In 2019, Cultural Cruises Europe launched a plan to become carbon-neutral by 2021. Here’s the story of our journey told by Margriet Lakeman, our sustainability coordinator.

It all started at a company meeting in October 2019. At a workshop with skippers, tour leaders and the office team we were brainstorming how to make our tours more sustainable. People suggested things like avoiding food waste, eliminating disposable plastic and sailing more slowly to reduce fuel use.

Then a skipper grumbled, “Why bother? We did this last year and nothing changed”. With a sinking heart I realized he was right. A whole year had passed and we’d barely made any progress.


At Cultural Cruises Europe (and mother company Boat Bike Tours) we’ve been thinking about sustainability for a while. In 2018, we worked with Sea Going Green, a sustainable tourism consultancy, on a pilot study to assess our environmental impact. We researched the impact of three of our ships to learn the average carbon footprint per guest per tour. We also discussed points of action with eco-conscious tour leaders and skippers.

Unfortunately, like so many companies, the busyness of daily work barely left any time for change. So one day at the end of 2019, I decided it was time for a new approach. I went up to Laurens (the owner of Boat Bike Tours) to ask if I could switch from my marketing role to be the company’s sustainability coordinator. He agreed on the spot! He had literally decided then and there that we should become 100% climate neutral by 2021. I could hardly believe it!

To measure is to know

At the end of that year, we assessed our entire fleet with Sea Going Green to create a baseline record. Each ship owner completed a questionnaire to measure onboard consumption of electricity, fuel, drinking water, food, paper, glass, plastic, and well as production of laundry, rubbish, waste water and more.

I also met with all ship owners to hear their feelings on sustainability. It was enlightening to learn that onr ship was almost entirely solar powered; while another had water-saving shower heads that reduce water consumption by 40%. Some boats had already reduced disposable plastic to a minimum, while other skippers were now investigating changes.

These conversations weren’t always easy – some skippers were cynical about sustainability, seeing it as a marketing trick, or a cloud of confusing research. To these responses I always answered “we have to start somewhere”.

Overcoming obstacles

One day after a very challenging conversation, I complained to my sister about how hard it all was. She replied, “you should be grateful for the criticism, it’ll keep pushing you in the right direction.” And she’s right! By February 2020, I’d seen all ships and could give the completed questionnaires to Sea Going Green to analyze.

Of course, this part was also tricky thanks to different interpretations of questions and the complexity of answers about ship parts, engines and generators. This showed us the need to refine our measuring system – a process that we’ll continue to improve each year.

Changes at the office

It was also important to understand the impact of our office in Amsterdam North, so in addition to measuring the building’s consumption of gas, water and electricity, I assessed our office supplies to learn how many cartridges, printouts and even bottles of dish detergent we use annually.  We introduced recycling bins and met with alternative fuel experts and skippers to learn about HVO biofuel. As a special touch we planted an olive tree out the front of the office as a symbol of our green journey.

One of the changes that made me rather (un)popular was my suggestion that a team-building weekend in Austria (by plane) wasn’t aligned with our sustainability goals. So we had a weekend in Maastricht (by train) instead. More grumbles. But I also learnt another valuable lesson: to make change you have to make choices, and you can’t let the reactions upset you if you’re the one pushing for change. So now I feel more confident and proud of these changes. I go to the office with wearing a smile and a “Let’s go Green” T-shirt. Luckily there are lots of supportive and enthusiastic colleagues too.

Out of the blue

So it was early 2020 and we were looking forward to attending the world’s leading travel fair, ITB Berlin, to reveal our new tours and ships. This year was especially exciting because we would also announce our 2021 carbon neutral strategy.

We had also planned a pre-season team day at the office for all skippers, tour leaders and staff. In addition to the normal first aid and bike repair workshops, I’d invited an inspiring speaker: Li An Phoa, founder of Drinkable Rivers. Working to reconnect people with rivers, and striving for a world with drinkable waterways, Li An’s cause aligns beautifully with our own activities, where we travel on rivers every day.

And then… you guessed it, the coronavirus hit. The trade fair was cancelled, our team day was cancelled and the entire tour season was postponed. Now, several months later, we’re adapting to this strange new situation and slowly, carefully starting the tour season.

Even though the coronavirus turned the world upside down, we’re still sticking to our green goals. Our 2021 carbon neutral plan will go ahead – and will include a biofuel pilot and CO2 compensation program.

Right now, health and safety are top priority, but we are still slowly and steadily working on a greener way to travel, which we can’t wait to share with you, our guests.

Want to learn more about our carbon-neural plans? Visit the Boat Bike Tours sustainability page for more information.

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