For 2010 Costa has 168 calls in the Baltic; next year this figure will increase by 17% to 195. Similarly, Ibero Cruceros, which is under Costa’s executive control, is set for a 9.3% increase from 2010 to 2011. An attractive region for cruise passengers, largely due to its cultural richness and striking scenery, it is no surprise that the Baltic is experiencing a rise in the size and number of visiting vessels.

AIDA’s senior manager of port operations Kay-Uwe Maross predicts constant growth in the region, noting that the Germany-based cruise operator, which currently offers 15 cruises in the region, will soon be increasing its offering by sending larger liners to the Baltic.

But with increased traffic comes an inevitable strain on port infrastructure, something Maross and Costa’s port operations manager Elisabetta de Nardo feel is being handled well in northern Europe.

“The Baltic area started developing new ports a few years ago; it is responding before other geographical areas to the demand of this booming business,” says de Nardo. “Of course what we ask is that this expansion continues, but we believe it will. The authorities are responding; they are not just postponing. They want to find real suggestions to improve and they’re not merely there politically to shake hands.”

Areas for improvement

“Ibero Cruceros is set for a 9.3% increase in Baltic cruises from 2010 to 2011.”

But for Maross, the port facilities are far from adequate. “There are insufficient berth and terminal facilities,” he says. “All the ports need to improve their facilities particularly to accommodate the larger vessels that come into the Baltic Sea.”

Congestion is another much talked-about issue facing the region, but one that de Nardo feels has been misrepresented. “We don’t like to use the word ‘congestion’ because it gives the wrong impression,” she says.

“It suggests crowded places where delays and queues are commonplace when in actual fact the Baltic capitals and cities remain a fantastic place to visit.”

She does, however, acknowledge that something needs to change. “Frequent clashing days are a big problem for lines that, like us, need regular cruises,” she admits. And Maross adds that AIDA often has to adjust its itineraries.

Think unilaterally

There is no set-in-stone formula to solve this problem and introducing more piers is only part of the solution. “Onshore activities also need to be arranged effectively,” says de Nardo. “If a small town has 15,000 people flowing towards the centre, it becomes crowded very quickly, so we need tour guides to match different groups of people at different times from different cruise lines to different areas of the town. Everybody must share the space.”

Maross believes more needs to be done and he hopes the region will implement a long-term booking system for all ports. “It should be entirely transparent so cruise lines can see which days have already been booked, how many facilities are still available, which ports are experiencing problems and which ports have sufficient capacity,” he explains.

The cruise industry is also under pressure from bodies such as the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), which works to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution, to not only reduce but entirely eliminate the disposal of wastewater overboard in the region.

As part of its approach, HELCOM’s nine member states, which include Poland, Denmark and Sweden, proposed to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that the entire Baltic Sea be designated as a ‘special area’ where no wastewater from passenger vessels can be discharged.

Unfortunately, there is still some way to go before this somewhat ambitious goal can be achieved. “The reception facilities ashore do not yet have the capacity to dispose of wastewater in large quantities,” de Nardo says. “In fact, only six ports in the Baltic have shoreside connections; at all other destinations, tank trailers are used.”

“Cruise Baltic, a network of 27 destinations, is a helpful tool for operators.”

Maross adds: “The ports need pipes or connections that can take 200m³ per hour of wastewater and there is no place in the Baltic Sea that can provide that service.” Cruise ships’ capacity to contain wastewater onboard during sea days are similarly limited, and although advanced treatment systems are available, the technology simply does not exist to allow liners to achieve the specific phosphorus and nitrogen reductions required.

Given the seasonality of the business, municipal authorities are understandably reluctant to offer a fixed service which will not give any return on investment for many months of the year, but despite this, two ports in particular are already setting an impressive example.

“Helsinki and Stockholm are the real benchmark,” de Nardo says. “We can deliver wastewater ashore for free, but they do have to continue to make sure the capacity ashore is guaranteed with the ever-increasing traffic.”

Collaboration and communication

It’s a waiting game for AIDA’s port operations manager, who believes the only way forward is close collaboration between cruise lines and ports. “We all have to cooperate and exchange information,” says de Nardo, who is impressed with the working groups that have been formed between the IMO, the ECC and CLIA.

“The Baltic do this ‘sharing of ideas’, which is lacking in other areas. I’ve seen and met with the tourist board and I’ve seen representatives of port authorities working with cultural and tourist associations; it gives the impression that it’s not only the port authority against the client cruise line.”

Furthermore, Cruise Baltic, a network of 27 destinations in the region, is a helpful tool for operators. “It means we can discover more about the destinations and inform ports about the technical, economical and environmental requirements the cruise lines have,” adds de Nardo. “The people are really proactive; it’s a good sign that I don’t have to visit the Baltic too much. We always prioritise our visits to the ports that are the most difficult.”

The region is clearly coping well on its own and the recent renovation of St Petersburg port is a testament to this. “The Marine Façade is a real, cruise-dedicated port,” says de Nardo. “They have more than one terminal and the plan is to build new ones with proper space for immigration and security controls. This was certainly needed in the region to fight the congestion and improve the quality of operations, comfort and the waterfront look. It’s amazing what they’re doing and it’s a great example to other ports.”

Port-by-port scenario

While ports such as Helsinki, Copenhagen, Oslo, Tallinn and Stockholm are set to follow in St Petersburg’s footsteps, de Nardo is refreshingly realistic when it comes to the potential expansion of smaller ports in the Baltic.

“Only six ports in the Baltic have shoreside connections.”

“It’s a case-by-case philosophy,” she says. “Often they cannot develop too much because it would spoil the environment and the local community would not be happy. You always have to consider these factors because if the locals are not content our guests onboard would find shops closed or prices very high; we want everything to be in proper harmony.”

For Maross two things are certain: growth will continue in one of the most profitable areas in the world for cruise lines, and ports need to continue communicating with operators in order to facilitate this. If past form is anything to go by, the region is set to uphold the standard it has already set – continuing to collaborate with all parties involved, a practice becoming increasingly important as cruise traffic shows little sign of slowing.