Cruise liners suffered a torrid 2020 as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the global travel industry, with only 32 cruise liners calling into Malta in 2020, down from 359 the previous year. This was certainly a blow to Valletta Cruise Port, but did it impact the Port's long-term vision?
WhosWho.mt reached out to Valletta Cruise Port CEO and Global Ports Holding COO Stephen Xuereb to find out how the entryway into Malta for all cruise liner arrivals is preparing for what comes after the pandemic.
2020 was a terrible year for your sector, with arrivals to the cruise port falling precipitously in the wake of the pandemic. How did the industry respond to the crisis?
COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to the record years previously registered by the cruise industry. 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.
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.
Furthermore, the news of an effective vaccine saw cruise line stocks surge up between 20 to 30 per cent, with the start of the vaccination program most notably in Europe and the United States providing a further breather. Cruising is expected to gradually pick up again, as restrictions are lifted, the vaccine rolls out, and operators deploy vessels into the market for the peak summer months.
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. As Valletta Cruise Port we do have 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.
What are the prospects so far for 2021? Do you think it will be a better year than 2020?
2021 we hope 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 per cent COVID-19 testing, trimming the ships down to 60-80 per cent occupancy, allowing for ample square meterage of space per passenger and ample hygiene practices. 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.
Do you think we’ll see a return to some normality by summer?
It will be a while until the travel industry sees some form of normality, whatever is deemed normal. Recovery time is bound to take longer than this summer. Attempts to reboot international travel on a wider scale have so far failed due to successive waves of COVID-19. However, we believe 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.
Regarding investments, last year there was the indication that Valletta Cruise Port would be carrying out several investments. Have these investments started?
The months during which Valletta Waterfront was devoid of any business due to COVID-19 served as a time for Valletta Cruise Port to further invest in projects with the aim of further enhancing the appearance of this 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. Furthermore, Valletta Cruise is supporting a €49.9 million initiative spearheaded by Infrastructure Malta and Transport Malta to develop shore-side electricity. Indeed infrastructural works for the shore-side electricity are currently in progress on Pinto 4-5.
Has the Government started the installation of shoreside electricity facilities?
The first 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. 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.
Valletta Cruise Port CEO and Global Ports Holding COO Stephen Xuereb