Compared to the commercial aviation industry, which is becoming increasingly expensive and unfashionable, the cruise industry appears to be in relatively rude health.

Europe’s Mediterranean ports are set for unprecedented levels of expansion over the next few years, with the region likely to overtake the US as the world’s most popular cruising destination.

Increasingly, the major cruise lines are placing their ships in the Mediterranean, and the Europe-side Atlantic coasts. The UK’s Passenger Shipping Association (PSA), which represents the leading cruise companies in Britain, recently reported that the number of Brits taking cruises leapt 12% in 2007, to 1.2 million.

“Europe’s Mediterranean ports are set for unprecedented levels of expansion over the next few years.”

Recent figures from Mediterranean port authorities tell a similar story. In the past four years, passenger numbers have more than doubled in Athens, Monaco, Dubrovnik, Venice and Valencia.

The port of Monaco handled over 53,000 passengers in 2002, but over three times that figure in 2006, while the Spanish port of Malaga clocked a 23% increase in its amount of cruise traffic during 2008, up from 292,567 passengers in 2007, to more than 360,000.

It is a similar story in the French Riviera. In 2002, the region handled 31,600 passengers, but by 2006 that figure topped 55,000.

This rapid expansion is unlikely to slow any time soon, with 37 vessels set to be delivered before 2012.

The big squeeze

It is not only passenger volumes that are increasing. In 2006, Royal Caribbean International ordered the Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest and most expensive cruise ship, capable of accommodating 5,400 passengers. The ship, which will set sail in the autumn of 2009, will be 16 decks high, with four swimming pools, 37 categories of accommodation and an open air ‘Central Park’ concept.

However, the expansion of cruise traffic in the Mediterranean, coupled with the development of ever-larger vessels, threatens to cause a host of challenges for both ports and operators.

Unlike the wide streets of major American destinations, the streets in Europe’s cities and towns are small and prone to congestion. As Douglas Ward, author of The Pocket Guide to Mediterranean Ports of Call, has pointed out, ports such as Nice, Cannes and Athens already suffer from congestion. The advent of mega-ships, plus steadily increased cruise traffic, only stand to exacerbate the problem.

Albert Poggio, vice-president of MedCruise, the association of Mediterranean cruise ports, saysits members remain ‘acutely aware’ of the potential issues brought about by congestion, especially in smaller ports.

“Expansion of cruise traffic in the Mediterranean threatens to cause a host of challenges for both ports and operators.”

“The larger ports with larger budgets are perhaps preparing ahead by increasing facilities, while the smaller ports may find themselves in a position where they cannot accommodate the traffic,” he says.

“In the instance of Gibraltar, for example, we have not yet been in a position where a ship has been taken an alternative slot or turned away.”

Roberto Ferrarini, director of marine operations at Costa Cruises, is more outspoken about the challenges. “The issues relate to increasing numbers and volumes. There are now around 125 to 130 cruise ships in the Mediterranean; a few years ago there were only 50 or 60,” he says.

“There is not enough space in the berths, regardless of the size of the ship, for all this traffic. Another major issues is that of ‘people pollution’. Too many people are visiting small destinations such as Santorini and Dubrovnik.”

Terminal investment needed

Ferrarini believes ports are also failing to keep pace with the rising traffic. “Not many European ports are investing in terminals,” he says. “Some ports are planning new investments but things are still behind. There is plenty of scope for better planning.”

Barcelona is one major Mediterranean port that is relatively well equipped. The Palacruceros Terminal, financed and managed by Costa Cruises, opened in 2007. That year, the terminal recorded 157 cruise ship calls and 400,000 guest movements. The 2008 figure is expected to be 190 calls and 500,000 guest movements, an increase of over 25%.

One of the terminal’s selling points is its flexibility. It is said to be capable of accommodating cruise ships of any tonnage, length and capacity, including the largest liners. It is spread out over four levels, while the pier is 300m long and 20m wide. There are also on-site premises for around 20 staff.

The passenger terminal at Venice is also undergoing an ongoing programme of investment and development to cater for its fast-growing passenger numbers. Cruise traffic to Venice has risen sharply over the last ten years, surpassing one million in 2007 for the first time. By 2011, the city is expected to attract 1.8 million passengers a year, almost seven times the local population.

Roberto Perocchio, managing director of the Venice Passenger Terminal, says the steep rise in cruise passengers to the region represents ‘an unbelievable expansion in a delicate city’. Perocchio notes the process of equipping the port to cope with bigger ships, and greater volumes, has been in place since 2007.

“The larger ports with larger budgets are perhaps preparing ahead by increasing facilities.”

“We finished building 107/108, which is 12,000m², in 2000,” he says.

“Then, with a contribution from the European community, we started on building 103, which is a 9,000m², state-of-the-art terminal. Then we began working on building 117, which is equipped for smaller ships. We also started building the 8,000m² Isonzo terminal, which will becomes available from March 2009.”

Infrastructure issues

Perocchio is quick to emphasise the importance of infrastructure beyond the port itself. In December 2008, Venice saw the opening of a major highway running around Mestre, allowing an easier passage way or traffic coming from Eastern Europe.

“The port has to handle 30,000 people in a day during high season, so being able to move people and goods is vital,” he says.

The efficient movement of goods surrounding ports is crucial in the Mediterranean, where streets are narrow and there are plenty of ancient buildings to preserve.

Perocchio points out that many European buildings are listed and protected, meaning the process of expanding port capacity can be long-winded.

“Most of these cities are world heritage, and there is a long process relating to the shape of the quays and terminals, and how to conciliate the needs with the old buildings,” he says.

Juan Trescastro, vice-president of guest port services, Royal Caribbean, also stresses the challenges of docking in Mediterranean cities. “A historical city was not created to have up to 16,000 visitors in one day. The streets are narrow and the access is difficult,” he says.

“Perocchio is quick to emphasise the importance of infrastructure beyond the port itself.”

Trescastro believes one solution is for operators to work with governments to create easy access to city centres by bus or on foot. Another is to rework itineraries so cruise ships are docking at different times; most cruise lines visit ports on the same days, with turn operations over the weekend.

“That puts us on the same footing as other competitors, and means there is overcrowding on only one or two days a week,” Trescastro says. “This makes it difficult for ports to invest in extra facilities when, for five days of the week, berths are not being used.”

If it is not possible to rework the itinerary so that ships come into port on less busy days, operators must ensure they communicate with guests, to prepare them for the inevitable crowds. “It’s about guest satisfaction, and obviously, guests would rather go to a less crowded port,” Trescastro adds.

With this in mind, will the advent of giant ships such as Oasis of the Seas worsen congestion at ports? Trescastro believes not. “In many ports, only minor adjustments to the dock are needed. The infrastructure is already there to hold the volumes of people,” he says.

Albert Poggio, is less convinced, believing that larger ships, carrying more people, naturally take longer to disembark, and cause greater congestion.

It is clear that as cruise passengers flock to the Mediterranean in the next few years, ports and operators will need to minimise congestion and damage to some of the world’s most treasured cities.