Sustainability Key for Cruise to Thrive

Inchcape Shipping Services Global VP Cruise Solutions Grant Holmes says there is broad industry acceptance of sustainability as an aspiration but the challenge is implementing it. With unrivalled cruise expertise supported by the planet’s largest port agency network, Inchcape can help the industry change for the better.

Had it not been for my intense desire to travel, I may well have ended up as shipyard engineer. As a youngster I completed an apprenticeship in shipbuilding at HMS Dockyard in Portsmouth but chose instead a career in leisure and tourism. I started out as a tourist rep in Spain and by 1990 was Area Manager for the Caribbean gateway of a leading UK tour operator.

Being appointed Director of Operations for First Choice Cruises from its inception in 1999 provided my first taste of cruise, and I haven’t looked back. I was later recruited by Festival Cruises as Director of global shore excursions, destination services, tour operations and on-board revenue. Part of my job was innovating new cruising concepts, which caused me to think deeply about cruise operations from every angle.

 I set up my own company, Progress International, in 2006, providing consultancy to 12 cruise lines and training services at all personnel levels for major cruise brands, governments and port authorities. I also delivered strategic advice for multiple emerging destinations including in Venezuela, Colombia, Cyprus, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. My interest in the industry’s long-term sustainability was cemented during these years.

Global portfolio
It is also the cornerstone of my work at Inchcape, where I have headed up the global Cruise Solutions team since 2014, overseeing around 10,000 cruise calls per year. Our services include shore excursions, ground handling, surveying, crew logistics and verifying bunkering quality and quantity. I also front all destination consultancy and engagement activities with tourism authorities and ports worldwide to build and serve the cruise market in what we together see as the most responsible way. Our past and present portfolio includes, but is not limited to, cruise destinations in Qatar, Bahrain, Ras al Khaimah, Indonesia, the Vanilla Islands affiliation (Mauritius, Reunion, Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comoros and Mayotte), Kenya, Zanzibar, India, Panama, Chile, Ecuador and various entities in Dubai.

The downside of overcrowding
The cruise industry has exploded in recent years and in some ways has become a victim of its own success. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus on marketing the same established marquis destinations to guests became too much in some instances, causing over-tourism. Overcrowding is unpleasant for the consumer and destinations risk losing their appeal and thereby compromising their integrity. It is important to review and learn from that, and to put sustainability principles first, especially from the destination perspective.

Pandemic ‘reset’
Some pro-cruise destinations may be willing to stretch capacity but over-tourism is a real concern for others. Pre-2020, whenever I was on the road advocating for sustainability, the response was typically 100% acceptance – but the challenge is implementation. The pandemic ‘reset’ means we have to get it right as soon as the cruise industry restarts. Although some may initially reject it, sustainability is the only way forward in the long run, and I anticipate a growing sustainability focus even in the busiest destinations.

Niche sectors like Luxury and Expedition cruising are clearly following this trend and pioneering itineraries that feature new destinations and regions on a truly global scale. I believe even the mega-ships will change towards a preference for less crowded and overpopulated ports of call in the future, with a greater focus on nature. Inchcape’s World of Ports (WoP) service shows there are 374 cruise ships globally at present, however more cruise ships were retired and sold for scrap in 2020 than we’ve seen in the last few decades. This offers a great opportunity to shift priorities.

Share itineraries and spread ships out
At a 2019 CLIA session in Hamburg, I asked assembled cruise executives to vote on what their biggest challenges were at that point in time and in the future. One of the top three was port congestion, alongside the environment and government regulations.

In my view, port congestion is actually a deployment problem, with too many ships going to the same ports at precisely the same time of year. This definitely isn’t sustainable. Cruise lines should ideally share their itineraries to avoid too many ships being in port at the same time, and we also need to spread ships more thinly over a greater reach across the planet. For example, Indonesia is made up of 14,752 islands and islets (source:, of which 6,000 islands are inhabited. Yet the entire country only received 450,000 passengers in 2018, which is just half the passenger tally at one key port in the Mediterranean. There is a plethora of fantastic unspoilt places to experience, and this can be absolutely be done in a measured way using the appropriate-sized vessel for each port destination.

Managed interaction

It is important that governments, especially in emerging markets, find the right balance when it comes to managing the impact of cruise. Cruise lines may ask for a large terminal, for example, but authorities must weigh up very carefully what is needed versus what is sustainable in terms of the capacity of each destination and cruise ship segment suitability.

Our work with the Vanilla Islands, which embraces 12 ports in the six island nations, exemplifies this approach. The partly EU-funded project we were awarded involves setting completely new protocols and standards for Luxury, Discovery and Expedition cruising in the Indian Ocean. We have taken a holistic view, visiting each island to understand capacity from both a port and tourism perspective. These are micro-communities where too many ships arriving would have an adverse environmental impact and tax local resources, so it is important to restrict the number of ships to ensure an optimal experience onshore. Failure to do this is asking for trouble. We have also recommended the Vanilla Islands to apply for Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) destination certification, which involves management, preparation and training.

Cruise with a good conscience
This kind of cruising I believe has bright prospects. The mega-ships will likely focus on marquis port destinations and private islands while more adventurous and nature-loving travellers will desire to visit more remote places – which requires building a network of smaller port destinations with attention to detail. That way people can get to experience what’s best about our planet.

Our destination development strategy at Inchcape is to make sure what is good for cruise lines benefits destinations and local communities. With this unique approach, we aim to be the leading player helping to develop future emerging markets so that the industry can flourish, based on quality rather than quantity and the overall destination experience.