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Sunday 21 April 2019

photo essay

Cruise control

Holidays on cruise ships are booming. What is not so widely advertised is the huge environmental cost

By Nick Hannes

Today’s cruise ships resemble small towns, complete with shops, restaurants, cafés, discotheques, fitness rooms, casinos, swimming pools and even mini golf courses. In the fight against boredom, an events team organises round-the-clock activities such as morning exercise, dance lessons, swimming pool games, beauty pageants, carnival parties and a gala ball.

Passengers sunbathe on the upper deck of the MSC Musica during a six-day cruise through the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, from Muscat to Abu Dhabi.

Newly boarded passengers don life jackets for a compulsory safety drill in the theatre of the MSC Musica, owned by the Mediterranean Shipping Company.  

Cruise tourism is a huge growth industry. In 1990, four million passengers went on cruises. In 2018, an estimated 27 million people opted for a floating holiday. While it is still a luxurious way of travelling, economies of scale – ships of several thousand passengers are the norm – mean that prices can be squeezed, making a cruise holiday accessible to middle-income families.

Passengers sunbathe and drink beer on the upper deck of the MSC Musica while it is moored in the port of Khasab.

Hands free as a couple surveys the crowded deck of the MSC Musica. The ship carries 2,000 passengers on the six-day cruise with stops in Dubai, Khasab and Khor Fakkan.

The downside of cruise tourism is its enormous impact on the environment. Vessels run on heavy, cheap, polluting diesel which contains 3,500 times more sulphur than the diesel used for road vehicles (on land this kind of fuel would be disposed of as hazardous waste). One large cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as five million cars travelling the same distance.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. In a week, a cruise ship can generate a million litres of human sewage and five million litres of grey water (water from showers, laundry and galleys) not to mention the oily bilge water and rubbish, much of which is dumped out at sea.

Smooth lawns at sea: mini golf on board of the MSC Lirica.

A morning aerobics class is one of the many on-tap activities to entertain cruise-goers.

The economic benefits that the arrival of a cruise liner in a port might bring are debatable. Passengers’ time ashore is limited and where possible they are encouraged to buy goods on board. Smaller local businesses see very little of the spend; the purchasing power of the companies is so strong that they are able to keep down port charges with the threat of boycotting a destination and going elsewhere. Some companies even create their own host resorts, purchasing land and even whole islands to reap all the profits from passengers’ visits.

Lining the decks to admire the view as the MSC Lirica arrives in Valetta, Malta.

Dress code: formal, for the gala evening in the Lirica Lounge.

Passengers and entertainment crew dance during a ‘White Party’ on MSC Lirica.

Sun worshippers on the top decks. The popularity of cruises has increased hugely in the past decade.

Tropical cocktails on board MSC Lirica.

No one seems interested in the industrial view as the MSC Musica is moored in the port of Khasab during the six-day cruise from Muscat to Abu Dhabi.

Life jacket drill for new arrivals in the Tucano Lounge of MSC Musica.

Holidaymakers leave the ship during a half-day stop. Cruise tourists bring very little to the local economies of the places they visit.

Getting into the party spirit for the Carnival Party in Le Cabaret, one of the nine bars and lounges on board MSC Lirica.

Fun in the jacuzzi on the upper deck of the MSC Musica. Yet  in a week a cruise ship can generate five million litres of grey water waste, which goes into the sea.

Table football on  MSC Lirica. There are round-the-clock activities to keep the passengers occupied.

A birthday party in the Havana Club Cigar Room on MSC Musica. Much of the rubbish generated is disposed of at sea. 

Passing through the casino, newly boarded passengers return from a safety drill. 

Audience participation during ‘Italian Night’ at Le Maxim’s restaurant.

A solo moment on a ship of 2,000 passengers. 

Taking a break in one of the ship’s smoking areas. An estimated 27 million people opted for a floating holiday in 2018.

Spanish passengers dress as Arabs for the ‘White Party’ on board MSC Musica.

Revellers at the Carnival Party in Le Cabaret bar.

Letting their hair down in the Crystal Lounge on MSC Musica. Economies of scale mean that cruise holidays are affordable to middle-income families.

Sunbathing passengers may not be aware of the environmental impact of their holiday. One large cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as five millions cars travelling the same distance. 

Sunbathing guests on board the MSC Musica. In a week, a cruise ship can generate a million litres of human sewage.

A romantic moment on the upper deck in the port of Khasab during a Middle East cruise.

A couple say their goodbyes to crew as they disembark after their six-day cruise from Muscat to Abu Dhabi.

Nick Hannes photographed life on board two cruise trips, one on the Mediterranean in 2014 and another around the Persian Gulf in 2016


Nick Hannes studied photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent, Belgium. 
His most recent photo book, Garden of Delight (Hannibal/André Frère Editions), is a surreal journey around Dubai,  raising questions about authenticity and sustainability. It was awarded the Magnum Photography Award in 2017 and the Zeiss Photography Award in 2018. Hannes has exhibited widely and teaches documentary photography at KASK.

All Photographs by Nick Hannes/Panos Pictures

Tortoise ThinkIn – The morals of holidays: is it OK to ride an elephant and other dilemmas

If you enjoyed this photo essay, we’d love you to join us for our Tortoise ThinkIn – The morals of holidays: is it OK to ride an elephant and other dilemmas. It’s on Tuesday 23 April at 6.30pm in our newsroom in London. If you’re a member of Tortoise, ThinkIn tickets are included in your membership. Book here.

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