a green background with an image of a climate protester in afront of a banner waying 'you cruise we lose and another photo of an absolutely huge cruise ship on a sunny day in Auckland harbour, with some idons of a world on fire and piles of coins in the background
The Majestic Princess cruise ship and the protest on the dock (Images: Shanti Mathias)

SocietyApril 23, 2024

Why Restore Passenger Rail has set its sights on stopping cruise ships

a green background with an image of a climate protester in afront of a banner waying 'you cruise we lose and another photo of an absolutely huge cruise ship on a sunny day in Auckland harbour, with some idons of a world on fire and piles of coins in the background
The Majestic Princess cruise ship and the protest on the dock (Images: Shanti Mathias)

Climate activists are setting their sights on an unpopular target, and hoping to bring lots of the public with them.

It’s hard to miss the Majestic Princess: the enormous cruise ship, docked at Auckland’s Prince’s Wharf, looms over the nearby buildings. The ship, which can fit nearly 6,000 people, is 300 metres long, decorated with bright blue waves vibrating over the bow. The ferries that dart across the harbour, which seem otherwise spacious when they have several dozen people aboard, suddenly look tiny. 

Further down on Princes Wharf, among the Hilton hotel, the shadow of the cruise ship blocks the sun. As a customs announcement echoes across the concrete (“If you are carrying any meat or fresh fruit and vegetables, you may not bring them ashore”), a steady stream of passengers emerge, pulling enormous suitcases, blue stickers on their chests indicating their cabin numbers. One wears a t-shirt reading “Eat. Sleep. Cruise. Repeat.” Various purveyors of experiences – tours, buses, taxi drivers – hover, trying to compel passengers to come with them. 

Among them are several groups of protestors, with big orange signs. “End Luxury Emissions” reads one. Other protesters are greeting the passengers with a big smile. “Welcome to Tāmaki Makaurau, here’s some information.” Most people take a pamphlet, which bears an illustration of a cruise ship in the embrace of a penguin. Others avoid eye contact. One woman opens the pamphlet to see what’s inside: a brief cartoon illustrating how travelling by cruise ships emits three to four times as much as a plane covering the same distance, harms marine life and pollutes the water. “Oh, oh no!” she says, trying to hand it back. 

two protesters in a parking lot holding an orage sign saying 'you cruise we lose' one is tall and wearing a BRIGHT orange jacket, the other is short and wearing brown docs, a checked flannel shirt and brown boots
Climate liberation activists greet passengers – as does the hop-on hop-off bus (Image: Shanti Mathias)

While only a few people have turned out for this Friday morning protest, there are certainly many more in the country who are unhappy with the frequency of large cruise ships. The Majestic Princess is Auckland’s last cruise ship for the season, but Auckland’s regular commuters have been irked by the hundreds of cancellations of ferry services caused by the slow, ponderous movement of enormous cruise ships through the harbour. 

It’s yet another example of how “luxury” travel is prioritised over everyday, essential travel – and sometimes at the ratepayers’ expense, says James Cockle, spokesperson for Climate Liberation Aotearoa. (If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the unsuccessful challenger to James Shaw’s Green Party leadership in 2021.) “People don’t realise how damaging cruise ships are – because no one needs to travel on a cruise ship, it can be one of the first things to tackle.” 

Cockle is wearing a sandwich board on the dock at the bow of the Majestic Princess, strolling around under a banner that reads “You Cruise, We Lose” – CLA’s catchphrase in its anti-cruise ship campaign. The board is a table, collecting poll responses from passersby, who can use Cockle’s pen to tick a box: Are you shitting your pants about the climate crisis? Moderately worried? Don’t care at all?

A middle aged man smiling in front of a banner wearing a sandwhich board with check marks. lots of people have checked that they are "sh*tting their pants about the climate crisis)
James Cockle invites passersby to think about their responses to the climate crisis, and says that fear is a reasonable response (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Climate Liberation Aotearoa is the new name of Restore Passenger Rail, the direct-action climate group that sprung out of Extinction Rebellion and made headlines for glueing themselves to roads and unfolding banners demanding – wouldn’t you know it – passenger rail last year. The reason for the pivot to cruise ships is clear: “We felt like under the new government we had little chance of making progress on passenger rail under road-centric leaders,” Cockle says. 

So the group has rebranded, regrouped, and set themselves another transport target: the enormous ships that come to New Zealand each summer, disgorging thousands of passengers. There’s certainly a line of logic from their direct actions last year – if people hate it when their transport is disrupted by visible actors, and cruise ships disrupt daily transport in most New Zealand cities in one way or another, then why not try to rally that energy into a movement that targets cruise ships? The target has shifted too, with the group focusing first on changing council emissions policy instead of focusing mainly on changing central government.

For instance, Cockle asks, why do councils run extra buses for cruise ship passengers when people who live somewhere permanently have to wait for infrequent services? Why are there train services in Dunedin for cruise ship passengers looking to go on a day trip, but no – back to a favourite topic – passenger rail for residents? Why do councils not count the emissions of the cruise ships they entice in their emissions calculations? 

This last point is particularly galling: the Climate Change Commission has said that including international shipping and aviation in climate targets is consistent with fighting climate change  although New Zealand doesn’t currently do this. Councils have climate targets too; after submissions from CLA and others, Christchurch City Council is investigating charging an environmental levy on visiting cruise ships, and potentially changing how emissions are calculated. 

While passenger rail – which Cockle notes is “overwhelmingly popular”, with an inquiry last year gaining more than 1,700 submissions – might not be on the table with the current government, transport remains a major contributor to Aotearoa’s carbon emissions, at around 18% of total emissions and 44% of energy related emissions (i.e., not methane produced by livestock). That’s without counting the carbon produced by shipping, cruises and international air travel. “I used to think that flying was worse than travelling by ship, but now I know it’s not,” says Caril Cowan, a climate activist protesting as part of CLA, here because she’s keen to take action to do something differently.

a grey haired woman with a green t-shirt and a smile holding a pamphlet with a picture of a cruise ship and a penguine
Caril Cowan has been a climate activist for a long time, and was shocked when she learned how bad cruise ships are for the environment (image: Shanti Mathias)

People who saw Restore Passenger Rail’s actions last year will be familiar with their approach. “We’ve seen that change is not made through marches and rallies, petitions and letters – we support those actions, but there’s a real need for disruption,” Cockle says. Demanding passenger rail looked like disrupting cars and buses, making a stand on motorways and spray-painting buildings; successfully attention raising but necessarily, and purposefully, unsettling for people wanting to go about their days. 

The tactics are similar in targeting cruise ships, but aimed instead at visitors. CLA have paddled in front of the Majestic Princess in Dunedin Harbour, dropped banners reading “cruise ships kill wildlife, nature and our future” in Zealandia when cruise ship visitors were there on a tour and blocked trams carrying cruise visitors in Christchurch. In trying to engage directly with passengers, using the pamphlets and having conversations with those who are interested, the protesters are hoping to change how people think about cruises. Cockle says that some conversations have been revelatory: a woman he spoke to at a Dunedin cruise stop burst into tears when talking to the protesters, describing her love of the natural world and her sadness that her grandchildren don’t want to have kids because of the climate. “It’s sad to see that, but it’s a response that makes sense to the climate crisis,” Cockle says. 

“A lot of people don’t know how many emissions they’re producing by going on a cruise,” says Tamati, a climate campaigner holding a sign. “I feel sad for the passengers – they think they’re on the cruise for their own good but they don’t see how they’re just being treated as cash for whoever owns the cruise company. They’re just captured.” Others handing out flyers express sympathy for the massive suitcases many passengers are hauling along the footpath, and the confusing signage that leads many fresh-off-the-boat passengers to stop in the middle of the dock, trying to figure out where to go.

In choosing to target cruise ships and their passengers, CLA have perhaps picked a cause that more people can get on board with. While cruise ships get lots of credit for being economic stimuli, Cockle notes that research has shown cruise ship visitors spend less than other tourists, making up 3% of tourism spend but about 9% of total visitors. Cruise passengers aren’t paying for accommodation – which is provided by their overseas-owned vessels – and are usually only in each destination for a day. They tend to only spend in select places: good if you’re a Louis Vuitton store on lower Queen Street, not so much if your business is located anywhere else. “Even if a business is relying on cruise ships, relying on something so unsustainable and unpredictable means they probably need to look at their business model again,” Cockle says. 

A cruise ship with blue waves on the bow is docked on the Auckland waterfront, the sky wis blue with streaks of cloud and there are people in the foreground
While environmental concerns are central, activists also note that labour conditions on ships can be poor; CLA activists have talked to stressed cruise workers. (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Cruise ships, many smaller than the Majestic Princess, made over 1,000 port stops around New Zealand throughout the summer, but fewer visits are expected next summer, which CLA is calling a win, even though it’s mostly due to high port costs rather than climate considerations. Overseas, though, the industry is enormous, and hard to change: each large ship costs hundreds of millions of dollars, meaning the industry is incentivised to make money from it as long as possible. The Majestic Princess, for instance, cost 600 million euros – and it’s only the world’s 49th biggest cruise ship. Against the scale of this industry, the 70-metre-long banner CLA has been unfolding on the hillsides of ports when boats have been visiting seems tiny; as do the protesters in Auckland, not much more than a dozen, against the flow of disembarking passengers and the hulk of the ship itself, a skyscraper floating in the water.

Big ships might be hard to turn, but CLA firmly believes that it’s still possible. “We know it’s not enough to solve the problem on its own, but we think of it as the first pebble in an avalanche of destructive action as people stare down the devastating effects of climate change,” Cockle says. Or, to pick a more nautical metaphor: barnacles might be small, but enough of them can damage even the biggest of boats

The protesters are smiling as they hand the leaflets out, exuding the warm confidence of people who know that a problem exists and have chosen to take action to fix it. But what do the passengers think? 

I talk to S.B., a Singaporean man who has been on several cruises but has been particularly blown away by the beauty of Aotearoa. “Cruises are more relaxing than other holidays, you don’t have to haul yourself around.” He hasn’t noticed the protesters at previous cruise stops, although CLA has been following the Majestic Princess and the Ovation of the Seas, the final ships of the season, through the country. “I don’t know much about cruise emissions – aeroplanes are bad also, cruises are bad, you may as well just enjoy,” he says. 

Another couple, Kris and her husband, are waiting for a taxi. “Oh, we’ve done loads of cruising, I like it because I don’t have to lift a finger,” Kris says. The pair flew from London to Sydney to board the cruise. I ask Kris’s husband what he thinks of the protesters, and the emissions and pollution concerns about cruises. He shakes his head. “A lot more countries put in a lot more pollution than we do; if you say you have to reduce, reduce, reduce, then –” But their taxi is here, and Kris is hustling him and their two heaving suitcases away into the car before he can finish his thought. 

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