Cruise travel has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. As the industry continues to grow, so do concerns of overtourism and harmful CO2 emissions. It often seems like companies prioritize profit, designating sustainability and the well-being of local communities as an afterthought.
Norwegian expedition cruise operator Hurtigruten hopes to change that—and rather than wait for industry rules and regulations to change, they’ve chosen to lead by example.
The world’s first hybrid electric-powered cruise ship, the MS Roald Amundsen from Hurtigruten, just completed its first voyage to Antarctica with 431 passengers. Batteries on board help the ship operate much like a hybrid electric vehicle, reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by more than twenty percent.
“We are the first cruise line to use batteries,” Daniel Skjeldam, Hurtigruten CEO said, “and we want to reduce our impact and be as sustainable as possible.”
A recent National Geographic survey of 3,500 US adults shows 42% are willing to prioritize sustainable travel in the future. However, the same survey revealed only 15% of people feel they actually understand what the term entails. Heaps of companies cling to “sustainable” as their buzzword of the moment, muddying the meaning of sustainable tourism—which is, at its heart, travel which considers the effect on the environment as well as the economic and social impact.
Some travelers aboard the MS Roald Amundsen admitted the sustainability aspect prompted them to select Hurtigruten for their journey to Antarctica, but Skjeldam said the pressure to operate more sustainably originated within the company.
“It comes from our people. This is not part of a strategy that I or the board or anyone else laid out,” he said. “This was pressure from our internal staff who has sailed in these areas for such a long time.”
Sustainability has long played a vital role in the company. Over a decade ago Hurtigruten quit using heavy fuel oil, the most affordable (yet most pollutive) option to power their ships. More recently, in 2018 they banned all single-use plastics on board. Other tiny details on MS Roald Amundsen reflect their eco-conscious values, from using recycled linens for their laundry and hair dryer bags to staff uniforms made partially from recycled ocean plastic.
Skjeldam also wants passengers to leave with a greater knowledge of the regions they visit than when they first got on the ship. For this very reason, Hurtigruten employs scientists who have a thorough understanding of the areas on the ship’s route, and they are the first expedition cruise line to have a Chief Scientist on board. Every day, guests can sit in on informative lectures, participate in citizen science projects and use equipment in the Science Center to further enrich their experience.
While the ship may be the most sustainable option to visit the White Continent, only time will tell if travel to Antarctica itself is sustainable. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, or IAATO (of which Hurtigruten is a member), recorded a steady increase in visitors since 2012, with approximately 46,000 tourists in the 2017-2018 season. The MS Roald Amundsen is the largest size ship allowed to make landings in Antarctica (at 500 passengers), and there is not currently a cap on how many people can visit in any given season.
Antarctica is considered the last frontier, the most untouched by man, so could traveling there—even in an eco-conscious way—have a negative effect? Hurtigruten doesn’t think so. By following the regulations as outlined by IAATO and getting guests on Antarctica’s soil, they hope passengers go home as passionate ambassadors for the continent.
“We believe a sustainable form of tourism is good,” Skjeldam said. “It’s important for preserving Antarctica, because you don’t treasure something which you don’t know or haven’t seen.”
Theresa Christine is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, CA. You can follow along with her adventures by subscribing to her newsletter Delve here.