Regional volatility, the small available pool of cruise-ready ports, an acute lack of busses and tour guides at destinations during peak times and a dated infrastructure that is unable to cope with increasing numbers of cruise guests are the key challenges obstructing the growth of cruising in the East Med, according to representatives of three of the world’s biggest cruise lines speaking on the second day of the 5th Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum in Athens.
And with a 7% projected increase in cruise passengers for Greece alone estimated for this year according to Greek Minister of Tourism, Thanasis Theocharopoulos during his opening remarks on the final day of the Forum, the challenges are likely to be accentuated for the near future until ongoing infrastructure improvements materialise. “Our aim is for our ports to become more attractive to cruise operators from an infrastructure point of view in order for Greece to fully capitalise on the vast potential of the cruise sector and increase its contribution to the country’s economic growth,” he said.
In spite of the existing challenges, Disney Cruise Lines returns to Greece this summer with nine and 12-night itineraries connecting marquee Aegean ports with Venice and the Adriatic and MSC is adding a fifth ship in East Med increasing its available capacity by 26.4%. Another ship will be deployed by MSC in 2020 to fuel capacity by a further 25%.
But growing guest numbers will put further pressure on existing infrastructure at traditional ports of call as the extra capacity cannot be dispersed to smaller, but equally attractive destinations which are still not cruise-ready.
“Disney Cruises ships can approach only six Greek ports and that’s a shame,” said Paul Britton, Manager, Marine Operations, Ports and Itinerary Planning, Disney Cruise Lines, which is returning to Greece this year with port calls in Piraeus, Santorini, Mykonos and Katakolo.“There are certain components for a pleasant cruise experience starting with a great homeport and airlift capacity. Then you need to be able to offer a selection of a few strong marquee ports, a coherent itinerary, well balanced sea-days and a big final port or experience. Greece offers all of these, but what’s missing is the ‘hidden gems’ ports ingredient, in spite of boasting 100 inhabited islands and an archipelago of nearly 6,000 smaller islands and islets,” said Britton.
Alexandros Fan, Product and Buying Corporate Shorex Excursions, MSC Cruises said that increasing demand for shore excursions is an important issue that needs to be addressed. “Finding an adequate number of busses and guides during peak times is a major problem and all stakeholders need to work together and find solutions in order to develop a more sustainable cruise offering and product,” he said. “We need to have proper facilities and adequate infrastructure to serve and cater to our big ships,” he added.
According to Elena Vlad, Director of Shorex Excursions, Product Development & Operations, Holland America Group, the most appealing destinations for cruise companies are those that offer commercial benefits and operational efficiencies at competitive costs.
The Greek government is aware of the challenges and the wants of cruise companies and is working towards addressing the issues to alleviate stakeholder concerns.
According to Minister Theocharopoulos: “The development of the cruise sector and the establishment of Greece as a major sea tourism destination are strategic priorities for us. The continuous promotion of Piraeus and Heraklion as home ports, the increase in the number of home ports across the country, the improvement of our infrastructure and facilities are some of the initiatives we have taken to upgrade our product and pave the way for investments.”
The launch of international flights connecting Athens with key growth feeder destinations such as China, Canada and the USA and the upgrades of facilities at the country’s gateway regional airports, will also play a significant role in the growth of the cruise market.
“We are facing the challenges. The problems are not insurmountable, but they do require flexibility, fresh ideas, close collaboration and coordination between the government, associations and the private sector” added Theocharopoulos.
The 5th Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum is organised under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs & Insular Policy and is supported by the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping, CLIA Europe, the Association of Mediterranean Cruise Ports (MEDCRUISE), the Hellenic Professional Yacht Owners Association, the Greek Marinas Association, the Association of Passenger Shipping Companies, the Union of Cruise Ship Owners & Associated Members, the Federation of Hellenic Associations of Tourist and Travel Agencies (fedHATTA). Gold Sponsor is the Greek National Tourism Organisation. Silver sponsors are the Piraeus Port Authority, HEMEXPO and the Thessaloniki Port Authority, Bronze Sponsors are Air France – KLM, Aktina Travel Group, Celestyal Cruises, Global Ports Holding and Intercruises Shoreside and Port Services and Supporters are the Athens International Airport and FBIS Security.