Home porting still elusive in Greece

Grandiose cruise ships sailing in from aboard have become something of a regular fixture at Piraeus, yet their use of the country’s biggest port has yet to translate into revenues for the cash-starved economy, as Greece is not being used to its full potential for home porting, despite the lifting of restrictions and numerous promises from government officials over the years.

While cruise traffic at Piraeus has shown an increase ahead of the peak of the summer season, it mostly concerns transit passengers. At the same time there is a reduction in the number of passengers embarking and disembarking due to the reduced activity of vessels that traditionally offered cruises starting at Piraeus, top Piraeus Port Authority officials told Kathimerini.

Still, cruise activity is clearly bringing in profits for the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP), with estimates pointing to an increase in both the number of passengers and in revenues compared with 2012. However the increase is far smaller than the target for potential revenues of up to 2 billion euros set by a National Bank of Greece study that was recently drafted on the sector, while the interest expressed by major foreign cruise operators in investing in Greece has yet to yield tangible results.

A couple of months ago top officials of leading cruise companies visited Athens on the occasion of a forum on maritime tourism. They came from Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Carnival Corporation, TUI Cruises, Costa Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Paul Gauguin Cruises and Louis Cruises. Sector representatives have also made numerous visits to the Merchant Marine Ministry, and even though the Development Ministry has heralded a public-private partnership for a new cruiser dock at Faliro, near Piraeus on the southern coast of Athens, there has been no activity in that direction.

Nevertheless, the optimism generated by the number of arrivals is justified: In the first five months of the year there has been an increase of 17.23 percent from the same period in 2012 in the number of transit passengers at the country’s main port, while in May there was an 8.1 percent increase in arrivals at the port of Corfu in the northern Ionian.

The rise in liner arrivals in Santorini, Katakolo, Rhodes is also on a similar scale this year. Notably, Iraklio in Crete has been chosen by one foreign cruise company as its home port, leading to an increase of about 100 percent from the same period in 2012 and to a total increase of 40 percent year-on-year for the whole of 2013, as a total of 178 cruise ship arrivals is expected.

These increases come after a relatively bad year, with 2012 showing a major decline in cruise passengers at Piraeus: They numbered about 2 million, down from 2.6 million arrivals in 2011, a record year due to the Arab Spring in northern Africa that prompted cruise companies to opt for Greece instead. A similar drop was seen in other Greek destinations last year, when political and economic uncertainty culminated right at the start of the summer season with twin elections.

Greek ports therefore continue to be mainly transit ports and not home ports, which means that spending by cruise passengers as well as by cruise companies in this country remain low. That is because cruise operators tend to use home ports as the base from where they purchase their supplies of fuel, food and equipment, as well as for conducting many of the repairs to their vessels.

Average spending per passenger is estimated at 300 euros in home ports, against just 20 euros per passenger at transit ports. Other studies that also include yachting show that each visit to a port of call brings some 99 euros per passenger, which translates into 20 percent cashed in at the actual port and 80 percent transferred to the broader local economy.

Consequently cruise tourism brings direct benefits to the local economies of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, with revenues exceeding 1 billion euros per annum, including expenditures by cruise ship crews.

The cruise sector in Greece will only be able to see its revenues grow significantly if home porting became more prevalent. The study by the National Bank suggests that if two thirds of passengers visiting Greece had a Greek point as their home port, total annual revenues could exceed 1.2 billion euros in 2016, against 600 million euros in the record year of 2011.

In the case that there is also an increase in international demand for cruise tourism, as anticipated, to 30 million passengers in 2016, and a rise of home porting at Greek ports for two-thirds of cruise passengers visiting Greece, then total annual receipts could soar to nearly 2 billion euros in 2016, according to National.

With an annual total of 6 million cruise passengers per year, the Mediterranean constitutes the second most popular cruise destination in the world, as well as one of the biggest yachting destinations for hundreds of thousands of tourists, meaning that maritime tourism is a significant vehicle for economic growth in Greece and the broader region.

So far, the eastern part of the Mediterranean attracts about one-third of the total volume of cruise tourism conducted in the Mediterranean, with at least 2 million visitors per year and 9.2 million passenger arrivals at ports.

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