2020 was an abysmal year for cruises, with the total number of cruise passengers passing through the Valletta Cruise Port down 92.3 per cent, but investment is continuing apace to prepare the Port to tap into the future potential of the industry, says CEO Stephen Xuereb.
NSO data released on Thursday reveals the depth of the impact of the pandemic on the industry, with only 32 cruise liner calls last year as compared to 359 in 2019, with each vessel carrying an average of 1,844 passengers, down from 2,133 in 2019.
The figures are even more dire for Q4, with passengers down 92.9 per cent and with each vessel calling into the Port carrying an average of only 739 passengers.
The fall in cruise figures has also left a deep impact on Valletta businesses which typically rely on these arrivals to carry them through the shoulder months, with one business owner noting, “Valletta’s empty, and as beautiful as it’s looking, we need tourists.”
Despite unprecedented challenge COVID-19 presents to the record years previously registered by the cruise industry, Valletta Cruise Port is continuing its planned investment in its facilities, with Mr Xuereb saying that the months during which the Valletta Waterfront was devoid of business served as a time to invest in projects with the aim of further enhancing the appearance of the iconic Maltese destination.
“Works on the canopies respecting the historic fabric of the Valletta Waterfront promenade with its nineteen historical 270-year-old warehouses was inaugurated in July 2020,” he says, adding that the infrastructural works to develop shore-side electricity, a €49.9 million initiative spearheaded by Infrastructure Malta and Transport Malta with the support of Valletta Cruise Port, are currently in progress on Quays Pinto 4-5.
Mr Xuereb explains that the first part of this two-phased project includes a €37 million investment to provide shore power on the five main cruise ship quays of the Grand Harbour by the end of 2023. “Excavation works have commenced for the underground electricity cables that will distribute electricity from an existing distribution centre to the quays at Valletta’s Grand Harbour,” he says.
“Each quay will be supplied with shore-side transformers and shore-to-ship connection panels that enable ships to turn off their combustion engines and switch to electrical power as soon as they berth.”
Mr Xuereb strikes a hopeful note for the industry’s future, saying the fact that demand has kept up with supply, even during periods of major global distress, “augurs well for the future of the industry and demonstrates the historical resilience as well as the untapped future potential of the industry”.
He expresses hope that the vaccine roll out will lead to the lifting of restrictions and the gradual increase in cruising, noting that news of an effective vaccine saw cruise line stocks surge between 20 to 30 per cent.
He continues, “The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and the individual cruise lines have successfully worked on journey protocols both aboard and onshore covering from booking to disembarkation to ensure a safe and pleasant experience for guests, crew, as well as the communities visited. Research and best practices to battle COVID-19 are constantly changing, with cruise ship protocols being constantly updated to reflect this changing knowledge.”
Mr Xuereb acknowledges that the actual realisation of these calls is based on a number of factors such as vaccine take-up, changing regional and national travel restrictions and appetite for travel by source markets.
He hopes that 2021 will be the year when the industry restarts and starts stabilising. “The cruise industry aims to lead the way in responsible travel with CLIA aiming for 100% COVID-19 testing, trimming the ships down to 60-80% occupancy, allowing for ample square meterage of space per passenger and ample hygiene practices,” he says, adding that empty rooms are also planned for isolation purposes in case required.
“As part of Global Ports Holding (GPH), Valletta Cruise Port commenced preparations for the post-COVID cruising reality way back in January 2020, at the first sightings of the pandemic. The actions taken were to revise the Emergency Response Plans and the Health and Safety Protocols for all of the 19 ports forming part of the GPH network, inclusive of Valletta Cruise Port.”
“In addition, we managed to obtain the Safe Travels stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council, based on the reinforced protocols. This process served us in good stead, since we were well prepared to welcome back the first cruise calls in Valletta last August. The preparations were not limited to the written protocols, but entailed plenty of discussions over the course of a number of weeks with the local stakeholders, primarily the Health and Port Authorities, in order to secure the necessary approvals not only for our processes but more importantly on how the cruise lines are ensuring the safety and security of the guests onboard.”
Mr Xuereb concedes that it will be a while until the travel industry sees some form of normality, saying that recovery time “is bound to take longer than this summer”.
He point to attempts to reboot international travel on a wider scale which have so far failed due to successive waves of COVID-19. However, he believes that the rapid and widespread vaccination program will lead to the start of a new normality that will also start restoring confidence in travel. “We believe Q3 and Q4 2021 will be the catalyst for revival.”
For the near-term, Mr Xuereb says that Valletta Cruise Port has a good number of tentative cruise bookings for the year. “Of note, both MSC Grandiosa and MSC Magnifica will be calling regularly this winter season with the aforementioned strict measures.”
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