Tourism on the Oceans

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Tourism on the Oceans

Human interest in the sea fuels a multi-billion dollar a year ocean tourism industry. Ocean tourism refers to pleasure travel in which the sea is the primary focus of activities. Ocean tourism comes in many forms including cruises, ecotourism, and fishing expeditions.

Cruising the oceans

Cruises are one of the most popular forms of ocean tourism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, cruise liners were needed to carry passengers across the oceans. Many of these cruise ships—including the ill-fated Titanic, which sank in 1912 killing over 1,500 people—provided passengers a luxurious way to travel. Originally powered by steam-driven engines, most modern cruise ships use diesel fuel to power their engines.

While cruise ships were needed for Atlantic Ocean crossings, by the mid-twentieth century, air travel made ocean crossings cheaper and faster. An airplane can cross the Atlantic in several hours instead of the one week required by most cruise ships. Cruise lines could no longer promote their services as providing a means of travel to and from vacation. (A cruise line is a company that owns one or more cruise ships.) With little need for cruise ships for ocean crossings, cruise line operators had to take a different approach to their business. They began to change the concept of the cruise itself to a vacation. Ships started traveling to exotic locations and offering more services and activities.

Today's cruise ships are large ships that serve as floating hotels for vacationers. Cruise ships include restaurants, shops, swimming pools, theaters, and cinemas. Some cruise ships even offer college-level courses onboard. Cruise ships cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct and may be over 1,000 feet (305 meters) long, over 150,000 gross tons (a term use to describe the size of a boat, ship, or barge), and stand taller than a 20-story building. The length of the largest cruise ship in 2004, the Queen Mary 2, is only 117 feet (36 meters) shorter than the height of the Empire State Building. The largest cruise ships can carry nearly 4,000 people, including the crew.

Tourism on the oceans provides a major boost to the economies of countries that are popular cruise destinations. In the United States, nearly 8 million people take a cruise every year. Cruises contribute an estimated $18 billion per year to the American economy. Cruise lines directly employee over 25,000 Americans. An estimated 250,000 American jobs are supported by the cruise industry.

The Titanic

On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. At the time, the Titanic was the largest, most expensive ship ever constructed. The Titanic was over 882 feet (269 meters) long and over 46,000 gross tons. The Titanic had 2,227 passengers and crew onboard. Only 705 passengers made it to New York City. More than 1,500 people died when the ship sank on the night of April 14 and early morning of April 15, after hitting an iceberg (large chunk of ice) in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Titanic was an engineering marvel. The ship took three years to build and cost over $7.5 million, a considerable sum in 1912. It contained a swimming pool, gymnasium, library, and several dining rooms. The Titanic was designed to be large and luxurious, not fast. It traveled at 21 knots (24 miles per hour). This was considerably slower than the fastest ship at the time, Mauritania, which traveled at 26 knots (30 miles per hour).

At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg. The iceberg was spotted while only a few hundred yards (meters) in front of the ship, which did not allow enough time to avoid the collision. Two hours and forty minutes later, the Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the cold ocean waters. The Titanic only had sixteen lifeboats, the minimum number required by outdated British regulation. The shortage of lifeboats resulted in many unnecessary deaths. The ship Carpathia responded to the Titanic's distress signal, but did not reach the scene until after the ship had sunk.

The Titanic lay in its icy grave until September 1, 1985, when scientists Robert Ballard and Jean Louis Michel discovered its remains. The Titanic lies 12,500 feet (3,810 meters), or about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) below the water surface.

The ocean tourism industry is highly regulated. Every commercial ship, including cruise ships, must be registered with a country in order to sail in international waters. A country may register ships only if it is a member of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO is an agency of the United Nations. The United Nations is an organization consisting of most of the independent states of the world and is designed to promote peace and security. Any country that registers ships under the IMO must have adopted the IMO's Resolutions and Conventions on maritime safety. The cruise industry has taken a major role in promoting safety on the seas. The International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) is a nongovernmental group that works with the IMO to promote maritime safety and environmental preservation.

In additional to ship registration, the nation where a ship docks, called the port state, may also impose restrictions on cruise ships. The United States has a reputation for strictly enforcing safety rules. The U.S. Coast Guard inspects every ocean-going ship in its ports four times per year. The United States imposes additional restrictions on ships registered in the United States, including that construction and ownership of the ship must be American. This leads many cruise ships to register in other countries, including Norway, Liberia, Panama, and the Bahamas. Over 90 cruise ships are registered in Liberia and Panama.

Ecotourism and fishing on the ocean

Cruise ships are not the only form of ocean tourism. Ecotourism of the oceans has become increasingly popular. Ecotourism involves tourism that focuses on the natural environment without harming it. One popular form of ecotourism is scuba diving. Scuba diving involves the use of a self-contained breathing system that allows a person to remain underwater for long periods. Scuba stands for "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus." Scuba divers enjoy the beauty of fish, coral reefs, and other marine features. Another form of ecotourism involves cruises to view wildlife such as humpback whales or dolphins, while impacting their environment as little as poissible.

Deep-sea fishing expeditions are another popular form of tourism on the oceans. Deep-sea fishing involves taking a boat several miles from shore in order to catch large fish, including tuna, marlin, and dolphin fish. Some species of deep-sea fish can weigh from several hundred to over 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms).

Protecting the environment

In many areas of the world, such as the Sea of Cortez off the coast of Mexico, numbers of large game fish are reduced, presumably from over-fishing. Many countries, including the United States, have laws stipulating the number, types, and sizes of game fish that may be caught and kept in order to reduce harm to the fish population.

Cruise lines have placed an increased emphasis on protecting the environment over the last two decades. Cruise ships must follow the environmental laws of a country when in that country's territorial waters. Ships must follow the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Oil Pollution Control Act when in American waters. These are all laws passed by Congress to control pollution in the United States.

The IMO and the ICCL also set environmental regulations for all registered ships. In 1973, IMO adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships at Sea (MARPOL), which it revised in 1978. MARPOL sets environmental standards that all ocean-going ships must meet. Cruise lines have also sought better methods to prevent pollution from the waste that cruise ships generate, including sewage and garbage.

Joseph P. Hyder

For More Information


Cudahy, Brian J. The Cruise Ship Phenomenon in North America. New York: Cornell Maritime Press, 2001.


International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL). (accessed on August 27, 2004).

International Maritime Organization (IMO). (accessed on August 27, 2004).

R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. (accessed on August 27, 2004).