A golden age for cruising in the Mediterranean and Black Sea

Predictions suggest ports in these areas will soon bounce back. Jon Ingleton reports on the topics discussed at the 2018 MedCruise General Assembly

A golden age for cruising in the Mediterranean and Black Sea
Norwegian Spirit births at Valletta Port in Malta

This article was first published in the Itinerary Planning Special Report International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Cruise ship bookings for Turkey and the countries bordering the Black Sea are rising, slowly at first for 2019, but numbers look set to rocket in 2020 and 2021 numbers look set to rocket. 

At the MedCruise General Assembly at Valletta Port in Malta this summer, the association’s members cheered as president Airam Diaz Pastor proclaimed that “this is the Golden Age” of cruising. Michel Nestor, vice president of Global Port and Destination Development at Carnival Corporation, said that there would be many more ‘Golden Ages’ for the cruise industry and this ebullient phrase inevitably became the mantra for the whole event.  

It’s hard to keep reinventing conference programmes that will captivate a demanding audience, but MedCruise made a good job of combining topical, and sometimes contentious topics, with an informed panel of speakers. The gentle introductory session toyed with regional trends, prompting frequent reference to the conference mantra. 

“The reason I’m here is because the Mediterranean is a very viable option for our brand,” said Craig Milan, vice president of Itinerary and Destination Development at Virgin Voyages. “It’s very likely that we’re going to come to this region at some point. The Mediterranean offers fantastic ports and rich experiences.” 

Amid all of the statistics shared in this session, Nestor highlighted the need for ports to get ready for more overnights and larger ships. “There is a need for infrastructure investment and we realise that ports can’t always do this alone.” 

The discussion about trends lingered on the prospects for the Black Sea and Luigi Pastena, Port Operations director for MSC Cruises, expressed the common view of the cruise line delegates in attendance. “The Black Sea was very popular and as soon as we can we’ll get back there.” 

LNG supply and new regulations were the focus on the second session. A partial survey of MedCruise members established that 22% of ports are currently able to supply LNG fuel. Perhaps some of the reluctance among ports to invest in this capability has been the rumour that LNG is seen as only a medium-term fuel preference. But Tom Strang, Carnival Corporation’s senior vice president of Maritime Affairs, offered a different view, saying that lines are ordering LNG ships and ports must catch up. “We expect LNG to be the preferred choice for 30-40 years.” 

During the shipbuilding session, cruise executives shared worries about the infrastructure available to cater for the larger ships in the Mediterranean. 

“Ships are increasing in size at a much faster pace than the port developments to accommodate them,” said Vassilos Gazikas, director of Marine Operations at Celestyal Cruises. “The developments in ports are falling behind and inevitably this will cause congestion in the major marquee ports. Cruise lines have to coexist, and this can diminish the passenger experience.” 

Steven Young, vice president of Port and Shore Operations at Carnival UK, agreed, asking: “There isn’t really the same level of investment going into the ports, so as these new ships are launched, who will be able to accommodate them?”

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s director of Commercial Development EMEA Ana Karina Santini spoke about the two primary funding models for port development projects. “Either the port makes the investment and sets up a concession with a terminal operator, or the port agrees a long-term deal with a terminal operator who makes the investment,” she explained. 

While these comments may seem somewhat critical of Mediterranean ports, it’s clear that cruise lines are trying to engender greater action now to support the big growth in calls to the region that is to come in the near future. 

“This has to be a partnership that works for both sides,” said Karin Plettner, head of Port Operations and Experience at Carnival Maritime. Alongside Young, Plettner concluded the session by encouraging ports to use cruise lines as “free consultants” to ensure capital expenditure projects will effectively serve the industry for many generations to come. The message was clear: understand your target ship size and type and then develop the facilities to serve them well. 

The final panel discussion addressed the issues and opportunities for collaboration between stakeholder groups to help accelerate local and regional growth. Declaring safety as the primary objective, Silversea Cruises’ manager of Itinerary Planning Frederique Party said smaller ports must use local collaboration to elevate awareness. “The investment we need from ports is in promoting their destination,” he explained. “We plan an itinerary two or three years ahead and if the port spends to help sell it, [we recognise that] it will take a long time to get their investment back.” 

Gerhard Lübbren, director of Destination Management at AIDA Cruises, observed the different audiences that are involved in the collaborative welcome for cruise business in a destination. “Beyond the gauge to the port it’s no longer a business-to-business relationship, it’s a business-to-consumer situation,” he said. “There are people that are critical of the cruise industry and we need to address that – the detractors have a powerful narrative and we need to have a common response. Their aggressive phrases are influencing opinion and so we have to communicate the benefits.” 

Ugo Savino, senior manager of Itinerary Strategy and Planning at Carnival Cruise Line, provided a cheaper and more upbeat marketing suggestion. “Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing.” 

MedCruise members experience the same highs and lows as all other ports and destinations around the world, but their collaborative willingness to proactively seek solution and inherently upbeat outlook will ensure they thrive.

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Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
21 January 2019

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