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Perils of the sail

As India captures the growing market of cruise tourism, we must assess its negative impact on biodiversity, local community and ecology; write Deepika Manoharan & Stella James

Perils of the sail
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Irish ballads and American pop, Gulliver's Travels and Treasure Islands — the romance of ships and sailing has been with us for many centuries. It has now taken the form of cruising. While they have been a major part of tourism since the 19th century, cruises are viewed in a very different light today.

They are no longer seen as an unattainable luxury. The allure of the open ocean is becoming possible for more and more people with increasing affordability. It is no wonder then that cruise tourism has been growing exponentially: From 17.8 million passengers opting for it in 2009 to 28.5 million passengers in 2018.

Today's cruises are significantly bigger, more than 1,100 feet long and 200 feet wide, which is nearly five times the size of the Titanic.

India is in the race to capture this growing market. In 2017, the first international cruise docked in India. This was described as such: "At the Mumbai Port, over 1,800 passengers waited with bated breath and undisguised excitement. It was, after all, their first International voyage, from an Indian port."

Since then, cruise tourism in India has increased manifold: In 2017-18, 138 cruise ships called on ports in India carrying 1.76 lakh passengers.

But behind the grandeur and glamour of cruises lie some disturbing realities. Globally, the negative effects of cruise tourism have been well-established. This was brought to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic by multiple outbreaks in cruise ships.

More than 700 passengers and crew members tested positive for the virus in the Diamond Princess ship that was anchored in Yokohama, Japan, earlier in 2020. This was followed by the Grand Princess ship that reported the second-highest number of COVID-19 positive cases on the ship.

A total of 10 people died on these two ships. The media referred to these cruises as "floating petri dishes".

Issues of health, however, are not the only concerns. Cruises are also known for their devastating socio-ecological impacts. The shipping industry contributes around 3.01 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Estimates show that a single ship emits particulate matter equivalent to 100 million cars. These also generate massive amounts of waste; one person on a cruise produces about 2.6-3.5 kilogram of waste a day. Average waste production on land amounts to 1-2 kg.

This waste is often dumped into the sea due to a lack of proper waste disposal practices. Cruise tourism has several negative impacts on the 'host' communities as well. Research showed a decline in the use of regional languages in Dubrovnik in Croatia and Caribbean countries because its residents "adopted the habits of the visitors".

Other research pointed out the rising cost of living due to the higher spending capacities of the tourists. The same paper also suggested that ecological costs may be up to seven times higher than the local economic benefit.

These are the realities we have to keep in mind while thinking about cruise tourism in India. As many as 3,300 villages across India are populated by more than 39 lakh fishermen, who are dependent on the oceans for their lives and livelihood.

India is among the 17 mega-biodiversity hotspots in the world and is home to 400 species of corals, 2,500 kinds of fishes and several vulnerable animals such as dugongs and turtles. It is, therefore, important to ask how cruises will impact our ecosystems and the communities that live in these landscapes.

Very little research has been done on the impacts of cruises in India. But we can make a few good guesses regarding what tourism may mean to biodiversity and communities in India from our experiences. Looking at socio-ecological systems may show us the way.

Odisha has shown eagerness in introducing cruise tourism in the state. It has proposed cruises through protected areas such as Chilika, Satkosia Tiger Reserve and Bhitarkanika National Park, among others.

The fieldwork done by a research, campaign and advocacy organisation working on supporting environmentally sustainable and people-centred forms of tourism in Chilika between 2018 and 2019 showed that tourism in these regions severely affected the biodiversity and communities. Dolphin watching in Chilika, for example, severely affected the well-being of Irrawaddy dolphins.

Chilika is one of the only two lagoons in the world that has this species of dolphins. Boat drivers in Chilika said they often go as close as 30 metres to the dolphins on tourists' insistence and chase them sometimes when they move away from the boat. Most boats have outboard engines with rotors that injure the dolphins.

Odisha is also known for the mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles on the state's beaches. Researchers have voiced their concerns about the unorganised way in which tourism was being brought into the state, and how tourists handled turtle eggs and hatchlings.

If cruise tourism is introduced in this region, increased tourist activities will enhance the hindrances in the nesting process of turtles.

These landscapes are also conflict-ridden; bringing in cruise tourism can exacerbate them.

In Satkosia, which is home to various adivasi communities, conflicts are common between community members and government officials. Researchers informed us that locals are constantly asked to relocate and are prevented from fishing so that "tigers could be conserved".

So while the lives and livelihoods of adivasis are compromised in the name of the tigers, how can cruises, which are likely to be highly detrimental to the ecosystem, be allowed to operate here?

Ports, coastal tourism and other coastal/marine industries have been experiencing strong resistance from local communities. The existing problems are complex and deep-rooted. With the introduction of cruise tourism, the ongoing conflicts may increase.

Views expressed are personal

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