive, nuclear generates too much controversy because of its potential for accidents and long-term waste-disposal issues.
"I don't think we're in a society that would accept a nuclear-powered cruise ship, so our focus is really on efficiency," he said.
For cruise news, follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.