Cruises can be fun, whether you’re taking in the wonders of the Alaskan wilderness or relaxing on the lido deck under the Caribbean sun. They also can produce adverse environmental effects, including greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Much as the region reaps benefits from the industry — with almost $900 million in economic impact — the Port of Seattle must keep working to set the standard in environmental sustainability as cruising recovers post-pandemic.

Cruising is a major source of environmental pollution and degradation, according to a recent research review published in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Combining evidence from more than 200 research papers, the review found these ships emit about three times more carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than a jet and generate more than a ton of garbage a day.

Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise line sailing under nine brands (including Seattle-based Holland America Line and Seabourn), emitted nearly 10 times more sulfur oxide around European coasts than did all 260 million cars in Europe in a year, according to a 2019 analysis by sustainable transport group Transport & Environment.

The data is damning, yet before the spread of COVID-19, cruising showed no signs of slowing down. From 2009 to 2019, the number of passengers worldwide grew from 17.8 million to nearly 30 million. In the two decades since cruises found a base in Seattle, passengers grew from 120,000 to 1.2 million by 2019.

That growth has come with significant economic benefits, which will likely return as the pandemic abates. Wearing a Mariners jersey, Mayor Bruce Harrell was in a celebratory mood recently as he kicked off opening day for the Seattle cruise season.


“Seattle in the spring with the sea, this ship, the Mariners. It’s go-time,” he said to applause. “The cruise season is back. We are back.”

The season couldn’t come soon enough for Colleen Wilkie, owner of Shug’s Soda Fountain and Ice Cream in the Pike Place Market, who said she relies on cruises to bring customers to her shop.

“I’m so hopeful that this return of the cruise ships will not only boost the city’s economy, but also put Shug’s basically back in business,” she said. “Having the cruise ship industry back on the Seattle waterfront is such a relief.”

While in the city, an average cruise tourist spends $1,547 on lodging, entertainment, food and beverage, transportation and souvenirs, according to the Port of Seattle. In 2019, cruise operations generated more than $14 million in statewide taxes, supported 5,500 jobs and produced $893.6 million in total economic impact.

At a time of uncertainty for the downtown core, cruises will be a key component for economic recovery, said Port of Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins. However, he said, just as vital is the port’s commitment to help improve environmental sustainability.

The port’s efforts include working with cruise lines to prevent wastewater discharge in Puget Sound and other state waters, suspending the discharge of wash water from exhaust gas cleaning systems, and connecting all home port cruise ships to shore power on every call by 2030, which will help eliminate all emissions from vessels while at berth.


These are important steps, and port officials are proud of their relationship with the cruise lines and the industry’s voluntary compliance with the region’s environmental demands. However, more needs to be done before these floating cities powered by fossil fuels can be labeled anything close to environmentally sustainable.

Responding to environmental backlash, the international cruise industry has set a goal of reducing its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, a laudable target.

The Port of Seattle must continue to do its part to keep up the pressure, hold the industry accountable and mustn’t shy away from taking action to help mitigate climate change sooner, rather than later.