The cruise industry in Malta is going from strength to strength, with a record 820,000 passenger movements expected in 2019, translating to potential direct and indirect expenditure of over €100 million, according to Valletta Cruise Port (VCP) CEO, Stephen Xuereb.
The reasons behind this industry’s local success are many and include the unique beauty of the Grand Harbour gracing the shores of the capital city, Valletta - a UNESCO World Heritage site, within walking distance from the port - as well as the island’s convenient geographical location. This makes the archipelago appealing for both east and west Mediterranean cruises.
“We also have a natural Grand Harbour and we can accommodate all kinds of cruise vessels, from the largest cruise ships to the luxury boutique lines, supported by excellent port facilities,” asserted Mr Xuereb. A lot is being done to support the burgeoning industry that has seen VCP register an actualised growth of 75 per cent over the 6-year period, from 2013 to 2019. “Investment in infrastructure and service quality has increased.
Airport transfers are faster and more efficient. We have established the Valletta Waterfront as an important – and welcoming - destination for cruise passengers, crew, land-based tourists and locals. Indeed, one of the biggest achievements over the years was when we received the Europa Nostra Award for Conservation from the European Union. That was a moment of pride because, the iconic Pinto Stores with the coloured doors are now instantly recognisable and also symbolic of Malta’s Grand Harbour,” Mr Xuereb asserted.
This year, infrastructural improvements will continue as permissions have been obtained to widen the Pinto 4 and 5 quays by 15 metres to allow bigger ships to berth. “With this development we are looking at a more attractive and secure operation,” noted Mr Xuereb. “After all, ships are getting bigger. The majority of the 128 cruise ships currently in the order books for the coming years are large resort ships with capacities of up to 6,000 passengers.”
The focus on culture in recent years, predominantly through Valletta holding the title of European City of Culture in 2018, has also had a positive impact he said. “New events are sprouting in regenerated historic buildings: from art exhibitions and visual experiences to music, dance, drama, literature, and science”. This has all contributed to “keeping our product fresh for visitors,” he added.
There is a heightened level of awareness with regards to guests and their experience of Malta at VCP. “In fact, I am often asked who our customers are,” revealed Mr Xuereb, “The answer is always the same. Technically, our customer is the cruise line, but we’re also serving their guests. So, the guest experience is as important as the service we give to the ship.” This is a philosophy ingrained in the entity’s operations, as proven by the accolades recently bestowed on VCP — the awards for Best Terminal Operator by Cruise Insight for the second consecutive year; and Top Rated Mediterranean Cruise Destination by the Cruise Critic Cruisers’ Choice.
“This shows that we are being valued by both the cruise lines and their guests. It shows that our modus operandi, our flexibility, our reliability, and our commitment, is having a positive impact,” he added. This said, naysayers exist too. The industry often attracts criticism that cruise ships only bring business to the operators. In response to this, Mr Xuereb said that “during the 18year period between 2000 and 2018, according to independent studies, passengers generated €400 million in direct expenditure, while direct cruise expenditure hit the €1 billion mark.
The industry is leaving a huge economic impact locally, not just through service to ships, passengers and crew, but also in incoming and outgoing flights through Malta International Airport, as well as hotel accommodation where passengers stay prior to and after their cruise,” the CEO explained.
Moreover, the cruise industry is giving people a taste of Malta that stays with them and sees them return for longer stays, Mr Xuereb emphasised. “While a lot of money is being spent to promote Malta overseas, the cruise industry is bringing 800,000 tourists to experience Malta for the day, and, if we give them a good experience, they go back home, and they promote Malta with their friends. This is of huge value to tourism in Malta.” In fact, it is estimated that more than 80 per cent of passengers, visiting Malta on a cruise, show interest in returning for a longer, land-based holiday, he underlined. Naturally, there are challenges being faced as well.
Environmental concerns and sustainability have become a top priority for governments and policy-makers worldwide, and the cruising industry is taking serious note. Mr Xuereb refers to the Cruise Lines International Association’s report which shows that a large investment by cruise lines of $1 billion in environmental technology will prioritise areas of action, including “air emissions reduction, advanced wastewater treatment systems, solar panels, heating, ventilations and air conditioning systems as well as LNG as an alternative and cleaner fuel.”
This is an excerpt of an interview which featured in the August edition of The Malta Business Observer.