Photo by: Lee Woolcock
Cruise ships are playing an increasingly important role in the city's tourism industry
These days, driving either to or from Barcelona’s international airport along the motorway that skirts beneath the cliffs of Montjuïc, it’s easy to notice an alternative form of transportation that is becoming increasingly popular. In fact, the towering bulk of gleaming white cruise ships pulled up at the city’s Adossat pier is hard to miss. Some days it seems like something the size of the Queen Mary has just pulled into town with two ships of similar size moored right behind her.
The growth of cruise-ship traffic in and out of Barcelona’s port has led to it being ranked the busiest cruise-ship port in Europe, and the fifth busiest in the world. With its most recent terminal finished in 2008, Barcelona has a total of seven terminals serving cruise ships, including some capable of holding the biggest passenger ships now plying the Mediterranean. Barcelona’s port authority reports that on busy days this year, as many as 10 cruise ships have arrived at the same time.
Small wonder that the traffic of cruise-ship passengers through the city has been lauded by representatives of Barcelona’s tourism industry as one of the few positive developments in an otherwise less than stellar year. Over two million cruise-ship passengers passed through the city in 2008, a 17.5 percent increase over the previous year: there were 882 embarkations, nine percent above 2007’s numbers. What’s more, in the first four months of this year the number of cruise-ship passengers was up by 18 percent over the same period of the record-breaking year before, thanks in large part to the city’s port authority having convinced two of the largest cruise ship companies, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, that it would be worth their while to extend their operating season in the port to include the winter months of November to February. And all this in times of economic crisis when the overall number of foreign visitors to Catalunya dropped 3.6 percent in 2008, and a further 12 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year.
An important factor in considering the potential windfall from cruise-ship traffic for the local economy is the percentage of embarkations that are simply ports of call, compared to what the industry calls ‘turnaround’ ports, or ports where a cruise both begins and finishes. With food and lodging already included in the price of their cruise-ship holiday, passengers getting off at ports of call typically try to limit their spending. However, in turnaround ports, passengers will spend at least a day and night in the city, including time in hotels and restaurants. What’s more, turnaround ports are where cruise ships do the bulk of their provisioning, a substantial expenditure for a ship such as the Voyager of the Seas that carries up to 3,800 passengers and a crew of 1,200 including roughly 200 cooks. Of the 55 cruise-ship liners frequenting the port of Barcelona, more than 55 percent have chosen it as their turnaround port, according to Carla Salvadó, cruise ship manager for the Barcelona port authority.
Salvadó explained that the city’s position as the number one cruise-ship port in Europe is fairly recent, going back perhaps no more than four years, because before that cruiseship numbers in the Mediterranean were not big enough to attract much attention and no one bothered with rankings. Salvadó traces Barcelona’s rise to distinction as a cruise-ship destination back to the city’s Olympic Games in 1992, when up to 11 large cruise ships visited the city to serve as ‘floating hotels’ for the flood of visitors. This moment introduced Barcelona to the large American cruise-ship companies, then mostly operating in the Caribbean and Pacific. “The Americans are really the kings of cruise liners. They’re the ones who created the product and who know much more about it.”
The product Salvadó credits Americans with creating goes back to the early Eighties. Cruise ships had existed before that, a logical development of the increasingly luxurious ocean liners where enjoying the ride and enjoying it in style became more important than getting anywhere. However, with the onset of the jet age in the Sixties, cruise ships, like passenger ships in general, went into decline. Then, in the early Eighties, cruise-ship holidays came back into vogue, helped to a large extent by a long-running American TV series, popular at the time, The Love Boat, set aboard the Pacific Princess cruise ship. The series introduced the idea of cruise-ship holidays to a larger swathe of the US population than ever before, and American cruise-ship companies were quick to capitalise on the new market, changing the traditional concept of cruise ships as the exclusive domain of the wealthy leisure class to one that many middle-class Americans could afford.
During this time, cruise ships in the Mediterranean were still primarily run by British and Italian companies, which continued to cater largely to the well-to-do. “Between 1990 and 1995, the European market began to wake up,” Salvadó said, as the American cruise-ship industry began to take an interest in the Mediterranean.
Some European companies were quick to associate with their American counterparts—the Italian Costas joined the American Carnival group and Spanish Pullmantur linked up with Miami-based Royal Caribbean. “So there was an excellent exchange of information between those who really knew the market [the Mediterranean] and those who really knew how to run cruise ships.
“In addition, the companies also began to lower prices, which made cruise ships much more accessible, plus there were some really intensive marketing campaigns to convince people that there are cruise holidays of all sorts, so that the image Europeans now have of cruise-ship holidays is no longer one of something only for wealthy people of an advanced age.”
Along with a more savvy, market-oriented way of doing business, American interest has also brought to the Mediterranean the colossal cruise liners now more frequently seen in ports such as Barcelona. The cruise ships that have been operating in the Caribbean and Pacific, and increasingly in the Mediterranean, are the biggest passenger ships ever made. The largest vessel to use Barcelona as a turnaround port, Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, is the length of three football pitches placed end to end, towers 14 decks above water and at 137,236 tons is almost three times the size of the Titanic.
Ever larger ships are simply a matter of better business. “With only a bit more crew but much more ship you can carry more and save on certain extra costs,” Salvadó explained. “It’s cheaper to have one big ship than two small ones. What’s more, in a big ship you can fit much more entertainment. Royal Caribbean ships have ice rinks, surf simulating pools, things that don’t fit in small ships. And there are more and more young people, and people with families, who are looking for that. A cruise ship is also a profit centre and the more amenities you have the more you have for people to spend money on. People enjoy themselves and they spend more.”