Europe’s biggest cruise companies have already deployed 18 vessels in the East Med and other European destinations and plan to ramp up their operations with 28 ships in June and 50 in July, before reaching this summer’s maximum target of 60 operational cruise ships in August.
More than half of these vessels will be deployed in Greek waters according to Ioannis Plakiotakis, Minister of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy whose speech marked the official opening of this year’s digital Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum.
“Forty cruise ships are expected to operate in Greek waters and 45 ports have their own contingency plans developed in a way to facilitate cruise ships without affecting the experience of passengers, crews or the local communities,” he said.
“Thanks to our national blue freedom vaccination programme which prioritises tourism destinations and cruise hotspots, we are optimistic that this year will be substantially better than the previous,” he said in his opening remarks.
Greece has been lauded for its efforts to develop a tourism product capable of instilling a sense of trust as a safe destination that is fully prepared to weather the consequences of the pandemic and this view was also echoed by Pierfrancesco Vago, CLIA Global Chairman and Executive Chairman, MSC Cruises, who also addressed the 500 delegates attending this year’s PSTF on their computer screens from around the world.
“Challenges will remain, but we are building back better and can be optimistic now, as we have worked with governments, terminals and destinations to develop protocols for a safe and responsible return to service,” he said.
Already, more than 200,000 passengers have taken a cruise safely since the end of last summer, and this year the East Med shows the way with an early start which may help Greece become a permanent country of embarkation, according to Vago.
But uncertainty as to when cruise operations can recommence at a viable level to sustain the industry is one of those challenges.
TUI restarted operations last week from Crete and its plan for this summer is to purely offer Greece cruises from Iraklion with two different itineraries. “If more travel restrictions are lifted, we will return to other itineraries. But between May to October Greece is the only destination we are offering,” said Wybcke Meier, CEO, TUI Cruises.
According to MSC Cruises, certain regions such as Asia and North America are still off limits for the cruise sector, however CEO Gianni Onorato predicts that more Europeans will turn to cruising the region this summer as they are cut off from intercontinental destinations due to airlift restrictions and travel protocols. He said: “The Green certificate will allow more Europeans to focus on Europe, and Greece will be one of the main destinations for them.”
Michael Thamm, Group CEO, Costa Group and Carnival Asia, agrees: “Greece is a pilar for Germans, Italians and French due to its beauty and the natural desire to see the country, and cruising is the best way to do that. We want to extend our presence in Greece beyond the season even to December. Both our brands have resumed operations in Greece and there will be more ships coming to Greece.”
But popularity may present some challenges according to Chris Theofilides CEO, Celestyal Cruises, the company which uses Greece as its homeporting base and knows the market better than any other operator.
“High concentration of ships at any particular point in time may be a challenge especially in Greek ports due to infrastructure issues. We need to avoid any high volume of guests at any given point. It’s not only the responsible thing to do but it is also the right thing to do, both from a guests’ experience point of view as well as for the local communities.”
Meier shares the concerns: “Over-tourism may be over in a post pandemic world, but we should make sure we don’t have too many ships at the same time in the same ports. Islands need to have a plan on the number of ships they can accept at the same time. And port operators need to have the infrastructure to accept bigger ships.”
Building back better, or just coming back, in a staggered and responsible way is the right thing to do and cruise companies are firmly focused on all Covid-related prevention and reaction protocols to ensure the path to normality is a short and sustained one.
There are two aspects in it; Enforcing, supervising and respecting the current protocols for passengers, crew and destinations is one, standardisation and uniformity of such protocols is the other.
According to Onorato, the passenger locator form is not yet fully adopted on a pan-European level in equal measures, and there is no clear guideline of how to use it. “Every country is asking for the form every time we arrive to a different country. As long as uniformity is not properly reached as soon as possible between different countries, we may face unnecessary issues for our guests, and this may render cruising uncompetitive compared to other forms of tourism. Protocols are working but we need greater uniformity.”
This lack of uniformity gives leeway to operators who wish to enforce stricter precautionary measures with Norwegian Cruise Line being one the companies that have decided to allow only fully vaccinated passengers and crews on board their vessels, according to Kevin Bubolz, Managing Director Europe, who also participated at PSTF 2021 in a panel discussion focusing on the Impact of the new health protocols on shore excursions and destination management. Adam Sharp, Director, International Destination Development, Royal Caribbean Group confirmed that Royal Caribbean Cruises is also cooperating with NCL to standardise health protocols for the US market.
The pace to normality may be agonisingly slow, however this is also due to the very regimental protocols the cruise sector stakeholders decided to impose on their operations in order to bulwark themselves against the risk of Covid-19.
“We were first to mandate 100% testing for all passengers and crew setting standards for other industries, and we are optimistic that we will achieve a return to pre-Covid levels by 2022-2023,” said Vago.
With a programme of thought-provoking panel discussions and 21 exhibitors showcasing their offering on the interactive and engaging digital platform, PSTF 2021 was the first cruise industry event to gather the key decision makers of the sector since the mid-May resumption of cruising in the East Med.
The 2021 Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum was sponsored by Gold sponsors Greek National Tourism Organisation and This is Athens, Silver Sponsors Heraklion Port Authority, Indev Software, MedCruise and Piraeus Port Authority and Bronze sponsors Alba Graduate Business School, Celestyal Cruises, Inchcape Shipping Services and Thessaloniki Port Authority. The Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum is organised under the auspices of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs & Insular Policy and the Ministry of Tourism and is supported by the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the Association of Mediterranean Cruise Ports and the Union of Cruise Ship Owners & Associated Members.