Cruise ships — those floating, white-frosted pleasure palaces — are back in Elliott Bay, ready to sail up the Inside Passage.

Most of the talk about the return of the Seattle-Alaska cruise season (from port officials, from cruise executives, in media coverage) follows two narratives. One: Cruise ships boost port town economies. Two: They’re taking serious COVID-19 precautions with oversight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But throughout the pandemic, there has been a background buzz of environmentalists and other cruise critics arguing the ships are fossil-fuel-guzzling, sludge-leaking problems that we should not be embracing so recklessly — and that cruise port towns like Juneau and Ketchikan are being smothered by cruise tourism.

So which is it? Is the cruise ship a savior or a threat?

“It’s a dilemma,” said Port of Seattle Commission President Fred Felleman, who practically embodies the tension around cruise. He has a background in marine biology (orca research in Puget Sound and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill) and advocating for conservationist policy. He has also been vocally enthusiastic about the return of cruise. Further muddling the issue, the port has announced its intention to be carbon neutral by 2050 — including in its business with cruise ships.

Crowds of passengers were ready to cruise to Alaska Monday at Terminal 91 in Seattle.  
 (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Cruise ships navigate complex rules as Alaska sailings resume from Seattle

“Clearly, there is an insatiable appetite for cruise,” Felleman said. “We didn’t create it. It exists. Our job is to minimize those costs while maximizing the benefits. And the degree to which I, as a port commissioner, can make some incremental changes in that direction is the degree to which I can still look in the mirror.”

In other words: It’s complicated.

As 2021 cruise season begins, consider this a (very) incomplete primer in its complexities, broken down into three sections: an industry overview, cruise’s economic impact, and cruise’s environmental issues. Feel free to skip around.


Industry overview

The first ship: On July 19, if everything goes according to plan, the Serenade of the Seas will be the first cruise ship since 2019 to sail out of Seattle and up the Inside Passage. Tied at its long berth in Smith Cove, the Serenade carries 13 decks, nine elevators, nine restaurants and cafes, nine bars, a rock-climbing wall, three swimming pools, a spa, a cinema, a medical center, a live-performance theater, a jogging track and a nine-hole miniature golf course. It is 965 feet long (about 1.6 Space Needles) and 106 feet wide (a 10-story building) and can carry 2,476 guests plus 848 crew members, or roughly the population of Medina.

The Serenade is one of the smaller ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet.

The Big Three: The world has three major cruise ship conglomerates, which are headquartered in Florida and own most of the brands you recognize: Carnival Corporation (Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Seabourn, AIDA, P&O, more), Royal Caribbean Group (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Silversea) and Norwegian Cruise Holdings (Norwegian, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas). The Big Three control 80% of the world’s cruise market in terms of passengers and 72.2% of its revenue.

Some smaller U.S. cruise lines offer eco-/adventure-based travel, branding themselves against the Big Three. One of these Seattle-based lines, for example, is named UnCruise.


How the Big Three survived 2020: Layoffs, loans, sales of ships and stock on Wall Street. By the end of 2020, Carnival reported it had lost $10.2 billion, but raised $19 billion in debt and equity, ending the year with $9.5 billion in cash. In a report to investors, Carnival said it could survive 2021 without sailing a single ship. (Howard Sherman, an executive vice president at Norwegian Cruise Lines, said his company ended 2020 in a similar position.) Smaller cruise lines, with ships registered in the U.S., were eligible for federal assistance, like the CARES Act. The Big Three, whose vessels sail under foreign flags — Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas — were not.

Flags of convenience: Sailing commercial ships under foreign flags (aka flags of convenience) is common today, but was a cruise industry innovation. During Prohibition, a U.S. cruise company wanted to serve its guests alcohol without breaking the law, so it registered two vessels in Panama. The tactic stuck and spread to the shipping industry, which now regularly registers its vessels in countries with more forgiving tax, labor and environmental regulations.

Appetite for Alaska: It keeps growing. The number of people passing through Seattle for an Alaska cruise has surged from 1999 (6,615 passengers) to 2009 (875,433 passengers) to 2019 (1,208,590 passengers). Those numbers come from the Port of Seattle, which counts people as they get on and off ships. (People spend money, use infrastructure, etc., once in each direction.)

The pandemic, cruise ship executives say, hasn’t dented that appetite. “We’re seeing pre-pandemic levels of demand for the 2022 season,” said Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity Cruises (which sails three of its 14 ships to Alaska). “People are excited. And we’ve seen new bookings — over one-quarter of our bookings are coming from nonloyalty members.”

Terminal 46: To accommodate this hunger, the Port of Seattle was planning to build a new 29-acre, $200 million cruise ship facility (half financed by taxpayers, half by cruise line partners) at T46, off the southern edge of Pioneer Square. Environmentalists opposed it, saying cruise is speeding our way toward catastrophic climate change, and the Port indefinitely paused the project in 2020, saying it would wait to see how the cruise industry recovered before proceeding.

Economic impact

Economic impact around Seattle: “There’s no doubt about it — having cruise ships will be a big, giant plus,” said Sharon Shaw, who has been selling homemade, stained-glass kaleidoscopes with her husband at Pike Place Market for decades. Known as “the mother of the market” for her watchful eye and community caretaking, Shaw says vendors have become highly attuned to the rhythm of the industry and its passengers’ spending habits: “We started knowing which ships bring discount travelers — we don’t get too excited about those — and which are the Good Ship Lollipops.”


According to reports commissioned by the Port of Seattle, the 2020 cruise season was supposed to bring a record 1.3 million passengers through Seattle — 85% of them flying through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — with 233 vessel calls. Each call was projected to create $4.2 million in economic activity, sending a total of $893.6 million rippling through the regional economy. In 2019, cruise ships paid the Port of Seattle $22.4 million in berthing and passenger fees.

Where those dollars go: The cruise economy web extends further than you might think — restaurateurs, stevedores, shuttle drivers, private security firms, farmers who sell vast quantities of produce to provision ships, etc. “We want to make sure those dollars stay in the community, so they’re local businesses doing the provisioning, doing the tours, etc.,” said Stephanie Jones Stebbins, managing director of maritime at the Port of Seattle. The Port, she added, has programs to make sure women- and minority-owned businesses (WMBEs) are part of its economic ecosystem. This is not empty talk. A significant portion of a recent port commission meeting was devoted to discussing why there weren’t more WMBE bids for a roof upgrade project at Pier 66.

Economic impact elsewhere: This is a little more complicated, but there’s no doubt tourists bring critical revenue. A 2019 report commissioned by the Southeast Conference (a Southeast Alaska economic development group) projected 1.44 million visitors, 90% arriving on cruise ships, who were going to spend almost $800 million in 2020. According to a 2021 report by the state of Alaska, port and cruise communities saw 22,297 in job losses during the pandemic, representing $305.7 million in lost wages.

But cruise reformers like Karla Hart — she used to work in the tourist industry — say that between out-of-town businesses and seasonal workers, a lot of that money leaks out of the community. Take a quick stroll through Juneau, Ketchikan or other Alaska cruise ports, and you’ll see the same businesses over and over: national-chain jewelry shops (Diamonds International, Effy, others), Cariloha (a bamboo-goods company based in Utah), Del Sol (a novelty clothing company based in New York) and so on.

Those out-of-town businesses are often listed on “shopping maps” published by PPI Group, a Florida-based marketing company that partners with the Big Three, and also places “shopping presenters” on board cruise ships to steer passengers toward approved stores. To reformers like Hart, the relationship between the chain stores, the marketing companies and the cruise lines feels a little insular.

“The industry term for that is ‘leakage,’ tourism money that leaks out of the town,” said Alexis Bunten, an Alaska Native (Alutiiq and Yupik) who worked in the Alaska tourism industry before earning her doctorate in anthropology at UCLA by studying tourism. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but it makes it more difficult for local people to be vendors and keeps less money staying in town.”


Cruise clout: Hart, a Juneau resident, also says Big Cruise throws its weight around the city. In a 2016 lawsuit, for example, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) alleged Juneau had been breaking its own city code by spending cruise passenger fees in ways that did not benefit the cruise industry, including $22 million for government operating expenses. “We created a stream of revenue the cruise lines pay the government and then complain when it isn’t spent on them,” Hart said. CLIA and Juneau settled the suit in 2019, agreeing the city would use passenger fees for cruise-related infrastructure — but that money could be spent on restrooms, police, fire, emergency medical services and other expenditures that would benefit the city as a whole. The 2019 settlement also agreed to freeze passenger fees for three years.

One port is different: Hoonah is a predominantly Tlingit community of 760 people just outside the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park. The town’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the decades with fishing and timber, but in 2004 it opened its own private port: Icy Strait Point, which is owned by Huna Totem (an Alaska Native corporation) and employs 260 people, making up 80% of the town’s economy.

Icy Strait received over 267,000 visitors in 2019, but Huna Totem CEO Russell Dick says it’s working out well: The port was built 1.6 miles from the town itself so Hoonah wouldn’t feel overwhelmed and, being privately owned, isn’t subject to the shifting winds of political administrations. The Huna Totem Corporation, he said, had a long period of consultation with elders and the general community about what they did and didn’t want from being a cruise destination. Instead of moving tourists around in noisy, fuming busses, they built a gondola. The majority of tourist activities address some aspect of Tlingit culture, as local employees guide visitors to bear-watching platforms or teach them to prepare salmon and other local subsistence foods. All the shops, Dick said, are locally owned.

“We said, if we’re going to build it, we’re going to build in a way that is truly in alignment with who we are as Alaska Native people and our values,” he explained. “These days, visitors don’t want to jump off a cruise ship and see Diamonds International — they want a truly authentic experience.”

Dick said sharing culture with cruise visitors, and financially strengthening the Native corporation, has led to a cultural revitalization among the Huna Tlingit, including the language. He suggested other Alaska towns hoping to improve their economies with tourism might look to Icy Strait Point as a model.

Environmental issues

The concerns: When environmentalists talk about cruise, they focus on two forms of pollution: emissions (what goes into the air) and discharge (what goes into the ocean).


On discharge: “Look, cruise lines do not have the best track record,” said Fellemen, the Port of Seattle Commission president. “Some of the largest fines ever issued for intentional discharges were issued to cruise ships. And some of that stuff was fleetwide, more a corporate practice than just a rogue captain like they tried to blame the Exxon Valdez on.”

What he’s talking about: In 2016, the U.S. government levied a $40 million penalty against Princess Cruises (owned by Carnival) for intentionally and illegally dumping oily waste into the ocean on several occasions using what was cited in the Department of Justice findings as a “magic pipe” that bypassed equipment meant to detect pollution. Princess was put on probation, then had to pay an additional $20 million in 2019 for a series of violations including more dumping, falsifying records and asking if the Coast Guard could redefine the terms of their environmental compliance plan.

Closer to home in 2019, the Carnival subsidiary Holland America leaked 22,500 gallons of untreated greywater (runoff from drains, not sewage) into Glacier Bay National Park. Holland America said it was an accident.

Discharge in Washington: Puget Sound and other Washington waters are protected by an interlocking set of discharge regulations — and since 2012, all CLIA-member cruise lines have volunteered to not discharge any greywater or sewage, treated or untreated, into Washington waters.

But they can dump “scrubber discharge.” The Port of Seattle has banned scrubber discharge while cruise ships are at berth — because the Port is the landlord — but not yet in the rest of the state’s waters.

What’s a scrubber? This is where emissions meet discharge. In an effort to reduce their air pollution, some commercial ships have installed scrubbers, which use water to “scrub” the exhaust coming out of the smokestacks. The post-scrub water is either discharged at sea or held in a sludge tank.


One of our state’s discharge rules, the “memorandum of understanding,” was signed in 2004 by the Port of Seattle, the state Department of Ecology and CLIA — but it’s open for amendments every three years. For this round, environmentalists have proposed an amendment banning scrubber discharge in Washington waters. Here’s the trick: All three parties to the MOU (the port, the state, the cruise lines) have to agree on an amendment before it passes. It’s not a majority vote.

Emissions: If the Port of Seattle plans to be carbon neutral by 2050, something with cruise ships has got to give.

According to its 2016 emissions inventory (its most recent), 74% of the port’s total maritime greenhouse gas emissions came from oceangoing vessels (58,537 metric tons) and 92% of those came from cruise ships — 53,625 metric tons. According to an emissions calculator from the Environmental Protection Agency, that’s the equivalent of burning 60 million pounds of coal, or the annual electricity use of 9,700 U.S. homes.

It’s a hefty chunk of emissions, but only a tiny fraction of the total. The Port’s inventory only measures emissions from cruise ships when they’re moving in Puget Sound or resting at berth — a small part of the overall journey. There aren’t official, readily available numbers for total cruise ship emissions on the Seattle-Alaska run, partly because of their international itineraries. (Some emissions data exists: The European Federation for Transport and Environment, an NGO based in Brussels, found that in 2017, Carnival ships in Europe emitted 10 times more sulfur oxide than all of Europe’s 260 million cars put together.)

“The public deserves to know what the total carbon footprint of Seattle’s cruise sector is,” said Elizabeth Burton, a climate activist with Seattle Cruise Control, “whether or not the port holds itself responsible for the whole thing.”

Citizen math: Without official numbers, climate activists and engineers are making independent calculations of their own, using publicly available information: number of ships, engine type, service speed, time at berth, etc.


Lou Browning, a principal engineering consultant with the international firm ICF, has prepared emissions inventories for over 130 ports, and has worked extensively with the EPA on transportation and emissions. He estimates a Seattle-Juneau run on the Norwegian Bliss (an average-sized vessel making an average trip) emits roughly 3,890 metric tons of greenhouse gases. Multiply that by 211 voyages from Seattle to Alaska in 2019, and you get 820,790 metric tons.

Burton, of Seattle Cruise Control, made some calculations of her own. (For what it’s worth, she’s a former University of Washington math teacher who earned her doctorate in algebraic topology.) According to her computations, greenhouse gas emissions from the six-month Seattle-Alaska cruise season in 2019 were: roughly 1.1 million metric tons from the ships and 763,192 metric tons from the flights (based on Port surveys about how cruise passengers got to Seattle) for a total of 1.89 million metric tons.

By comparison, she said, the city of Seattle’s 2018 emissions inventory listed greenhouse gas emissions for the entire city at 5.76 million metric tons. If her calculations are correct, the 2019 cruise season was equivalent to one-third of the city’s emissions for an entire year.

Burton knows her conclusions, like Browning’s, are approximations based on the currently available information. “My intention,” she said, “was to get a ballpark estimate.”

Carbon neutral by 2050: When you ask Port officials about emissions, they mention shore power — systems that let ships plug into Seattle’s electric grid, which is cleaner than burning fossil fuels to keep the lights on and the ice cold. According to the Port, the average ship that plugs into shore power during its time in berth avoids 34 metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Of the 211 cruise vessel calls in 2019, 85 (or 40%) plugged into shore power — partly because it’s only available in two of Seattle’s three cruise berths, and partly because not all ships have the proper equipment to plug in.


How does the Port plan to be carbon neutral by 2050?

Port officials cite two main roads toward that goal. The first is electrification, including more shore power. Two cruise berths, in Smith Cove, have shore power. The third — Pier 66, just north of Pike Place Market — plans to have shore power by 2023.

The second road to carbon neutrality is trickier: Weaning ships off fossil fuels.

“The technological piece is the hardest nut to crack,” said Alex Adams, environmental program manager at the Port of Seattle. “It’s going to take a broad coalition of partnerships, research and development, and international and domestic policy to push these ships with international itineraries toward zero emissions.”

What cruise lines are doing: Cruise executives say they’re hopeful, and taking the problem seriously. “The ships of today are better than the ships of 10 years ago, and they’re far better than what they were 20 years ago,” said Sherman, the executive vice president with Norwegian.

Lutoff-Perlo, the Celebrity CEO, ticks off her cruise line’s accomplishments: eliminating single-use plastic and bottled water, meeting and exceeding regulations, using scrubbers for cleaner emissions, researching alternative fuels, building new ships to be compatible with shore power. CLIA has announced its target: a 40% reduction in industry carbon emissions (compared to 2008 emissions) by 2030.

A port commissioner’s final analysis: “Look, I didn’t come to the Port to stop the Port,” said Felleman, Port of Seattle Commission president. “Just because I don’t want an Exxon Valdez here doesn’t mean I’m going to prohibit tankers in Puget Sound. We’re in the cruise ship business, and if we’re going to be in it, I want to make it as green as we can. I’m not saying ‘go take a cruise’ — but if you are going to take a cruise, this is the place to do it.”