From the increasing threat of marine litter to the cruise industry – Europe boasts a booming year-round cruise destination, it is no wonder the European Union is seeking to boost its international ocean governance.

In an exclusive interview with European Interest, European Commissioner Karmenu Vella outlines his objectives. Sustainability is the buzz word.

In charge of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Vella notes that the EU is leading efforts to reduce single-use plastics (more than 80% of marine litter is plastics). He is also busy addressing the bottlenecks to the sustainable future of the cruise industry before the end of his mandate.

Specifically about cruise tourism, he says it is vital to think in terms of circular economy and sustainable consumption and production.

Vella also stresses the need to reduce cruise industry’s impact on the climate. He says the International Maritime Organization (IMO) target of a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a good start.  But he warns that the EU needs to take concrete steps now to make sure the goal is reached.

European Interest: With the collapse of multilateral consensus on environmental protection, how is the EU planning to maintain the lead in protecting the seas? Are we still a normative superpower? Do you think the European Commission can contribute to the defence of the seas from micro-plastics, for instance?

Commissioner Karmenu Vella: Based on its unique ocean governance strategy, the European Union is strongly advocating for improved international ocean governance, both with its partners – think about the recently agreed EU-China Ocean Partnership – and at international forums. At the Our Ocean conference in Malta last year, we secured nearly 450 new commitments, €7bn in financial pledges, and 2.5m square kilometres of new Protected Areas.

In December last year, we had another major breakthrough. The EU worked intensively with the UN to step up protection for biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions.  That should bring an ambitious new legal agreement, safeguarding these ocean spaces.

Marine litter is another challenge, and here too the EU is leading international efforts. A major milestone is our EU Strategy for Plastics with its initiatives against single use plastics and fishing gear and addressing microplastics from all sources.

As regards the cruise industry, what would you like to achieve before the end of your term?

My objective is that all the stakeholders involved in cruise tourism adhere to the sustainability principle. In 2019, we will complete our round of regional dialogues between all the players in the cruise industry. This includes the ports, the destinations and the cruise shipping industry. These dialogues, organised by sea basin and at EU level, started in 2015. Before the end of my mandate we want to effectively address the bottlenecks to the sustainable future of the industry. The conclusions of these dialogues will be translated into principles of good practices for cruises that all actors can commit to.

The cruise industry represents only a fraction of the multibillion-euro impact of the tourism industry on consumption and industrial development, what are your current regulatory priorities? Can we have environmentally sustainable mass tourism? Who are the stakeholders in this complex balancing act?

The phenomenon of over-tourism and saturation of certain destinations, especially during seasonality peaks, is an important challenge for the tourism business and for local communities.

It produces a clear impact on the quality of life of local populations and on the natural and historical environment. In particular, it is a recurrent challenge for certain cruise destinations.

The Commission’s policy framework for tourism aims at increasing the sector’s capacity for sustainable growth. The Commission ensures adequate framework conditions at EU level and enables dialogue, cooperation and exchange of best practices between all relevant stakeholders – tourism businesses, collaborative economy platform companies, employers’ associations, governments, regions, and destinations – to mitigate the negative effects of over-tourism. This involves organisation of regular meetings in different fora and with different mixes of stakeholders.

The Commission is also cooperating with international organisations like the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to strengthen cooperation at all levels in view of achieving sustainable development goals linked to tourism.

In parallel, the Commission has been supporting the development of sustainable and high-quality tourism through a number of initiatives that could contribute to the decongestion of major destinations as well as to extending the tourism season.

Under the Programme for the Competitiveness of Enterprises and SMEs (COSME), over the period 2014-2016, the Commission has supported the diversification of the EU tourism offer through co-funding of numerous trans-national thematic tourism projects. This included 33 public/private partnerships, including governmental authorities, industry and regions, supporting various forms of off-peak tourism and the development or promotion of socially inclusive tourism.

In addition, the Commission has implemented several editions of the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) initiative to promote non-traditional, emerging tourism destinations across Europe. EDEN indirectly contributes to decongestion of mass tourism destinations.

Moreover, the Commission has put in place the European Tourism Indicators System which is a practical tool to support sustainable management of tourism destinations.

As regards cruise tourism specifically, the pan-European dialogue between cruise operators, ports and coastal tourism stakeholders, established under the Communication on coastal and maritime tourism, provides a framework for cooperation among these stakeholders.

As a result of the Pan-European Dialogue and the subsequent Regional Dialogues by sea-basin (Mediterranean, Baltic, Atlantic), the sector is encouraged to find joint solutions to sustainability issues such as berthing congesting problems at ports, disposal of cruise-generated waste in ports, saturation of most popular destinations, environmental challenges, innovation quests and increasing the benefits of cruise visits for coastal communities.

The development of the cruise sector presupposes ports with the capacity and standard of service required to compete globally. How is the European Commission planning to boost European infrastructure to unleash this development potential? How does the Commission ensure the application of consistent service standards across member states?

With the Connecting Europe Facility and the European Investment plan, the Commission has put in place instruments that are designed to support the development of high-capacity port infrastructure, including cleaner fuel infrastructure such as LNG terminals. With the implementation of the revised Directive on port reception facilities, which is currently being negotiated by member states and the European Parliament, European ports should be equipped to adequately receive cruise vessels and be well prepared to face the global competition.

Tourism can provide the resources for environmental and cultural heritage protection. Are you satisfied with the balance of the synergy thus far? Is the close cooperation between the public authorities and the cruise industry in Dubrovnik a useful precedent which could serve as an example for the development of European policies?

I wouldn’t talk about synergies, but integration. Cruise tourism is dependent on unspoiled destinations, and the cruise industry is very much aware of that. And as consumer demand for sustainable tourism is growing, so is the need to think in terms of circular economy and sustainable consumption and production in the tourism and cruising sector.

Destinations are interested in receiving visitors, but they also need to derive appropriate benefits from these visits. Respecting the carrying capacities of the destination and promoting local community engagement and empowerment are essential to this approach.

It is in the interest of all parties to find a solution that is sustainable, from an economic, environmental and societal perspective. This is exactly what we are trying to promote with our cruise dialogues, both at the level of the whole EU, but also regionally, with the first Mediterranean Regional Cruise Dialogue in October 2015 in Olbia, Italy.

We are also addressing the increased environmental burdens cruise tourism brings, for example in the form of waste. The European Commission proposal for amending the Port Reception Facilities Directive will contribute to achieving this goal. We also want to reduce cruise industry’s impact on the climate; the IMO target of a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a good start.  Now we need concrete steps to make sure we reach the goal.