Sailing the seas and visiting beautiful cities around the world is only a fraction of today's cruising experience. Cruising offers passengers the chance to immerse themselves in the culture of their destination ports both off and on the ship, and dining on local cuisine is considered one of the most evocative and enjoyable ways to experience foreign cultures. Cruise lines are pouncing on this concept, offering new ways for guests to familiarise themselves with the traditional foods of their destination ports.

Small cruise lines such as Regent Seven Seas and Yachts of Seabourn offer programmes where guests can accompany their ship's executive chef on trips to local food markets to learn about the area's cuisine and what to look for when purchasing premium produce, be it traditional cheeses and fruit in Korcula, Croatia, or antelope in Africa. These offerings are a cinch for smaller ships, which have capacity for about 400 passengers, as they have proportionally fewer, and more manageable, dining options. But when it comes to larger ships and meeting guest demands for fresh local produce, a mere trip to the market does not suffice.

Fresh thinking

Buying fresh produce in distant destination ports becomes a question of whether to import produce from the cruise line's established home base suppliers, or putting in the time and money to set up a supply chain in a new port.

The normal practice for the cruise industry is to have consolidated suppliers in the home port country for primary products, and then to top up this supply base with fresh food purchased from destination ports around the world. Cruise operators under the Carnival Corporation umbrella, which includes Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line and Princes Cruises among others, have consolidated suppliers in the US and Europe.

"The reason we do that is important," says John Meszaros, vice-president of supply chain management for Carnival Corporation. "We need consistency of product, we need consistency of supply, and we need to get the same specifications worldwide so that our ships don't have to recreate their menus every day," he says.

Products such as fresh bread, flowers and produce are picked up from other ports on the voyage as frequently as every seven days, and no longer than every ten to 14 days. For other major supplies, Carnival cruise operators usually transport containers from Europe or the US to replenish its stocks.

But as guests begin to demand a more localised experience, especially in the area of cuisine, the need for Carnival to establish supply chains in more exotic ports is increasing.

Global to local

"Exotic ports are difficult to manage because they are typically located where supplies are not," says Meszaros. "There are availability issues, communication issues, and often a lack of communication infrastructure. What we need to do with these ports is either set up a logistics structure to accept inbound supplies or work with vendors to develop these areas."

“Products such as fresh bread, flowers and produce are picked up from other ports on the voyage.”

Dubai is one destination where the cruise industry's reliance on imported goods is on the cusp of shifting over to using a local supply chain. Currently, only two international cruise lines home port from Dubai: Costa Cruises and AIDA.

Both cruise lines have sailed from Dubai during the winter months since 2006 (with Royal Caribbean International looking to base its ship Brilliance of the Seas there in the winter of 2010).

However, the cruise lines still import supplies from their respective base countries of Italy and Germany. With so much market growth in the pipeline for Dubai (the number of ships visiting has risen from just 13 in 2005 to an expected 82 in 2009), Meszaros says importing supplies is not ideal in the long term.

"You have to think about the possibility that these containers might experience failures," he says. "We don't want to sour our guest's experiences with that happening, so our challenge is to find [local] suppliers we can work with and develop a supply chain as volume grows over there."

Meszaros notes that there is a trade-off between the cost of purchasing in Dubai and the specifications the cruise line can get versus the risk of shipping it from other countries.

"The bottom line is we have to guarantee supply, and if we can't get that in the local markets then we have to look at other strategies," he says. "But we are getting smarter and as a group we are working closer to develop ports [such as Dubai] and others."

“Exotic ports are difficult to manage because they are typically located where supplies are not.”

Establishing supply chains in new ports can take many months, even years, and requires constant refining as the markets there develop to meet the needs of the cruise industry.

Supply chain challenges

Director of food and beverage operations at Royal Caribbean International (RCI) Frank Weber says that cultural and political differences in foreign countries create obstacles when establishing supply chains in exotic ports.

"If you go to a country such as China, where everything is different, for instance its political system and ways of doing things, there are challenges you have to overcome with local authorities," he says.

"If you're in Australia or Europe or the US, there are specific channels to work through, but in other countries, things may change along the way without notification."

When RCI began its itineraries to India with Legend of the Seas in 2008, it immediately encountered differences with the packaging of goods. For waste management purposes, RCI requires that goods be packaged in cardboard, not Styrofoam or plastic. When it first began setting up supply chains in Mumbai, the produce was being packaged in homemade wheat baskets.

"Sometimes we have to work with local suppliers and help them process produce in a way that enables us to manage it on board," says Weber. "When you go into areas that haven't been operating too long and don't have that experience, you go through a learning and teaching process – on both sides – to make it happen."

Other challenges emerged with the size of ports, which, depending on the location, can often be small, creating logistical difficulties. Some docks have limited space through which to manoeuvre guests and supplies, which risks overcrowding.

“The challenge of the future is going to be finding supply bases around the world.”

"That's why we are very selective about where we do our major storings," says Mezsaros. "It does us no good if we don't have enough room, and particularly if we have to tender, where we bring small boats back and forth. Then getting supplies on and off becomes difficult."

While consolidated suppliers in established regions is the answer for overcoming such short-term trials in remote regions, Meszaros believes developing local supply chains in these locations is the long-term answer to confronting the growth of the industry.

"When you think of Carnival ships, one of the challenges is finding new experiences for our guests, and going into new ports," he says.

"The challenge of the future is going to be finding supply bases around the world in ports that can supply the specifications and quality that we want. But the thing we can't lose sight of is that our guests – while they would love for us to [support developing economies] – don't want to be impacted by shortages."