A Chance to Tame Cruise Tourism

Cruise critic Ross Klein argues that now is the time for port cities to gain control of cruise tourism crowds, explaining three ways to do that – and why it won’t be easy. But if not now, when?

OPINION – Re-imagining Cruise Tourism, Post-Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has given port cities an opportunity to reflect on the impacts of cruise tourism, both positive and negative. At the same time, the cruise industry has been forced to in effect reset. It begrudgingly ceased cruise operations and since April 2020 has floated many restart dates; few have materialized and only in limited markets. Many countries closed cruise tourism through 2021; some like the U.S. expect to reopen November 2021 at the earliest. In the interim, there have been changes in the cruise industry – ships have been scrapped or sold, some cruise lines have ceased operations, other cruise lines have been sold.

The largest cruise corporations will return streamlined, more efficient, and with a revised business model corresponding to the new operating environment – they will seek to increase revenues while decreasing expenses. This negatively impacts ports as they are asked to give more to cruise lines in return for receiving less. The challenge for a port community is to have the cruise market align with its values and requirements rather than sacrificing its interests to align with the demands of the cruise industry.

Cruiseliner dwarfs Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Port communities can use the respite from cruise tourism to think rationally about the ideal scope, size, and nature of day trippers from cruise ships. In post-Covid-19, the first issue is public health – keeping cruise tourism safe. What public health measures must be in place in a port and for arriving cruise ship day-trippers – e.g., masks, social distancing, vaccinations. Public health measures should be defined by health authorities in the port community; not by cruise ships.

Three opportunities come with the break in cruise tourism.

Traffic Taming – One is to rebuild cruise tourism in a size that “fits” the port community. People pollution (when the number of tourists overtakes the comfortable carrying capacity of a port) was first recognized by the cruise industry as a problem in the late-1990s and has become worse in the past 20+ years. Port communities, especially historic locations, take the brunt of the growing over-tourism associated with cruise ships. Some ports have taken measures to contain cruise tourism, including:

    • Dubrovnik’s “Respect the City Campaign” that caps cruise visitors at 4,000 per day. This is a significant reduction from the peak days when the port saw a million or more passengers in a year (2012, 2013); but it still results in a significant potential traffic load. Twenty-six cruise days a month can result in more than 100,000 passengers a month.
    • Venice, in response to social and political action, initially limited cruise ship size and now has banned cruise ships from the Lagoon and the St. Mark’s Square area.
    • Key West replaced previous limits on cruise passengers – limits that had been systematically violated over the years – with limits on ship size (1,300 passengers and crew) and total passengers allowed ashore (1,500 per day). The limits were the result of a public vote in November 2020. Almost immediately, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and its friends in the Florida legislature began steps to disenfranchise the will of the citizens of Key West and Monroe County.

Key West cruise port in pre-pandemic times. Photo: Kolossas

Baseline Research – Second, the respite from cruise tourism gives a port community a unique chance to measure baselines because cruise ships are absent. Some ports have already used the break to measure water and air quality as a point of comparison to the past and for the future; others are asking whether seasonal “red tides” along cruise routes return when there are no cruise ships. Measures can also be taken ashore – social indicators, economic indicators, and indicators of quality of life, though these need to be understood in the context of Covid-19 and its impact on tourism and commerce generally.

The point is that ports have a chance to systematically understand the impacts – positive and negative – of cruise ships. It is possible to measure the impact of cruise tourism on infrastructure (garbage, sewage use and treatment, road maintenance and sidewalks, parks and public areas) and on the costs of operating as a destination (e.g., increased need for police and public safety personnel, other public employees in many areas). Knowing the increased cost of public services when cruise tourism is active gives a concrete base on which a port community can know the minimum income needed in port fees and passenger head taxes from cruise ships.

Cruise ship passengers head for Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten, Caribbean. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Define the Future – Last, a port can restart cruise tourism in a mindful manner following the respite. There is a chance to define the number of passengers that fit the port (daily and weekly) rather than being faced with volumes foisted on the port by cruise lines. There is a chance to create parameters for cruise tourism that reflect systematic knowledge about environmental, social and economic impacts. The best chance of all is to intentionally define cruise tourism going forward (e.g., how many ships, how many passengers, and controlling the cruise ship schedule) and to treat it as a business (as reflected in port fees, passenger head taxes, taxation of cruise business conducted ashore, taxation of alcohol-sales and casinos while a ship is in port). Cruise lines are all in business to make money, which potentially places them in competition with a port community that also sees itself in business to make money. Cruise lines often see money spent ashore as lost income. This is the core of the competition. The cruise industry has traditionally dominated its relationship with ports. The respite from Covid-19 gives a chance to resume with a more equitable and fair relationship.

Ports now have a chance to ensure that cruise tourism truly benefits the community, and to avoid people pollution and other social and environmental costs.

Ross A Klein, PhD is an international expert on the cruise industry and cruise tourism. His writing includes 10 books and monographs and more than four dozen book chapters and articles. He has lectured widely and has testified before the U.S. Congress and in numerous court cases involving the cruise industry. He is online at http://www.cruisejunkie.com

Once Overrun, Dubrovnik Plans for Sustainability

Dubrovnik, Croatia, a UNESCO World Heritage city, is known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic Sea’, its historic city center surrounded by original medieval stone walls – and until recently, thronged with cruise ship passengers. In 2017, that began to change. The following before-and-after story has been provided by the Mayor’s Office, City of Dubrovnik (with a closing note on the Covid hiatus).

View over the medieval historic core of Dubrovnik, ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’.

[All photos courtesy of the City of Dubrovnik]

‘Respect the City’ Program Includes Limits on Cruise-ship Crowds

Dubrovnik, a champion of Croatian tourism, is a city that is both a museum and a performance stage, a unique combination of history and modernity – a city with a capital C. Its rich cultural heritage, different architectural styles, various cultural events, film tourism (think Game of Thrones), Mediterranean flavors, and superior accommodations draw millions of tourists each year. The old city center, surrounded by original medieval walls, has been under UNESCO World Heritage inscription since 1979.

The coastal city is a popular stop-off for cruises. In 2013, for instance, there were more than one million cruise passengers in Dubrovnik, occasionally resulting in more than 10 thousand visitors in the historic core at one time.

Cruise ships pack the main Dubrovnik port in times before “Respect the City”.

By 2017 the city was facing negative publicity in global media due to overtourism and  uncontrolled tourism development. The city was falling victim to its own success, and its citizens were becoming more openly critical. Amidst such chaos, many visitors could not fully experience the city’s history and culture. Eventually, UNESCO warned that the overwhelming number of tourists could result in its World Heritage listing being revoked and advised that no more than 8,000 tourists be in the historic core at any one time.

Signs of 21st-century mass tourism hang on a medieval street.

Shortly after being elected in June 2017, mayor Mato Franković introduced the multidisciplinary project “Respect the City” (RTC), aiming for more sustainable development of Dubrovnik. He began tackling the difficult challenge to reduce overcrowding through different measures for relieving traffic congestion and implementing smart city solutions. In particular, he reduced the number of souvenir stands by 80 percent and cut the number of restaurant tables and chairs by 30 percent. As a result, the City has lost some revenue, at least 5 million kuna a year (around €660,000 or US$786,000 ). To illustrate, the highest rent for a small stand at that time was more than 400,000 kunas annually, achieved at public tender.

‘Some of the measures we implemented are unpopular, but such moves are necessary if we want to reach the sustainable tourism we seek’, said Mayor Franković about financial losses. ‘Our task is to put the needs of citizens first. Everything we have done and will do in the future will greatly contribute to creating a unique destination experience and increase the quality of the overall service for all visitors’.

Various strategies have been implemented in cruise tourism. The City approached the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and, in partnership with them, reorganized cruise schedules to stagger departure and arrival times. It is essential to emphasize that the cruise industry is an important segment of the economy in Dubrovnik. The city policy was that the number of people was never a problem; it was the flow. Better flow was achieved by organizing the ship-arrivals timetable more carefully, both daily and throughout the year. The maximum number of ships was set to two ships at once and the limit of visitors in the walled city coming from cruise ships at 4,000 – half the number suggested by UNESCO. Harmonization of arrival times has relieved pressure on the historic core in the summer seasons of 2018 and 2019 (pre-COVID years), compared to 2017 and earlier.

The 16th-century Pile Gate, main entrance to the old town, blocked by crowds in 2017 . . .

. . . and flowing freely in summer 2019.

CLIA´s repeated willingness to cooperate in order to resolve the existing problems in the spirit of partnership is precious to the City of Dubrovnik. As a part of that partnership and the “Respect the City” project, Dubrovnik in 2019 became one of the 30 world destinations for which the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has done a Destination Assessment and Action Plan. Development of the Plan represents the City’s firm commitment and unshakeable determination in moving tourism towards a sustainable future.

The City achieved 70% of excellence in the GSTC report, attesting to its focus on a sustainable future for tourism and the city. GSTC recognized numerous examples of good practices in the process, mainly regarding public safety, urban cleanliness, and a high degree of heritage conservation. These included the reconstructed Lazareti site, special measures for heritage protection, local festivals, products, and entrepreneurs, as well as protection of biodiversity, and monitoring the Respect the City project itself.

Sustainable Tourism for a Sustainable Future
‘This report represents a new beginning of the story of a sustainable Dubrovnik and a sustainable way of managing tourism as our main industry,’ said Mayor Franković. ‘Working on assessment in 2019, GSTC consulted with 70 stakeholders from national and local government, the private sector, NGOs and universities, and residents. All stakeholder inputs are very valuable to us, because we want our city to be a great place for anyone – residents and guests alike’, he concluded.

Evening in Dubrovnik, after many cruise passengers have left.

The conservation of cultural heritage, the quality of citizens’ daily lives, and the provision of the best possible experience of Dubrovnik as a destination – all those are motives for this shift in destination management. Respect the City attracted the attention of international media and the global tourism sector. Dubrovnik is increasingly becoming perceived as a city that has started managing its tourism in a sustainable way. As key factors in years to come, the City of Dubrovnik is planning to take over cruise ship shuttle services and gradually eliminate traffic around the gateway area.

In COVID-19 times Croatia was recognized as a safe destination due to its good epidemiological situation in 2020, and safety continues to be the focus in 2021.