FINAL: Cruisin' for a Bruisin': Tourism's Impact on the Caribbean Basin

This topic submitted by Molly Thomas ( at 12:55 AM on 6/10/05.

Folks get ready for a snorkel near Cano Island in Costa Rica. See other beautiful phenomena from Costa Rica.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

TME June 2005

The tourism industry took a huge hit after the attacks of September 2001. The islands of the Caribbean faced a horrible future, with most of their societies heftily dependent on the hospitality business. However, what was a horrible time for most people living on these islands proved to be a much-needed break for the organisms located undersea. A smaller amount of sea traffic had to be a wave of fresh water for the corals and eels underneath the horizon.

People are beginning to place their trust back in foreign travel, and with that brings an onslaught of air travel and cruise ships from the North American mainland to the vacation hotspots of the Caribbean. Many travel businesses have also claimed a greater efficiency and timeliness of the transportation aspect, but this begs the question of what cost the increased travel has inflicted on our valuable marine resources.

The irony of this situation is that the same industry that keeps these islands so economically prosperous is also responsible for the disastrous environmental effects, which are already prevalent to any marine biologist.

The Caribbean holds roughly one-tenth of the world’s coral reef reserves. The depletion, as well as the overabundance of nutrients found in the coastal waters around such islands, is an example of what we are doing to the water; the bleaching of the coral reefs is an example of what the water may eventually do to us.

Coral reefs, which are extremely imperative to the health of a marine environment, are being extremely threatened by the travel of cruise ships from one island to another. Cruise ship waste disposal is a main culprit in the talk of marine degradation. (1) Every day, a cruise ship produces 3.5 kilograms of waste per person with roughly two thousand people aboard each cruise. (The number is growing in exponents annually.) Compare this number to the native islanders—eight-tenths of a kilogram daily. The life of a cruise-ship passenger, as well as many Americans, is full of gluttony, frivolous spending—as well as expending—of tons of waste into our beloved tropical waters.

The thought of traveling to a tropical island and exploring a new ecosystem is sheerly invigorating. Millions of people every year search for adventure in the Tropics. The Caribbean Sea is accountable for the highest density of cruise trips. The Caribbean sees almost 70,000 ships cruise its path every year. When a ship is in port for the day, smaller ships often take side trips directly to the most precious parts of the sea, by the mangroves and directly atop the coral reefs. Groundings and shipboard fires have resulted in oil spills. Cruise ships account for 77 percent of all ship waste and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) states that there are two kinds of wastes generated by cruise ships—garbage and oil derivatives. (2)

Scientists have began to put a part of the blame on not only oil spills and “hard” waste, but also the newly-termed “gray water” which is a product of various cleaning procedures, e.g. baths and showers. Organizations have been striving to create regulations that will encompass a wide array of waste, yet will concurrently be achievable for the tourism sector.

MARPOL 73/78, (The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) was enacted in the seventies and is the main governing body regarding marine pollution. Over 160 countries are parties of this organization, which is supposed to operate under six indices: Oily Waste, Noxious Liquid Substances, Harmful Substances, Sewage, and Garbage, and Air Emissions, which is not yet in force (3). However, the sewage annex has been taken out of force by the United States. Some say it is because there is simply nowhere else to put the waste and it would be too costly to treat the sewage onboard the ship. Others claim that the Caribbean states have lower sewage treatment standards than the cruise lines, so it would be somewhat hypocritical to inflict such costly laws on a foreign ship.

MARPOL can only cross so many borders. Many other problems with spills and waste deposition have to do with the laws and regulations of whatever country’s water a ship is traveling through. Many countries use a flag of convenience, which entails abiding by the rules and regulations of whichever country has the least stringent codes regarding labor rights as well as environmental policies.
For example, many ships register under Panama’s state and cruise northward through the Caribbean; these ships have to pay no mind to what borders they may be crossing—as long as the follow the extremely lenient policies of Panama. Along with this Central American country, many other coastal unions are issuing flags under their country’s name in order to make a buck. Then the ship can travel wherever it pleases, leaving waste and pollution leagues in the distance. The International Transport Workers’ Federation claims that the only way to get rid of flags of convenience would be to get rid of businesses that are solely in the moneymaking business (4). Obviously this solution is far off and practically unfeasible when one considers the elevation of corruption in our global governments.

Some say that the MARPOL could work for everyone, but some countries claim that if the United States wimps out on a regulation (Sewage), they should not have to follow that plan. Either way, newer ships are following MARPOL protocol by installing garbage incinerators as well as recycling centers. Also, a new organization called OECS (The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) is responsible for establishing recycling stations, sanitary landfills (a bit of an oxymoron), and a $1.50 tax charged to each passenger in order to cover these procedures.

The islands of the Bahamas rely mainly on tourism, which accounts for 60 percent of the gross domestic product. Fifty percent of the jobs on the islands are solely hospitality based. (5)The Bahamas faces this problem especially—80 percent of the food consumed on the islands has been imported. This means that the increased traffic from the tourism boom will call for an amplified amount of foodstuff to be transported to the island, thus leaving an even larger amount of waste and oil deposition in its wake.

Certainly these island states benefit immensely from foreign travelers, and many natives rely on this business for their livelihood, which makes it even more imperative to take an active role in the fate of their coastal neighborhood. In an extreme environment like the Caribbean, every aspect of nature needs to be protected in order to maintain the balance that has been kept for thousands of years without a glitch; however, the human race as a whole could prove to be the most detrimental facet throughout any point in history.

The zero-waste policy being discussed, not only among cruise lines but in coastal hotels, serves as an ideological goal, but more importantly as a health lifejacket. Last month, the conservation group Oceana helped introduce a bill which will close many of the legal loopholes which allowed ships to continually pollute our waters (6). Hotels and ships depositing waste such as fecal matter into ground water runoff areas not only face action from environmental agencies but could also battle a much larger demon in the World Health Organization. Strict penalties, as well as horrible publicity witnessed by Royal Caribbean in the late nineties)(7) make it a wise decision for modern-day businesses to adapt to the environmental policies that will hopefully keep us from killing ourselves. It is pretty sad that the native people of the Caribbean are dealing with our wild week’s vacation during every day of their lives, with every bottle that washes up on the beach or gust of raw sewage that enters their home.

(1) Uebersax, Mary B. Indecent Proposal: Cruise Ship Pollution in the Caribbean August 1996

(2) Campbell, Frank A. “Whispers and Waste”. Small Islands Version 103.

(3) Marpol 73/78 Overview. US Environmental Protection Agency. Oceans 202/566

(4) Urquhart, Donald. “Greed and Corruption Rooted in Flag of Convenience System”. The Business Times Singapore March 2001.

(5) CIA Factbook. Bahamas-- Updated May 2005

(6) Haswell,Sam. "Oceana Hails Federal Bill To Curb Cruise Ship Pollution". Oceana April 2005.

(7) Unites States Department of Justice. "ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISES INDICTED IN OIL DUMPING CONSPIRACY-Charges Include Lying To Coast Guard and Obstruction Of Justice". December 19 1996

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