Despite some rough sailing, cruise operators have a lot to be optimistic about in 2011. The projections for the year suggest that the cruising industry will grow by a robust 6.6% and with new cabotage laws in place, Greece is set to experience a healthy cruising season ahead.
The good news is that despite chartering through some turbulent waters, more cruise ships will be docking at Piraeus this year. The Maritime Affairs Ministry announced that around 939 vessels are expected to call at Piraeus this year as against 883 in 2010. Contributing to the rise in cruise ship arrivals is the general growing popularity of holiday cruises internationally; and the new law which allows cruise ships without a European Union flag to perform circular cruises with Piraeus as their starting point!Globally, Cruise Lines International Association data suggests that the cruise industry is hoping for 16 million passengers to embark on its ships in 2011, thus expecting an increase of 6.6 % on last year. The optimism is shared amongst the leading representatives of other industries too, with the difference being the cruise industry placing its hopes on a fleet of new ships and masses of new customers. Europe, the Caribbean and Alaska are the biggest markets at the moment, with emerging nations such as China and Russia providing not only passengers but also venues and exciting places to visit for current cruise ship fans. The cruise sector is a significant part of the European marine industry and has made an important contribution to the European economy: 21.7 million passengers called in the European ports during 2008, with the industry bringing in 311,512 jobs, a 66% increase compared with 2005. The entire value of goods and services generated has increased by an astounding 69% in the last three years to more than €32bn.
Andreas Stylianopoulos, CEO of Navigator Travel - who represent Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises in Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Cyprus - describes the cruises industry as one of the fastest growing products in the travel industry. He continues, ‘In 2009, over 4,9 million European residents booked cruises, a 12,1% increase over 2008, representing nearly 29% of all cruise passengers worldwide. As a result we realize that the cruise industry represents exceptional value for what it offers.’
That sentiment is shared by George Paliouras, Managing Director of Cruisexpert Hellas and representative for Companie de Ponant and Costa Cruises who explains, ‘There are two things happening in the Greek cruise industry – there has been a boost in traffic of incoming travellers from abroad who wish to cruise in Greece. The other is outgoing holidaymakers from here. Despite the fact that Greece has lagged behind compared to other countries, with more cruise ships embarking in Piraeus we are optimistic of the trend picking up. Our company, Cruisexperts has grown by 30% in the past year and that is a fair indication of the strength in this sector.’‘
Kostas Zalokostas of Majestic International Cruises concurs, ‘In Europe, the cruise industry more than held its own despite the downturn. The biggest markets in Europe – the UK and Germany grew by 8% and 7% respectively.’ According to Tourism-Review.com, cruise industry representatives hope that the new ships around the globe will tempt more people on board. Walt Disney Co’s new creation was launched in Florida just recently. The vessel is capable of holding up to 4,000 passengers and came at a cost of $900 million. The company is clearly expecting a return on such a massive investment in the near future. Currently the world’s largest cruise vessel, the Allure of the Seas, is capable of holding 6,000 passengers yet is not being used to its potential. In total, 2011 should see around half a dozen new ships on the water.
Kostas Zalokostas, concurs. ‘Cruising is growing and there is still a lot of potential for growth. The American market is the driver in the industry and for every vessel, the growth in the number of passengers and revenues is exponential.’ Worldwide, cruising was considered the fastest growing sector in leisure in 2010. It is in difficult times, that holidaymakers seek value-for-money. Cruising offers affordable luxury and an intense cultural experience in a short span of time.
Dominating the Greek cruise industry is Louis Hellenic Cruises whose newest and grandest addition to its fleet, Louis Majesty will be sailing in Greek waters starting April 2011. Mr Pythagoras Nagos, Commercial Director of Louis Cruises hopes to attract newer businesses and newer markets with their upgraded fleet with 1840 beds operating three and four day cruises in the Aegean. ‘We are concentrating on the incentive business which is a real cash generator and focusing on clientele who are ready to pay a premium for better food and better services on board.’
Cruising has also shunned its image of catering to eager honeymooners and senior citizens. The industry has seen a revival since its Love Boat days and has broadened its appeal to a wide spectrum of guests. Nagos continues, ‘We sell destinations - the ship is just part of the journey but by offering a better product, we attract younger people who want to see more and experience more.’ The good news is that despite a lack of proper port infrastructure, Greece is still one of the most attractive cruise destinations. More and more cruise operators have opted for the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean. Cruise operators including MSC, Carnival, Costa and Royal Caribbean have expressed an interest in including Greece in their schedules, according to the Minister of Maritime Affairs. However, Stylianopoulos warns, ‘For Greece to become the hub of the Eastern Mediterranean we need to correct some of the inherent flaws in our maritime policies. The measures adopted by the Government, including the cabotage laws, are at best half-hearted attempts designed more to mollify trade unions than to find a lasting solution to the issue. Most cruise companies expect a more serious response and are not willing to risk signing a binding contract.’
Echoing Stylianopoulos’ concerns is Michel Benakis, VicePresident of Cruisexperts, ‘One of the common laments in the cruise industry here is that the Greek Government has never really understood the contribution of cruises to Greek coffers.believes, ‘Cruises are not just about the excursions – there is a constant stream of revenue being generated through transfers, hotel bookings, shopping… Yet there are antiquated laws in place and while some attempt has been made to amend them, it is still not clear how effective the implementation will be.’
The fragility of the sector is also exposed when strikes and civic unrest can overnight cripple the industry. The strikes in Greece struck a severe blow to the image of the country. The recent turmoil in Northern Africa and the Middle East has led to cruise companies amending their itineraries. Louis Hellenic Cruises’ ‘Three Continents in Seven Days’ cruise that departs from Piraeus once a fortnight and calls on Istanbul, Myconos, Holy Land, Alexandria, Ag.Nikolaos (Crete) and back to Piraeus has altered its circuit by substituting a stop in Alexandria with stops in Cyprus and Santorini. Nagos reassures, ‘We are monitoring the situation in Egypt closely and will revert to the original itinerary when conditions are safe for our passengers.’
However, despite the challenges this is a sector with the most promise in the travel industry. There is a real demand for qualified personnel aboard cruise ships. Cristina Butler, who has had experience in the industry for over 25 years, says, ‘Working onboard cruise ships is not for everyone. You live and work at sea for six months a year and there is constant interface with the passengers 24/7 – so whatever personal or professional problems you might have, you still have to deliver without compromising on standards.’
Responding to the demand for trained staff on cruise ships, educational institutions in the tourism sector have adapted their curricula accordingly. Alpine Center, for example, is launching a new course to equip students with skills and knowledge needed to work on international cruise ships. Katy Taveira, who has had eight years of work experience with one of the leading cruise companies of the world, says ‘Working onboard cruise ships has challenged me in the best ways possible everyday and was the most rewarding experience of my life. You travel the world, meet the most fascinating people from across the globe (crew and guests) and obtain priceless customer service and job training in your area of expertise.’ Now in charge of the Cruise Management course at Alpine Center she says, ‘The 13-week course at Alpine Center includes modules such as cruise industry basics, safety and security, life on board, food and beverage operations, front office operations and customer service. Combining education with industry needs, Alpine also works closely with international cruise ship companies and assists students in finding appropriate industry placements.
The future of the cruise industry hinges on a combination of conducive policies, newer fleet with upgraded amenities and skilled personnel. For Greece to play a pivotal role in the sector and in the region, it will have to address these issues effectively.