A straw-free watermelon cocktail served by Uniworld River Cruises

Green campaigns make waves in the cruise industry

The cruise industry has reached a key moment in sustainability: as fleets grow worldwide and shipyard order books rapidly fill, individual lines are – by way of eco-conscience, customer appetite or mounting pressure – introducing sustainable practices, materials and policies aimed at reducing their environmental impact. It’s a process that has been under way for some time, but has been accelerated by “the Greta Thunberg effect” – the result of the young climate activist’s campaign to hold companies and individuals accountable for their actions that have environmental consequences.

It’s a topic that was high on the agenda at the annual CLIA UK River Cruise Conference, which took place in Amsterdam this month. In a panel session on sustainability in the industry, three experts – Ben Wirz, MD of operations at Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection / Uniworld River Cruises; Matthias Lutter, head of new builds at A-ROSA; and Giles Hawke, CEO at Avalon – took to the stage to discuss the issues, challenges and opportunities of sustainability.

Ambitious targets for 2020

“The question about how we can reduce carbon footprint in river cruise operations has been around for a long time, at least for us, but it only recently became a talking point in the media,” said Wirz. He touched on three key areas: reducing the use of petrochemical materials, namely removing single-use plastics; reducing the use of paper; and how to get guests on board with these initiatives.

Wirz said Uniworld has set itself an ambitious target in aiming to remove all single-use and unnecessary plastics across its operations and throughout its offices worldwide within the next 24 months.

“We have learnt that the best way to tackle this problem is by first making an inventory of all the plastic items in our operations and offices,” said Wirz, noting that they look at costs to prioritise impactful items. They also look for quick wins that can be delivered without affecting the operation or guest experience. Examples include the removal of plastic straws (Wirz said they’ve had zero complaints on this), replacing all plastic water bottles with glass and metal bottles and installing water filtration taps onboard. Guests are asked to return key cards, which will eventually be replaced by silicone wristbands, and work is ongoing to replace the plastic soap dispensers in bathrooms.

“The most interesting part is that the higher cost of alternative products has been offset and more by removing unnecessary items and reducing the use of others or using them in more efficient ways, and all without impacting the guest experience,” said Wirz.

Reinvention of city cruising

A-ROSA’s Lutter was next to speak. Since January 2019, he has headed up the construction of the line’s new E-Motion ship, which will operate on the Rhine from 2021, calling at ports emission-free and virtually noiseless thanks to a battery storage system.

“We’re currently seeing river cruising experiencing more demand to see towns and cities, but the infrastructure is not moving as fast as new ship builds, so we’re facing a lot of problems in how we reduce emissions and how we [can improve things] for the people onshore.”

It’s a reinvention of city cruising that removes the inefficiency from ships and better manages power, bringing huge advantages in terms of emissions reduction. As the E-Motion ship approaches a town or city, it switches to battery power to save fuel and help keep the air and waterways clean.

Small and nimble

Avalon CEO Giles Hawke said he believes all river cruise lines are doing something in sustainability at some level. “One of the great things about river cruising is we’re able to adapt very, very quickly,” he said. “We’re not operating massive, 4,000-passenger ships – our ships are relatively small and so we’re able to apply change very quickly.”

An example of this is Avalon’s decision earlier this year to eliminate single-use plastics across its operation – something that will be achieved by the end of this year.

Hawke noted one challenge in sharing information and what individual lines are learning on their sustainability journeys. “It’s incumbent upon us as cruise lines and the industry to provide the information,” he said.

Hawke concluded with his belief that customers will vote with their feet, and that a lot of customers simply expect sustainability to be woven into their holidays. On the question of whether this will cost consumers more, Hawke said, “I think they would pay more for it, but I’m not convinced they necessarily need to – a lot of what we’re doing around sustainability actually has financial benefits.”

It’s an interesting point – that lines, shipbuilders and all their industry partners can simultaneously make savings and do right by the environment.

This feature was written by Emily Eastman.

Learn more about sustainability and cruise by attending Cruise Ship Interiors Expo 2-day conference, including the Sustainable Cruise Interiors Panel. Registration is free and includes access to the 160-exhibitor show floor.


4-5 December, Fira Barcelona