Stephen Xuereb

While 2022 was considered a transition year for the cruise industry, as the sector kicked off a gradual return to business after the pandemic, 2023 is already shaping up to reach the full potential. And, as Stephen Xuereb – CEO of Valletta Cruise Port (VCP) and COO of parent company Global Ports Holding (GPH) – attests, all indications for this year are that the numbers will continue to edge closer to the pre-Covid records.

“Historically, the cruise industry has been well-positioned to survive economic crises and geopolitical issues due to its overall flexibility. More than half a million cruise liner passengers arrived in Malta last year, a year of recovery from the blow of the pandemic. And Valletta Cruise Port is estimating that passenger movements will increase by more than a quarter of a million over the next 12 months, bringing the number up to around 800,000 passenger movements,” Mr Xuereb says.

The industry had already been booming pre-COVID, with both 2017 and 2019 being record years and homeporting – cruises that start and end in Malta – reaching around 31 per cent of VCP’s operations in 2019, up from 22 per cent in 2018. Passenger movements likewise reached an all-time high of 900,000 in 2019.These are numbers that the industry now looks set to not only reach again but also exceed. 

As part of Global Ports Holding, Valletta Cruise Port commenced preparations for the post-COVID cruising reality way back in January 2020; Emergency Response Plans and Health and Safety Protocols for all ports forming part of the GPH network, inclusive of Valletta Cruise Port were revised to reflect the new reality. In addition, Valletta Cruise Port obtained the Safe Travels stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council, based on these revised protocols. 

“This process meant that Valletta Cruise Port was well prepared to welcome back the first cruise calls in August 2020, with regular cruise calls since then,” Mr Xuereb explains. “The pandemic has shown us that with the right frame of mind, challenges can be turned into opportunities. Where once the industry’s primary message was about providing passengers with affordable vacations, relaxation and fun, the message has now been extended to include the creation of safe guest experiences.” 

And the numbers are encouraging. The most recent data from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) shows cruise holidays are more popular than in 2019, with 85 per cent of respondents having cruised previously intending to cruise again; of those who have never cruised, 66 per cent are open to cruising – up 0.5 per cent from 2019.

“The next few years will lead to further consolidation in the industry. The cruise fleets have been modernised with around 90 new cruise ships planned to come into service in the next five years. The new cruise vessels are also more energy-efficient, and vessels still in service are being retrofitted with scrubbers to reduce emissions,” Mr Xuereb notes, adding that the number of cruise passengers is expected to grow from 30 million in 2019 to 40 million in 2028.

Despite the positive outlook, the industry, like most, does face challenges. The rising cost of living is one of these, often meaning that holidays are one of the activities to take the chop. 

“Even so, cruising is the perfect budget holiday especially for families with kids. The all-inclusive concept being introduced by many cruise lines further reinforces this. As a holiday, cruising allows guests to budget exactly how much their spend will be, making it ideal for times when one needs to watch the spend closely,” Mr Xuereb says.

The war in the Black Sea area has also resulted in a shift in itineraries following the loss of the most important port in the region, St. Petersburg. Likewise, the increasing cost of fuel might further force changes in itineraries to shorten routes and travel times, and decrease fuel consumption. 

“Global Ports Holding’s ports are geographically well-positioned to withstand such changes. One very real challenge is the scarcity of labour. The sector needs around 73,000 new people per year to accommodate the current growth, but many industries – especially the hospitality sector – are experiencing a skill-drain post-COVID,” Mr Xuereb continues.

The environment is the other challenge that Mr Xuereb takes seriously in both his roles, as he confirms that the industry is actively working to tackle environmental aspects. The European Commission has adopted the ‘Fit for 55’ package, which adapts existing climate and energy legislation to meet the new EU objective for a minimum 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

“Ports are acting as facilitators for the implementation of the shore-to-ship power supply as in the case of Valletta. Concerted efforts of all stakeholders and the involvement of governments to finance such hefty capital expenditure are vital. Furthermore, as GPH we have taken environmentally conscious decisions to minimise energy consumption wherever possible through the use of renewable sources. Additionally, we have implemented Health, Safety and Environmental policies inclusive of emergency response plans across our port network,” Mr Xuereb states.

Meantime, he plans on consolidating those efforts that saw VCP awarded Best Terminal Operator by Cruise Insight for two consecutive years and listed as the Top-Rated Mediterranean Cruise Destination in Cruise Critic Cruisers’ Choice. 

“The pride in these awards is that the former is voted for by cruise operators, whereas the latter is voted for by the cruise passengers themselves. Furthermore, more recently we have been conferred with the award of World’s Best Cruise Terminal for Sustainability, awarded by the World Cruise Awards 2022.

Further investment at Valletta Cruise Port is planned, whereby two quays are being extended to be able to accommodate bigger cruise ships without the need for spacer barges. Infrastructure upgrades, wider quays and new shoreside power facilities are set to make Valletta Cruise Port an even more attractive cruise port.

“Valletta Cruise Port is the only licensed cruise and ferry port in Malta, a major port of call and a thriving home port. With one of the most scenic backdrops of any port worldwide, Valletta Cruise Port ushers passengers into Malta’s historical and cultural experience from the moment the ship docks into port,” Mr Xuereb concludes.

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