How Does Tourism Impact the Ocean: Water Pollution

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Tourism has a huge influence on water pollution. But do you know where that pollution comes from or how it impacts the environment? Here we try to answer those questions and more.

Where does water pollution come from?

Tourism has a huge influence on water pollution, but a huge source is from cruise ships.

These ships, which are a popular vacation choice for many, dump a lot of waste into the ocean every year. Often they travel into international waters to do so. In these unregulated areas, they’ll dump the untreated sewage waste of the thousands of people that they have on board.

This adds up quickly. In 2014, that number was around one BILLION gallons of sewage. Even the “eco-friendly” cruise ships are failing. NABU—a German environmental group—ranked European cruise companies in 2017 for their environmental impact...and found that they could not recommend a single company for travel with.

Cruise ships are also major pollutants in other ways. Many use heavy fuel oils to power their small cities, and very little is being done to offset the effects of burning those oils. As Andrew McMaster writes for “To make matters worse, many of the companies operating the vessels have failed to install soot filters that would at least marginally improve the environmental impact of their massive fuel combustion.

Filters would help to capture some of the fine particulates that are released when the diesel engines burn fuel, thereby preventing them from escaping into the atmosphere. However, of the 23 ships that the industry claimed would be equipped with this technology, not a single one of them is operational.”

Now that we’ve established the cruise ships are dumping waste into the oceans, it’s worth exploring what this means for the environment.

Untreated effluents from cruise ships

If you’re doing any research into water pollution, you might run across the word “effluents.”

Effluents are untreated streams of waste that flow into our natural water and airways. Smoke, liquid sewage, and and any other polluting material are all examples of these environmentally-detrimental substances, and cruise ships are a major producer and distributor of them, but they aren’t the only one.

Effluents have a lot of negative consequences for local waterways and oceans. They cause pollution, reduce animal life, and damage human and animal communities. They ultimately reduce the beauty of the natural landscape and pollute the local communities.


As effluents are dumped into waterways, one of the biggest problems that is experienced is eutrophication: the ultra-high concentration of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in a body of water.This results in a massive blooming of algae, covering ponds and streams that used to be clear with a layer of “scum”.

Blocked sunlight

When algae covers a huge surface area of a body of water, it can lead to devastating effects for the life underneath the surface. Often the first stage of this is blocked sunlight.

Despite the fact that they are underwater, plant life beneath the surface still requires sunlight to grow and flourish. Huge blooms of algae can effectively cut off the access to sunlight that these plants need, causing them to die.

These plants provide a number of important functions to the underwater ecosystems, such as:

  • Providing shelter for underwater life

  • Serving as food for fish and aquatic animals

  • Moderating nutrient levels

  • Limiting erosion

  • Oxygenating the water

Without aquatic plants there is no filtration system for a body of water. This means that toxic chemicals from sewage are more easily absorbed and that biodiversity begins to quickly disappear.

Oxygen deficiency

Another negative effect of not having plants in a body of water is oxygen deficiency. This is only exacerbated by the oxygen-sucking algae living on the surface.

As oxygen sources begin to deplete, more and more marine life begins to die. As the fish and other living organisms begin to decompose underwater, they use up even more of the little oxygen that’s remaining! Ultimately a vicious cycle is created that results in water that has no marine life.

Introducing pathogens

Effluents also introduce pathogens to bodies of water. Pathogens—broadly defined as anything that can cause disease—affect marine life, yes, but it also spreads into the human populations of the local areas.

When untreated wastewater is dumped into our oceans, rivers, and streams, it eventually leaks into our drinking water resources. Though not caused by tourism directly, this Australian region is suffering the effects of fecal contamination from cattle ranching. Residents have been issued 10 boil-water alerts in the last 10 years alone! It’s a scenario that is not too far from what we will start experiencing because of tourism in the future.


Impact of water pollution on tourism

Cruise ships are one of the largest contributors to the problem of effluents and waste in the ocean, but other forms of tourism impact this as well, such as coastal development projects. Regardless of the source though, all tourism will be impacted by the effects.

Yes, the lack of biodiversity is important for our ecosystems, and is something we should all care about. However, as these practices increase, companies will begin to see profits shrink as destinations become more polluted and unattractive. As fish and underwater plants die and ecosystems begin to disappear, the market to visit these places will begin to dry up. Companies that build their businesses on the experience of these natural wonders will begin to suffer.


In the long run it’s more profitable to work to conserve the natural landscapes of the world, because destinations lose their profitability when it loses its beauty.

This is why Sea Going Green is working with tourism companies to alleviate their negative impacts on the marine environment and empower them to #GoGreenForTheBigBlue.