Can you cruise sustainably? This cruise line thinks so

Apr 20, 2022

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Editor’s note: Welcome to Sustainability Week on The Points Guy. In honor of Earth Day on April 22, we’re publishing a series of articles focusing on the people, places and companies that are making travel more environmentally friendly and what you can do to make your next trip more sustainable. The following story is part of this series.

For environmentalists, cruising with a conscience can feel counterintuitive in an industry known for its excess and outsized contributions to both air and ocean pollution. Yet the nearly 130-year-old Norwegian adventure travel company Hurtigruten Group, which holds the distinction of running the world’s largest expedition cruise line in polar waters, has been working hard to reverse this image and prove that green cruising doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.

With 14 ships offering itineraries that incorporate some of the most pristine and vulnerable places on the planet, Hurtigruten has firmly embedded sustainability into its brand DNA.

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The group stopped using environmentally harmful heavy fuel oil (the cruise industry standard) more than a decade ago, relying instead on a range of alternative, more sustainable fuels, including more recent trials with a biodiesel that does not contain forest-depleting palm oil.

In 2019, Hurtigruten created the world’s first hybrid electric-powered cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, and has since added two more hybrid ships to its fleet, with another three being built. Last month, the group also announced preliminary plans to debut a completely emissions-free ship by 2030.

Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen
The MS Roald Amundsen. (Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten/Facebook)

Hurtigruten was the first cruise company to eliminate single-use plastics, too. It also takes a strong stance on ecological and cultural conservation via initiatives like its Hurtigruten Foundation, which supports organizations like the Alaska Wilderness League and Galápagos Conservancy.

However, these efforts are only some of the ways Hurtigruten is committing to creating a gentler, more sustainable cruise industry by minimizing the environmental impact of its operations.

Here are a few examples of Hurtigruten’s innovative approach to cruising and how it’s paving the way for sustainability across the broader industry.

Reliance on revolutionary technology and design features

Hurtigruten has been around since 1893, but that doesn’t mean the company is stuck in the past. In March, the company announced its plan to sail a new emissions-free ship created in partnership with Norwegian research firm SINTEF along the Norwegian coastline by the end of the decade. While the project remains in its infancy, Hurtigruten stated that it will no longer build fossil fuel-run ships.

Since introducing MS Roald Amundsen, which emits 20% less greenhouse gases than other similarly sized ships, in 2019, Hurtigruten has unveiled two more battery-hybrid expedition vessels: the 528-passenger MS Fridtjof Nansen and the refurbished 526-passenger MS Otto Sverdrup.

Hurtigruten's MS Fridtjof Nansen
The MS Fridtjof Nansen. (Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten/Facebook)

By incorporating battery pack-based ship technology into its latest vessels, Hurtigruten has been able to sail with the lowest carbon footprint of all comparably sized expedition cruise operators today. Its eco-friendly technology is so groundbreaking that the 2020 addition to its fleet, MS Fridtjof Nansen, was recently designated the most sustainable cruise ship in the world by European environmental, social and governance ratings agency Scope ESG Analysis.

Its impressive efforts extend beyond its battery packs, though.

In February, Hurtigruten announced plans for a sweeping retrofit of all seven of its Norwegian Coastal Express ships (which sail around Norway‘s coastline and fjords). Updates will include an array of sustainable features like the integration of biofuels and an energy-efficient hull design optimized to help reduce water resistance while using less fuel. Additionally, three of the ships will be fully converted into hybrid vessels.

Related: The 7 most anticipated new cruise ships of 2022

Once the project is complete next year, Hurtigruten’s Norwegian Coastal Express ships will reduce their overall emissions of carbon dioxide by 25% and of nitrogen oxide by 80%.

Shore-power connectivity, which allows the ships to significantly reduce the amount of pollution going into the air and water while plugged in at ports, has been enabled across the fleet as well. The company’s reliance on greener alternative fuels for more than a decade, including more recent trials with biofuels made from organic materials, has also made it possible for Hurtigruten to avoid using heavy fuel oil, a common fuel source that produces high levels of carbon dioxide and other dangerous particulates like sulfur.

Beyond ship-based sustainability, Hurtigruten’s land-based excursions in destinations like the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard use battery-powered snowmobiles and catamarans charged with wind and solar energy sources.

Ultimately, the company aims for a completely emissions-free future but must work in the interim with available technology, explains Asta Lassesen, CEO of Hurtigruten Expeditions. “While we keep pushing boundaries and introducing new technology,” she said, “we are combining existing solutions to get the best possible results already today.”

Elimination of single-use plastics

Like other travel companies, Hurtigruten has committed to doing away with single-use plastics to curb the amount of plastic waste produced each year. However, its removal of single-use plastics goes beyond swapping plastic straws for paper ones.

When it zeroed in on removing single-use plastics in 2018, Hurtigruten eliminated all unnecessary plastic items, including everything from cutlery to disposable cups, becoming the first cruise operator to fully ditch single-use plastics. The company opted to instead use alternatives made from biodegradable materials like paper.

Related: Hawaii is looking to ban single-use toiletries

In some cases, Hurtigruten also provides reusable items. For example, cruise passengers receive complimentary reusable water bottles they can fill at water stations throughout the ships. This initiative has eliminated about 1,500 plastic bottles per day on some of Hurtigruten’s larger vessels, according to the company.

Focus on plant-based and locally sourced meals

Sustainability is about more than just plastics and power sources. Hurtigruten’s culinary program places an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and plant-based menus with a lower carbon footprint than your typical shipboard fare, as well as forward-looking food waste management.

Hurtigruten chefs with trays of local food
(Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten/Facebook)

About 80% of the food and drink on Hurtigruten’s Norwegian coastal cruises comes from local Norwegian suppliers, according to the company. This not only results in guests enjoying fresher ingredients on board, but provides more economic support for local communities. Additionally, relying on local items means less packaging and time transporting items to the ship is required, creating a lower carbon footprint.

On expedition voyages, Hurtigruten likewise strives to source food from local suppliers in the regions its ships visit.

The company also debuted dedicated vegan menus in 2017. By offering different three-course vegan meals every evening on Norwegian coastal cruises (along with more limited options on expedition cruises), the company says it’s catering to health-conscious cruisers while also sourcing food items that require less energy to produce and emit less pollution, such as non-meat products.

Commitment to destination stewardship

With a model that skips busy cities and crowded cruise ports, Hurtigruten touts off-the-beaten-path exploration featuring wildlife encounters and visits to remote communities as a way to avoid the damaging environmental impacts of overtourism.

“In the tourism industry, too many companies and destinations are measuring success in terms of volume, when the focus rather should be quality,” Lassesen said. “In cruising, size does matter. Some destinations are simply not suitable for 5,000-passenger megaships.”

So, Hurtigruten operates a fleet of smaller-sized ships that carry 90 to a little more than 800 passengers to a carefully selected group of destinations. Its expedition ships, for example, sail to environmentally sensitive polar regions like Iceland, Greenland and Norway. The company also ventures to Antarctica and is launching its first cruises to warm-weather locales like the Bissagos Islands in Guinea-Bissau and the Galapagos Islands in 2022.

Related: Best Antarctica cruise ships: 11 stylish expedition vessels exploring the White Continent

“We have seen the impact of climate change unfolding before our eyes — long before anyone was thinking or let alone talking about the climate crisis,” Lassesen said. “Understanding the consequences of not acting makes our drive for action even stronger.”

To further its mission of destination stewardship, the company tailors its shore experiences like wildlife viewing to be low impact so as not to harm the local ecosystem. This means watching animals from a distance in places like the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard to avoid altering their natural behavior.

Additionally, Hurtigruten supports the communities it visits by hiring and training many individuals from the destinations it frequents, including indigenous people, and organizing beach cleanups to keep the shores clean for generations to come.

Hurtigruten also established the Hurtigruten Foundation in 2015 to aid in its efforts to support climate research, eco-friendly initiatives and wildlife conservation in its ports of call. Since its creation, the foundation, which is funded through donations and onboard activities, has raised and awarded nearly half a million dollars to 40-plus projects.

However, no matter how eco-sensitive a cruise line can be, its ships and those across the industry still have an impact on the environment. As a result, environmentalists are understandably skeptical that any cruise ship can operate sustainably in vulnerable destinations.

“Just the human footprint of bringing that many people into the Galapagos or Svalbard islands is an impact that can’t be mitigated,” explained Marcie Keever, a cruise industry watchdog with environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth. “Even if a Hurtigruten ship was completely battery-powered, there’s still that significant human impact. The way to [prevent] those kinds of big impacts from the cruise industry is to keep them out, unfortunately.”

While acknowledging that its cruises do impact the areas they visit, Hurtigruten also aims for its experiences to be a net positive for the planet by educating passengers about the importance of protecting the environment through a variety of programs.

“They are actually doing a great job in leading the industry,” Keever admitted.

Turning tourists into ambassadors for the environment

Educating passengers about the importance of protecting the environment is a vital component of the Hurtigruten experience.

“We aim to create ambassadors for every destination on every voyage,” Lassesen said, adding that after passengers encounter the wildlife and pristine locations on their cruises, “it is almost impossible to return [home] and not be a champion for the environment.”

Passengers from a Hurtigruten sailing participate in an offshore excursion
(Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten/Facebook)

Hurtigruten aids in this alchemy of transforming tourists into destination ambassadors by pairing cruisers with impassioned expedition teams. These specialists provide deeper context about the destinations visited via discussions and lectures about local cultures, wildlife and nature encountered, calling special attention to how pollution and climate change are directly affecting them.

Related: 8 ways to be a more eco-conscious traveler

The company also invites expedition cruise passengers to participate in various Citizen Science programs. These opportunities provide guests with a chance to collaborate with global scientific institutions like the California Ocean Alliance, the Polar Citizen Science Collection and Happywhale through lectures and hands-on research projects in the onboard Science Centers. Some past projects have included counting seabirds and whales during surveys, snow algae studies and cloud observations.

Bottom line

Hurtigruten has undertaken these initiatives, among others, because it sees sustainability as an essential strategy for remaining viable as a company.

“Companies with sustainability at the core of their business model will not only have a huge advantage, they will survive,” Lassesen said, “whereas companies that do not take sustainability seriously will simply diminish.”

That’s because travelers are increasingly demanding sustainable practices be incorporated by the businesses they support, and those that don’t adapt will fall behind.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen a very positive trend that travelers are increasingly eco-conscious,” Lassesen shared. “We hope this growing number of socially responsible guests will challenge the cruise and travel industry to move in a more sustainability focused direction.”

Featured photo courtesy of Hurtigruten/Facebook.

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