In his outgoing appearance at Seatrade Global before he retires later this year, Norwegian Cruise Line Holding’s (NCLH) Frank Del Rio was true to form in stirring up controversy.
The ‘main event’ at Seatrade is the keynote address and the State of the Global Cruise Industry panel of the CEO’s of all the major cruise lines.
Prior to the panel, moderated by BBC World News’ anchor Lucy Hocking, Pierfrancesco Vago, Executive Chairman, Cruise Division, MSC Group and currently also the Global Chair of CLIA, gave the keynote address.
Sustainability is the “only path” for the industry to achieve growth, he told a standing room only audience.
He said that in 2023, cruising has “the youngest, cleanest and technologically advanced fleet ever.”
Nearly 100 per cent of newbuilds are LNG powered, Vago said, and 98 per cent are adopting shoreside electricity and can use it where it’s available.
Clean power is only one piece of the puzzle, he added. The cruise industry is also “leading the way in responsible travel.” Cruising is working with with ports and destinations to ensure eco and ‘overtourism’ issues are addressed.
But he admitted a perception gap remains and a lot of misinformation about cruising’s impact on the environment and destinations remains. One of Vago’s key messages was for the entire cruise industry - from cruise lines, to the travel trade, to ports and destination partners - to get the message out about cruising’s leadership in responsible travel.
“We will achieve sustainable and responsible cruising,” he told the Seatrade audience, saying that not only will the cruise industry achieve net zero by 2050, but also, “offer the best vacation today!”
According to Vago, the industry’s commitment to sustainable and responsible travel will foster demand and fuel guest “passion” for cruising.
He noted that this year, cruising is forecast to exceed 2019’s record-breaking numbers. And among cruisers, the intent to cruise again is higher than pre-pandemic.
But to continue to grow and attract new cruisers, Vago added, especially now that the pandemic has brought more negative attention to cruising, the narrative of being a responsible and sustainable way to travel is essential.
When the other CEO’s joined Vago on the stage for the panel, much of the conversation continued to revolve around sustainability - with most of the other CEO’s echoing Vago’s message.
The newest cruise company CEO on the block, Carnival Corporation’s President, CEO and Chief Climate Officer, Josh Weinstein, pointed out that the industry agrees “we will not compete” on health, safety and sustainability.
Instead they’ve agreed to collaborate on solutions, pool resources and collectively have cruising’s “voices heard” on those matters. During the pandemic, the industry famously collaborated, sharing research, new tools and resources to help the entire industry survive. They are approaching sustainability the same way, Weinstein informed the Seatrade crowd.
Too much talk of sustainability?
Then NCLH’s Del Rio spoke up.
“I think we are getting carried away talking about sustainability,” he said. “The purpose of business is customers.”
He pointed out something many in the travel industry may have already observed. “Everybody cares, but will they pay for it?” he asked, adding, “Our prices are already too low” compared to land travel.
The other cruise company CEO’s were quick to respond.
Vago called the cruise industry “sexy,” which brings it extra scrutiny and criticism, saying that criticism was something only a commitment to sustainable and responsible travel can address.
Weinstein conceded that “sustainability isn’t driving decision making” among customers, but added that, “People expect us to be good” at providing a vacation, but also expect the companies they spend money with “to do good.”
Royal Caribbean Group’s President & CEO, Jason Liberty, agreed, adding that sustainability is part of attracting millennials and younger demographics, bringing the conversation full circle to Vago’s keynote point.