CRUISING TO DESTRUCTION: by embracing a market-driven ethic that maximizes short-term gain over long run environmental stability



International shipping stands as one of the most polluting industries globally, adversely affecting both water and air quality due to the release of particulate matter, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides. Despite cruise ship tourism constituting only 1% of all shipping, its contribution to total waste output is staggering, estimated at 25%. The pollutants emitted by these vessels include air pollutants and various forms of water pollution, such as ballast water, gray water (e.g., from showers and washing), black water (i.e., from toilets), hazardous waste, and solid waste. These practices, such as emitting poluttants and various forms of water poluttion by cruise ships, often involve greenwashing, obscuring the true extent of their environmental impact.

The Environmental Footprint of Passengers

Beyond the ships themselves, the passengers significantly impact the environment as they disembark onto islands, exerting immense pressure on local ecosystems. Driven by time constraints imposed by cruise operators and a focus on profit, shore excursions rarely prioritize sustainable ecotourism, which emphasizes education, conservation, and environmental awareness. Instead, over 80% of excursions necessitate secondary transport, typically emitting fossil fuels through coaches, minibuses, four-wheel drive safaris, and all-terrain vehicles, all of which leave lasting impacts on the fragile local ecosystem.

The Expansion of Mass Tourism

The cruise industry epitomizes mass tourism, with global cruise capacity forecasted to surge by 19% by 2028. While this surge may seem inevitable, there is hope that destinations like Bonaire will prioritize environmental sustainability over accommodating further growth in cruise tourism. These behemoth ships often target the most pristine global environments, with 70% of cruise ports situated in biodiversity hotspots like Bonaire. However, instead of fostering a symbiotic relationship with these islands, cruises often exploit them as non-renewable resources, extracting their desired goods and leaving behind little more than waste.

The Plight of Bonaire’s Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are vital to Bonaire’s economy, yet they confront ongoing challenges from multiple local stressors, such as cruise tourism. A 2019 study, commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality, emphasized the urgent need to protect these precious ecosystems within the next decade to turn the tide. Already five years have passed since the study, leaving us halfway through this crucial decade for action. However, substantive steps to minimize local stressors and strengthen the resilience of the ecosystems remain elusive. This inaction leaves these delicate ecosystems vulnerable to further degradation.Without active intervention to minimize the local stressors, they will disappear in the foreseeable future.

Assessment of Coral Reefs

The study’s findings paint a grim picture, revealing dwindling coral coverage across Bonaire’s coastline. Shallow waters, at depths between 5 and 7 meters, exhibit a meager 6% coverage of living coral, while deeper regions around 10 meters fare only slightly better at 19% coverage—the primary habitat for coral species. Alarmingly, the once-thriving Karpata reef has witnessed a precipitous decline, with current coral cover plummeting to 40% from a robust 70% four decades ago.

Urgent Call to Action

Since the 2019 survey, the health of the coral reefs has deteriorated further. Existing coral colonies continue to suffer from moderate to dismal health conditions, compounded by ongoing instances of bleaching. Additionally, the emergence of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCLD), which was first confirmed on Bonaire in the beginning of 2023, has exacerbated the challenges faced by the coral reefs. The persistence of these challenges underscores the ongoing vulnerability of Bonaire’s coral reefs. As a result, the percentage coverage of coral may have declined since the 2019 assessment. Moreover, the influx of cruise ships looms large as a significant stressor on these already compromised ecosystems. Positioned within the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Bonaire’s ecological richness makes it a prime target for cruise tourism. However, instead of nurturing these islands, cruise operators exploit them for profit, leaving behind a trail of pollution and destruction.

Conclusion: Charting a Sustainable Course

Confronting the devastating impact of cruise tourism on Bonaire’s coral reefs and ecosystems is crucial. As we navigate through time, we must reflect: Are we being good ancestors? Are the choices we make today beneficial for our children, our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children? To secure these invaluable natural treasures for future generations, we must advocate for stricter regulations on cruise tourism. This may involve imposing higher entry taxes for day tourism, limiting the number and size of cruise ships visiting Bonaire’s ports, and holding cruise operators accountable for their environmental footprint. Additionally, a holistic approach is essential to address local stressors like erosion, sedimentation, eutrophication, and waste. This includes tackling issues such as coastal development, uncontrolled grazing by free-roaming goats, and illegal mining activities. Only through concerted efforts to mitigate all factors contributing to environmental degradation can we safeguard these invaluable natural treasures for generations to come.


Published in The Bonaire Reporter issue 8, 2024 page 5


  • Achteruitgang koraalriffen Caribisch Nederland: oorzaken en mogelijke oplossingen voor koraal herstel, WUR, 2019, C061/19

  • 40 years of change on the coral reefs of Curaçao and Bonaire, Bakker de, D.M. WUR 2019

  • Environmental Impacts of Cruise Ships on Island Nations

  • Environmental Sustainable Cruise Tourism: A Reality Check

  • State of the cruise Industry, 2023

  • S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report