Luxury cruise companies are turning their attention to smaller, off-the-beaten-path destinations, according to discussions at the 7th Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum, held in Thessaloniki, Greece.
While mainstream ports of call will always have their place, the trend for unique experiences in lesser-known destinations is taking hold.
However, the inclusion of more exotic locales on luxury cruise itineraries is not without its challenges. Infrastructure readiness at smaller destinations can be a concern, as well as quality venue availability and berthing policies, as noted by several industry professionals.
Not every island can fulfil all needs due to various challenges according to Michele Bosco, Manager, Shore Excursions and Operations Europe, Africa, Middle East, Princess Cruises.
“Poor venue maintenance post Pandemic has led to reduced capacity at certain venues in smaller destinations, which in turn leads to higher cost for guests, meaning that some of the challenges we are facing now have their roots at Covid. Certain venues have also closed down for business and others no longer want to collaborate with cruise companies as the global tourism rebound means that they are receiving stronger flows of independent tourists, reducing their reliance on groups coming from our ships,” he said.
The lack of venue availability is a concern also shared by Agnes Brochet, Director, Destination Research, Development & Planning, Silversea Cruises. “In small islands we will have lack of space for all our guests to secure a spot, when we are at full capacity, because we offer one free excursion at each of the destinations we are visiting, therefore demand for onshore excursion is strong, and that is one of our main land-side challenges.”
Berthing policy in Greece is also a cause for concern for the luxury cruise brands such as MSC’s Explora brand. Sacha Rougier, Head of Itinerary Planning and Destination Experiences, Explora Journeys said. “Relooking at the berthing policy in Greece would help us solve a major challenge we are facing, as in some cases we fail to secure a slot even when we have had initial confirmation. This causes all sorts of issues for the company which we’d rather had avoided. Lack of transportation guides also pauses problems in certain destinations,” she said.
Brochet said that research is key before deciding to add new, lesser known destinations. “Before we zero in on a new destination we conduct comprehensive research. We then need to put all this in an idea-generating machine which involves everyone in our company through a virtual ideas box open to everyone, including crew members who visit so many places around the world. Even when our people go on a holiday in lesser known coastal destinations, they are encouraged to share their opinions and ideas about the appeal of these destinations with our destination department team for their assessment.
“We then develop business cases and when they look viable, we do the scouting leveraging our team of 100 people in the destination department who are sent onsite to survey and assess the destination,” she said.
In terms of what luxury cruise guests seek out of the secret gem destinations, unique human and sustainable experiences top the preferences list. “Going to homes of local people or spend time with a local chef are just a couple of examples,” said Constantine Venetopoulos, Director, Communications & PR, Variety Cruises. “We have launched a product ‘Unexplored Greece’ visiting Ikaria and Amorgos and it is now our best seller. Our boats are for 50 guests, so we are niche and for us finding these places is basically finding what our guests want. It is also important to bear in mind the demographics of guests before tailoring certain experience-enhancing shore excursions.
It is important to be able to distinguish between what is popular and what is trendy added Bosco: “Smaller group tours are becoming more popular. Tours off-the-beaten-path such as food and drink walking tours in local non touristic venues, or culinary tours where the ship chef takes guests to the local market to select the fresh produce for their dinner or cooking together with them. Meet the family of the farm is also becoming trendy when it comes down to luxury cruising products.”
Luxury cruise guests are searching for the unique and the unexpected and few people would know that an actual desert exists in a Greek island, according to Olympia Anastasopoulou, General Secretary of Tourism Policy and Development, Ministry of Tourism, Hellenic Republic, who keynoted the second and final day of the Forum.
“Coastal and maritime tourism can be a powerful tool for the development of Greece’s national economy as it currently contributes 1.5% of the country’s GDP. Greece possesses the characteristics to make it one of the most attractive destinations for Europe in sea tourism, ranking ninth in the world in terms of coastline length. But we also have mountains, lakes, rivers and even a desert in the Greek island of Limnos. This is why our potential to become a leading cruise destination is significant.”
Her optimism about the continuous growing contribution of the cruise sector to the Greek economy is echoed in the findings of a recent preliminary study conducted by Thanos Pallis, Professor, Department of Maritime Studies, University of Piraeus, who shared some insights with the PSTF 2023 delegates.
Titled ‘Assessment of the Socio-Economic Impact of the Cruise for Thessaloniki’ the research started in November 2022 and is expected to be completed next October 2023 to investigate the economic impact of the cruise activity both in the city of Thessaloniki, but also in the wider metropolitan area of the city.
Based on actual figures so far gathered between November 2022 and April 2023, the projected estimates for the financial contribution of the cruise sector in Thessaloniki on an annualised basis, indicates that the direct positive effects range between a basic scenario of €5.23 million to a positive scenario of €6.49 million. There is also the indirect positive effects that range between €3.43 million for the base scenario and €4.33 million on the more optimistic projection. Combined, the positive effects are expected to range between €8.56 million for the base scenario and €10.82 million for the positive scenario. In terms of employment impacts, this year’s cruise season, with a significant expected number of 68 cruise ship calls at the port of Thessaloniki, is estimated to result in sustaining 111 full-time jobs on an annual basis.Among the most important findings of the research, is the satisfaction of cruise passengers, as reflected in the fact that 90.1% of passengers state that after their visit they are extremely to quite likely to recommend Thessaloniki as a tourist destination. The 2023 PSTF is sponsored by Diamond Sponsor Thessaloniki Port Authority SA, Gold Sponsor Region of Central Macedonia, Silver Sponsor Piraeus Port Authority SA, Bronze Sponsors Celestyal Cruises, Global Ports Holding, Greek National Tourism Organisation, Heraklion Port Authority SA, Kyvernitis Travel and Thessaloniki Tourism Organisation. The official airline is SKY express. PSTF 2023 is supported by AVIS, Global Air Compass and Agora Modiano. The Forum is organised under the auspices of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs & Insular Policy and the Ministry of Tourism and supported by the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the Association of Mediterranean Cruise Ports (MedCruise) and the Union of Cruise Ship Owners & Associated Members.