The cruise industry is entangled in a love-hate relationship with many ports in the Mediterranean that are not keeping pace with the industry’s rapid and continuous growth. Cruise companies’ ships, fleets, passenger numbers and ports of call are all increasing at a rate disproportionate to their on-shore partners in tourism, creating problems with ship congestion, management of berth availability, discontinuity between the at-sea and on-shore experience for passengers and frustrations for cruise ships and cruisers alike.

Keeping up with the cruises Growth and advancement for the cruise industry is imminent. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) forecasts that a total of 14.3 million passengers will cruise in 2010 (an increase of 6.4% on 2009), while the industry will also welcome 26 new ships between 2010 and 2012. In the Mediterranean, Italian cruise line MSC Cruises has recorded a four-fold rise in passenger numbers in the past six years.

Port captain of MSC Cruises Luigi Pastena says that lagging port infrastructure is in dire need of attention if the cruise industry is to stay at full speed ahead.

“My concern is that many piers are the same as they were 30 years ago when the maximum length of a cruise ship was about 200m and a berth could accommodate up to two vessels,” he says. “Nowadays, the same berth is used by two 300m-long vessels, with relatively poorer structures.”

“The port of Valletta in Malta extended its waterfront quay in 2009 in a €2m project to cater for bigger cruise ships.”

While many ports are investing in new infrastructures, in an industry where time is of the essence and ship owners are already envisaging the next generation’s bigger and better new builds, port projects simply aren’t moving fast enough.

A big problem is that projects are often cancelled or delayed due to political issues or mismanagement, or are only approved when cruise companies actually build the bigger vessels that were designed several years prior. Pastena gives an example of a project initiated by MSC in 1972, in which a new pier was to be built in an existing port. After years of delays, the project was only just completed in 2008. “The result is that now it is inadequate for the new generation of vessels,” says Pastena.

It seems the moment ports become equipped to cater for the cruise industry of the present, the present is in the past. The availability of berths, and management of this availability, is another major issue that needs to be addressed. “[They need] to start limiting the berths’ availability if they cannot provide adequate berth facilities,” says Pastena. “We would also like the ports to keep us informed during the study of the planning so that congested dates can be managed,” he says.

Upgrades to port facilities are also needed to prevent unnecessary expenditures for cruise ships. Pastena says the fenders and bollards used at many ports in the Mediterranean are no longer adequate for the amount and type of traffic passing through, resulting in broken bollards and related costs that could be avoided.

Bearing the brunt

Disappointing experiences for passengers at the port level, whether it’s due to berthing delays or poor on-shore customer services, have a significant impact on customer satisfaction.

Passenger comment cards gathered by MSC Cruises following an unsatisfactory port of call in the Mediterranean revealed that congestion and poor port structures accounted for 60% of passenger negativity. Unfortunately for cruise lines, if cruise passengers experience frustrations at the hands of the port, it’s the cruise operator that bears the brunt.

“A cruise starts when the passenger closes his house door,” says Pastena. “Good infrastructures help the holiday to start the right way. If anything negatively affects his transfer [such as a] traffic jam, flight delay, slow embarkation procedure or loss of baggage, the passenger will already be nervous when embarking and will hold the vessel, the crew and the company responsible for the inconvenience even though it is not due to the bad management of the cruise.

“Passengers only want to enjoy the vacation they paid for and, as a result, the cruise industry is the only one to suffer the consequences. “The problem is that the passengers are not aware of all these port issues and the ports are not aware of the passengers’ needs.”

The way forward

Clear and cooperative communication, and strategic and financial partnerships between cruise companies, port authorities, community leaders and industry associations are the most effective means of bringing about change in the quality of port infrastructure.

But forming such idyllic collaborations, where everyone agrees on the way forward, is easier said than done. “There are a lot of conflicts between institutions over a port’s organisation,” says Pastena.

“Some ports and organisations such as the European Cruise Council are very cooperative, and some improvements in terms of new bollards, new maritime stations, new piers and new fenders have been made thanks to the pressure that MSC and other companies put on the market,” says Pastena.

“My concern is that many piers are the same as they were 30 years ago when the maximum length of a cruise ship was about 200m.”

The port of Barcelona responded to cruise industry demand for increased berthing facilities by investing €15m in a new Terminal A, which opened in June 2009. The port of Valletta in Malta extended its waterfront quay in 2009 in a €2m project to cater for bigger cruise ships; while the port of Malaga in Spain is underway with developments for the second phase of its passenger terminal to cater for significant passenger increases (40% in 2009) and to improve embarkation and disembarkation for passengers of larger cruise ships.

Pastena says that new ports entering the market are showing greater levels of cooperation, which is a major attraction for cruise lines looking to expand and diversify their ports of call.

“These are all positive developments,” says Pastena, “but we still need to work on the ports where growth is blocked due to political conflicts.

“We appreciate that due to the economical downturn governments do not have a lot of money to invest, but they have to understand that the cruise market is the only one that keeps growing, and with the arrival of 26 new vessels by 2012, they must not miss this opportunity.”