Caught between vigorous growth and the desire to reduce their environmental footprint, many cruise lines are trying to green their activities. Beyond the initiatives claimed, are these real advances… or drops in the ocean?

This summer, the Viking Neptune, a luxurious cruise ship equipped with a spa, a performance hall and an exercise room, made a stopover in Montreal. Fact put forward: once at the dock, it connects to the electrical power installations of the Quebec port, inaugurated in 2017, and of which only 25 destinations around the world are equipped.

The maneuver reduces the use of diesel engines, which usually continue to run once the ship is immobilized in order to power the equipment on board. The Norwegian company Viking claims “up to 30% reduction in CO2 emissions on certain routes”. However, when the Neptune, built in 2022, crosses the oceans, it uses its conventional engines, its captain confirmed to us. The company says it is banking, in an undetermined horizon, on liquid hydrogen and fuel batteries, which would make it possible to move towards carbon neutrality, at low navigation speeds.

In another segment of the cruise industry, the Ponant company, which operates smaller ships (around 30 to 330 passengers), including a hybrid electric model powered by liquefied natural gas, has launched an ambitious sailboat project carbon neutral transoceanic. Objective: complete decarbonization in 2050. Previously, energy-efficient adaptations were attempted on the existing fleet. “We can optimize the ship and reduce the speed, but we will gain a maximum 30% reduction in CO2 emissions. It does not work. We need to think about the ship from its design so that it integrates new technologies that will enable it to achieve the objective of 90% decarbonization in 2040,” underlines Mathieu Petiteau, director of new construction and research and development for Ponant.

For this future ship which will accommodate nearly 200 passengers, we are playing on three fronts, including renewable energies, with a sail system, the use of solar energy and green hydrogen. “The ship’s itineraries will be studied according to the winds, while remaining of interest to passengers,” specifies Mr. Petiteau. Energy efficiency is also planned, with a reduced operating speed and a slow cruise philosophy. Finally, energy efficiency is targeted, with an optimized hull, the integration of liquid hydrogen and fuel cells to support propulsion, as well as liquefied natural gas to supply on-board needs.

But manufacturers and suppliers will have to get in tune. “Currently, there is no distribution chain for liquid hydrogen. We are working with Viking to make this need clear to the industry. A whole universe of technology suppliers and maritime professionals will support us in this project to remove barriers and constraints,” bets the naval engineer.

We asked Luc Renaud, researcher and associate professor in the department of urban and tourism studies at UQAM, to examine these initiatives. The latter welcomed “good intentions”, some of which are “interesting”, despite a few caveats. In the case of Viking, it points to the electrical connection once docked. “Basically, it’s better, obviously, and it’s interesting for Quebec. But if we plug the boat into the port of a country that produces its electricity less cleanly, such as with coal, are we further along? », he asks, emphasizing that the root of the problem is rather in the consumption linked to the mobility of the ship.

Concerning the use of hydrogen, he expresses reservations about its use on large ships, without ruling out the possible relevance of this option in a more distant horizon.

As for Ponant, Mr. Renaud considers its carbon-neutral sailboat project very laudable… but points out that it is one of the companies “operating in extremely thin segments of cruise tourism”, establishing an analogy with ecotourism, which is still marginal. But the overwhelming majority of the industry is made up of sea monsters. The overconsumption generated by these floating all-inclusives, going so far as to offer water parks on board, seems very difficult to stem.

Another obstacle remains the opacity of cruise companies, denounced by Mr. Renaud. The latter, including those claiming environmental efforts, generally refuse to provide data on this subject.

And even for those who are very proactive in this area (he cites Hurtigruten, which launched the Roald Amundsen hybrid ship), their mobilization tends to be erased by the ever-increasing attractiveness of this mode of travel. “We may reduce CO2 emissions by 2 or 3%, but the growth of this mass industry is 6% to 7% per year,” says the researcher, specifying that it attracted 29 million customers in 2019 and is expected to drain 37 million in 2027.

“When we check the elements, even without the collaboration of the industry, we cannot see what is sustainable in cruise tourism,” says Mr. Renaud, who recommends traveling less, more locally, or consider supply boats carrying passengers, such as the Bella-Desgagnés. “It’s not just a boat that goes around in circles, it goes out to supply local communities anyway. »