When the Cruise Ships Stop Coming

The Costa Luminosa never made it to Venice. The vessel was one of several ill-fated cruise ships thwarted from exotic ports of call as Covid-19 overtook these luxury leviathans in February and March. Cruise ships functioned as oceangoing hotspots in the pandemic’s early days, until the industry suspended operations; a no-sail order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will keep boats that ply U.S. waters anchored until at least August.

If current nationwide restrictions in Italy hold, no cruise ships will sail into Venice’s famed lagoon at all this year. The absence of visitors in the famously overtouristed city during Italy’s nationwide lockdown, which began to lift in early May, has been a surreal experience for Jane da Mosto, executive director of the citizen advocacy group We Are Here Venice. “It was sublime and sad at the same time,” she says. “On the one hand, Venice has never been more beautiful. Imagine Venice where the water is so flat on the Grand Canal, you could see the shadows of the palaces as sharp, straight lines.”

June is historically the busiest month for cruising to La Serenissima, which might see 170,000 cruise passengers flood the historic city. They may not be missed: Venetian activists like da Mosta have long criticized the behemoth vessels that can have an outsized impact on the fragile city and its surrounding ecosystem. “No big ships in the lagoon during the time of coronavirus and forever,” demands the Comitato No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships Committee), threatening civil disobedience if the cruise port returns to business as usual after the pandemic subsides. “We lived on a toxic diet of mass tourism that was just a way of having money in the short term,” says da Mosto, whose organization promotes focusing the city around the needs of its dwindling number of full-time residents. “What Venice needs is to be repopulated.”

In ports of call known for their cruise appeal, the disappearance of boat-borne tourism has been greeted with mixed feelings. Many towns and cities depend in part on revenue from these vacationers. But the boats bring problems, too: Critics often cite the industry’s environmental record and dubious economic impactstudy after study show that passengers on short stopovers contribute relatively little to the local economy. The role that cruising played in spreading coronavirus — the Miami Herald COVID-Cruises Project documented 2,791 cases and 76 deaths across 58 vessels — has only intensified calls for change aimed at the $45 billion industry.

The Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group, has responded to the pandemic by stressing that most of its vessels were unaffected by the virus. Soon after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic in mid-March, “CLIA oceangoing cruise lines took the unprecedented step to voluntarily suspend worldwide operations, making the cruise industry one of the first to do so,” the group said in a statement. “When the time is right for cruise ships to once again set sail, our community will be an important part of the global economic and societal recovery.”

In European port cities that have been tangoing with the cruise ship industry for years, the pandemic pause is an opportunity to accelerate longer-term goals to better manage visitors. Five years ago, 80% of cruise ships that docked in Barcelona were just passing through. Today, that figure is down to 60%. City tourism director Xavier Marcé hopes to see it drop even further as part of the city’s efforts to tamp down on overtourism by promoting Barcelona as a home port, which encourages tourists to come early or stay later, where they spend more money and their presence is less disruptive to everyday life. “Ships just passing through pollute more and those stopover tourists only go to the most obvious places that are already full,” Marcé says.

To ease their environmental impact, Barcelona’s port authority plans to electrify dockside hookups by the end of 2021 so that cruise ships don’t burn fuel in port. The pandemic will slow that construction project, but Marcé is confident it will proceed even with an impending recession given the city’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “The debate is not whether we want them or no,” says Marcé. “We want cruise ships that don’t contaminate and promote a more intelligent use of tourism in the city.” He doesn’t foresee a cruise ship docking in Barcelona until October at the earliest.

In the Caribbean, the region is taking a big economic hit from coronavirus and accompanying travel stoppage. Carnival Cruise Lines, the industry’s largest player, has announced its intention to restart scheduled sailings in August with trips from Florida to the Bahamas. It’s not yet clear when cruise passengers will return to places like St. Kitts and Nevis, where the St. Kitts Urban Development Corporation recently unveiled the $48 million Port Zante cruise terminal, opposite capital city Basseterre. The terminal can accommodate four ships at a time — in December 2019, the port saw 10,629 passengers in one day — in a country of just 55,000 citizens.

The 27-acre retail complex is dominated, some locals believe unfairly, by expat merchants from India, says Shivdi Singh, a Trinidadian development consultant. She managed her country’s branch of Caribbean Local Economic Development (CARILED), a regional foreign aid program sponsored by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and now raises the question of how much of an economic hit a season or more without cruise ships will mean for Kittitians and Nevisians. “The Indian merchants sell retail to the tourists, who then head back onto the ship where they were already accommodated and fed,” she says. “There wasn’t very much interconnectedness of cruise ships to other sectors in the country and there wasn’t that downstream effect actually feeding into the local economy.”

Where residents will be squeezed, however, is in dwindling national coffers. “The national government is losing revenue, and that trickles down into social programs,” Singh says.

The International Monetary Fund predicts a 6.2% drop in GDP in the Caribbean region this year due to the tourism collapse, and countries like Barbados are doling out unemployment insurance at a rapid clip. In an attempted quick pivot, Jamaica leaned into its burgeoning call center industry, only to trigger a coronavirus outbreak. Writing for the World Economic Forum, Bahamas-based businesswoman Barbara Ann Bernard fears impending social unrest.

Few places depend on cruiser dollars more than southeast Alaska, which should have seen its first ships coming through the Inside Passage from Seattle and Vancouver this month. This part of the state expected 1.44 million cruise passengers this year, comprising 90% of all visitors to the region. Almost no vacationers are expected this year, in turn, as southeast Alaska cannot be reached by road, air connections have been reduced to skeleton schedules, and out-of-state visitors currently must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. As of now, the earliest possible Alaskan cruises will depart in late July, missing over half of the peak summer vacation season.

A decade of growth has made tourism the area’s largest private sector industry. That seasonal injection of jobs and dollars has buttressed a local economy facing the long-term decline of timber and oil revenue and the ups and downs of seasonal fishing. “Anybody in Ketchikan that wants a job in the summer can have one,” says Patti Mackey, president and CEO of Visit Ketchikan. At least, that was the case until coronavirus stopped the cruise ships.

Some Alaskans are relishing the prospect of a summer without tourists, but Mackey has sobering numbers: Between visitor spending, sales tax, and port fees, this city of 8,500 on the southern tip of the state pockets an estimated $250 million from cruise ships every year. In previous rounds of griping by local residents about the industry’s role, Mackey points out the flip side: “Just how valuable are those sales tax dollars? How much would your sales tax have to be to maintain the same level of services?”

Without much of an economic alternative in the short term, Mackey in pinning her hopes on the future, and the eventual return of the ships that keep the town afloat. “We’ve heard there is interest in rebooking for next year,” she says. “People are going to try and hold on.”

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The Health Emergency That’s Coming to West Louisville

In a few weeks, a tsunami is going to hit Louisville, Kentucky. It is going to be worse there than many other cities; and it’s going to be the worst in west Louisville. The tsunami, of course, is Covid-19. West Louisville could prove to be a case study in environmental and health injustice, showing what happens when a deadly virus collides with pollution, poverty and decades of segregation.

Louisville has the most polluted air of America’s hundreds of midsized cities, but the burden isn’t shared equally by all who live there. The predominantly black residents of Rubbertown — which is home to Louisville’s chemical industries — and those in nearby west-side neighborhoods are about twice as likely to have asthma as those on the city’s largely white east side, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re also twice as likely to have high blood pressure, four times more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and six times more likely to have heart disease. Scientists agree that pollution is a major cause of these conditions.

This leaves Rubbertown uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19, which hits those with preexisting conditions hardest. A CDC study found that about 75% of victims who needed to be hospitalized had at least one such condition, and their outcomes tend to be worse. West Louisville’s high rates of respiratory diseases (such as asthma and COPD) are particularly worrisome, since Covid-19 can cause serious damage to the lungs. What’s more, scientists believe exposure to air pollution is itself a risk factor for Covid-19: In a recent study of 3,080 U.S. counties, Harvard University researchers found that those with dirtier air had higher death rates from the disease.

When the postmortem is done on who survived and who died because of Covid-19, the results won’t be equally distributed among races and places. Polluting industries are more likely to be sited in minority and low-income communities, as Dr. Robert Bullard, known as “the father of environmental justice,” has found in his classic book “Dumping in Dixie” and several other publications. Detroit, New Orleans and the Bronx are among those with skyrocketing Covid-19 deaths in part due to terrible pollution problems. Deaths will be higher in poor neighborhoods and those with lots of air, water and soil contamination. So it’s only a matter of time before the tsunami comes crashing into Louisville.

How do we know that Louisville has the worst air quality of any midsized city? The Environmental Protection Agency provides the most valid and reliable measures of poor air quality, which our team of researchers grouped together as one grand ranking: Louisville is No. 1 when you average out the four EPA measures. We considered Louisville’s air quality alongside more than 140 comparable cities. (Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is about 100 miles south of Louisville, has none of the chemical industries and some of the cleanest air in the country.)

Our research also shows that air pollution makes Louisville’s poorest residents die before their time. We compared the age of death for people in Louisville’s bottom income quartile with similar residents of the five cleanest cities, which all heavily regulated air pollution. We were shocked to find that poor men in Louisville died five years earlier and poor women died four years earlier than their counterparts in clean-air cities with strong pollution controls.

Interestingly, people in the top income quartile in Louisville and other polluted cities live just as long as their wealthy counterparts in cleaner cities. Why? Because the rich move far away from polluters. Poor air is not an issue for the rich and powerful to fight — they live, work and go to school many miles away from chemical companies. The poor don’t have that kind of choice. In Louisville, most affordable housing is near industries that create pollution.

People are affected by pollution even before birth; researchers have found toxic particles lodged in human placentas. And evidence shows it contributes to countless other problems, including higher rates of respiratory and heart diseases, more miscarriages and even cancer. It also results in unwalkable cities, lower housing values, greater risk of foreclosure, and reduced tax revenues to support essential services.

Add Covid-19 to this list. It is another factor directly threatening the lives of people residing in polluted neighborhoods.

But in Louisville, political authorities seem slow to connect the dots. Not long ago, a task force was convened by the mayor to understand why west Louisville residents were dying prematurely. It wound up downplaying the importance of air pollution, instead overemphasizing the influence of lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking, obesity and education — a classic blame-the-victim approach. Industrial polluters were no doubt thrilled to be let off the hook. (For a further discussion, see our forthcoming article “Pollution, Place and Premature Death: Evidence from Louisville, Kentucky” in the urban policy journal Local Environment.)

More recently, Louisville’s leadership has blamed the lack of trees in neighborhoods. But our national study of cities has found no solid correlation between tree cover and lifespan. Indeed, we found that some of the cleanest air in the nation is in places like Yuma, Arizona, which has the lowest level of tree canopy of any American city. People there live up to five years longer in their counterparts in cities with dirty air. A tree on every lawn isn’t going to reduce rates of cancer, asthma or Covid-19. But clean air will.

Of course, air pollution isn’t just a problem in Louisville. President Trump has struck down 95 environmental regulations since taking office, making air, water and soil across the U.S. more dangerous, and in the wake of Covid-19, he has exempted industries from even a modicum of environmental oversight. Meanwhile, up to 9 million people die prematurely worldwide due to air pollution, according to the medical journal The Lancet. The World Health Organization says it is the second leading cause of noncommunicable diseases. Sadly, we will see even more deaths caused by the toxic mixture of pollution and Covid-19.

Back in Louisville, with the rise of Covid-19, the need for real science is more important than ever. Historically, Louisville has been the capital of bad science, starting with fraudulent smoking studies in the 1960s (see the 1999 film “The Insider”), and the trend continues today, with harsh lobbying against scientists who point the finger at pollution. West Louisville industries get a political pardon because they produce jobs with good incomes, even though they pose significant and deadly health risks.

But science can show Louisville how to solve some of its most pressing problems — problems that are all the more pressing due to Covid-19 — and other cities can learn from its example. Reduce air pollution, and you will see west Louisville blossom.

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