Allure of the Mediterranean Sea as a cruise destination

Cruise line executives discuss their current itineraries and future plans with Michele Witthaus

Allure of the Mediterranean Sea as a cruise destination
Marella Cruises ships sail various itineraries to destinations throughout the Mediterranean, such as the south of France

By Michele Witthaus |

The popularity of the Mediterranean is down to the superb weather during the summer, mild temperatures in winter and the many ports and destinations that can be reached during a single voyage, says Elisabetta De Nardo, vice president of port development at MSC Cruises. “It’s our home; there’s no other part of the world that offers such a range of different and wonderful itineraries with such a variety of shoreside experiences, whether they be cultural tours, amazing sightseeing opportunities, culinary experiences, fun on the beach or water sports in the sea.”

The Mediterranean has also been the home of Costa Cruises since its origins over 70 years ago, says Davide Truscello, the company’s director of itinerary and pricing. “It is a destination with unique features. First, the extraordinary variety of cultures, traditions, history, landscapes, fantastic art, cities and beautiful beaches. Then the mild climate, which allows you to travel even in winter. Equally important is the availability of ports and infrastructure dedicated to cruise ships. Finally, the proximity to important source markets, such as Italy, France, Spain and Germany.”

As the only Greek homeporting cruise line, Celestyal Cruises is another company that lives and breathes the Mediterranean, in particular its Eastern region, including the Adriatic coast of Italy and Croatia, the islands of Greece, Turkey’s ports of Istanbul, Kusadasi (for Ephesus) and Canakkale (to visit Troy), as well as Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. “We proudly consider ourselves experts in the region and offer our guests an immersive experience not only to the marquee destinations such as Mykonos and Santorini but also to the lesser-known side of Greece,” says Chris Theophilides, the company’s CEO.

According to Saga Cruises’ head of trade sales and commercial partnerships Iain Powell, the region is popular with guests of all ages and demographics. “We often hear from our guests that the Mediterranean makes such a great cruise destination because of its mix of weather and the variation you get when travelling around the coast. The mix of cultures and history means that there really is something for everyone, from food lovers to art aficionados, fans of ancient history or modern cities – the Mediterranean has it all.”

The Mediterranean is also a popular choice with Marella Cruises’ customers, due to “the range of destinations and famous sights they can experience within a relatively short period of time; as well as shorter flight time compared to a long-haul cruise,” says Neil Duncan, head of trading and planning.

The Mediterranean features several very distinct regions, which have different trajectories when it comes to cruise. De Nardo sees the Western Mediterranean maintaining popularity “with seven-night voyages between Italy, France, Spain, Malta and Tunisia and more 10-night sailings to include the Canary Islands and Morocco.” She predicts the Eastern Mediterranean will continue to be popular for guests who like to combine a relaxing break with visits to historical sites. Regarding the Black Sea, she says: “It’s a consideration for the longer term if more ports could be developed for cruise liners, with turnaround operations in Istanbul.”

For guests of Saga Cruises, immersive experiences in the Black Sea are a big drawcard. “We tend to find that it’s our longer Black Sea voyages which prove very popular as guests get to experience the real range of destinations the Mediterranean has on offer, from Malta to Greece and Turkey,” says Powell. “More specifically, some of our newer cruises can take guests further afield, including the cultural city of Istanbul or the ancient city of Troy in Turkey.”

Post-pandemic, Duncan says that both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean “could potentially see increased demand quite quickly as customers return to travel and they want to visit their favourite destinations in Europe.” Regarding other regions, he says: “Cruise lines will focus on the most popular regions for their customers first, so the Black Sea and North Africa may take a little longer to get back to pre-pandemic levels. However, there is no doubt that customers will again want to explore further afield so I cannot see it being too long before these destinations appear more regularly on itineraries.”

Ports that have a wide appeal have never been more important for the predictability they bring to cruise lines’ itinerary planning, says De Nardo. “Our marquee West Mediterranean sailings are extremely popular because of the many ports available and dramatically different destinations to visit, similarly the itineraries in the East Mediterranean remain popular for the same reasons.”

Theophilides lists several itineraries that reliably do well for Celestyal Cruises. “Our seven-night ‘Idyllic Aegean’ itinerary is always incredibly popular thanks to the inclusion of the marquee destinations of Mykonos and Santorini, as well as Crete, Rhodes, Kusadasi, the lesser-known island of Milos and the historic city of Thessaloniki. Celesytal will also homeport in Thessaloniki, which has stunning Paleo Christian and Byzantine monuments, a Unesco World Heritage Site, monuments to the famed Alexander the Great, and a rich Roman and Sephardic Jewish heritage. Thessaloniki is now also a hub for the Balkans and European markets due to its newly upgraded airport, which offers competitive airfares to and from Northern and Western Europe, thus making cruising and Celestyal more accessible and affordable. We are also seeing strong interest in our seven-night ‘Eclectic Aegean’ itinerary, as well as our award-winning seven-night ‘Three Continents’ itinerary which calls in Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus. However, I would say that our most popular itineraries are our unique three- and four-night cruises which visit two Greek ports of call per day.”

Marella Cruises also has popular itineraries in the region, says Duncan. “Our ‘Adriatic Explorer’ itinerary sailing on Marella Explorer is popular with customers as it calls at some iconic hotspots including, Venice in Italy and Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia, but also allows people to discover some stunning hidden gems such as Kotor (Montenegro) and Koper (Slovenia).”

While established favourites are an important part of the mix, cruise lines also need to refresh their Mediterranean itineraries each year to give repeat cruisers something new. The trick is judging which ports to drop and to add in this process.

“MSC Cruises is always looking at new opportunities and most recently introduced Siracusa in Sicily and Taranto in Italy, both of which have proved to be very popular,” says De Nardo. “The market sets the rules on which ports to retain, and we take stock of customer satisfaction in our decision-making process for future itineraries.”

Theophilides says: “Celestyal Cruises is renowned for taking travellers to some of the hidden gems in Greece and we are committed to protecting this reputation by listening to guest feedback and refreshing our ports of call on an annual basis, thereby constantly upgrading and evolving our offering. Each year we reimagine our itineraries to ensure that we always offer our guests the best possible experience. We include new ports of call that allow full days as well as late departures in popular destinations.”

Powell says: “At Saga, we always try to refresh our itineraries as often as we can to ensure returning guests can experience something different. We often do this through a change in the ports we visit or altering the length of the sailing. We also strive to visit ports at times where something exciting is happening in the area, so that we can offer unique experiences for our guests.”

Duncan says that Marella Cruises aims to refresh its itineraries every season for the benefit of both repeat customers and new cruisers. “Customer feedback is really important to us when thinking about adding a new port or destination, so we take their comments into consideration throughout the process. We will always aim to add at least two new itineraries to our Mediterranean programmes every year.”

While the cruise lines seek to keep things fresh for their guests, cruise executives themselves often have eclectic personal wish lists for ports they look forward to visiting. Theophilides sings the praises of Milos, which is not visited by many other cruise lines. Top of Duncan’s list is what he calls Marella’s “surprise and delight” destinations, which include Ajaccio (Corsica), Kotor and Villefranche (France). Which all goes to show that, even for the experts, cruising in the Med never loses its attraction.

This article was first published in the 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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