What's Ahead in the Med

Seatrade Med explores trends and challenges

By: Anne Kalosh

The Mediterranean’s skyrocketing popularity as a cruise destination, hot new ports, the challenge of crowding and the potential for more year-round sailings were just some of the key themes that emerged at this year’s Seatrade Mediterranean Cruise & Ferry Convention hosted by the booming port of Naples, Italy. The event included conference sessions with senior cruise executives, a trade show with nearly 200 exhibiting companies and a new travel agent training course.

The Mediterranean draws possibly the world’s most diverse cruise fleet and offers more itinerary choices than perhaps any other region, said speakers at a Seatrade session on product diversity. Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises have been deploying some of their biggest, newest ships for increasingly longer Mediterranean seasons. And, Disney Cruise Line will roll out its first Mediterranean sailings in 2007, offering shipboard programs and shore-side excursions tailored for families.

“Sales have far exceeded expectations,” said Tom Wolber, Disney Cruise Line’s senior vice president of operations. “In the Caribbean, the onboard experience drives the ratings. In the Med, we expect the ports to drive the ratings,” he added.

With Naples’ Maritime Station serving as the venue for Seatrade Med, attendees had the opportunity to visit some of the 16 cruise ships that came alongside during the three-day event. They ranged from Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jewel and Royal Caribbean International’s Voyager of the Seas to Silversea Cruises’ Silver Wind, all of which hosted tours for travel agents participating in the new European Cruise Fair.

Although no U.S.-based line operates year-round in the Mediterranean yet, lines such as Costa and MSC are continuing their full-

calendar presence. This year, Costa introduced a ship specifically designed for year-round Mediterranean operations. Costa Concordia brings innovations, such as the largest spa afloat, special spa accommodations and a retractable glass roof covering two Lido Deck swimming pools.

Costa Crociere president Gianni Onorato opined that quality service, value for money and investments in advertising are essential to continued industry growth in the region. He also cited issues of concern, such as port congestion. One recent day, noted Onorato, Santorini was jammed with 11 ships and 25,000 passengers.

“We need to have new destinations,” he emphasized.

When it comes to developing new destinations, cruise lines are definitely looking to Italy. The country appeals to cruisers of all nationalities, noted John Tercek, vice president of commercial and new business development for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

Cruise line executives are especially excited about hot Mediterranean destinations, such as Croatia, Montenegro and Valencia.

“Anything with Croatia is sold out,” said Albert Peter, CEO of Silversea Cruises.

At a destination session, Jose Campos, secretary general of the MedCruise Association, which numbers 68 ports in 20 countries, suggested lines look beyond the increasingly jammed marquee ports to discover emerging destinations. Campos urged cruise lines to consider new alternatives, such as the history-rich port of Cagliari in Sardinia, the Slovenian gateway of Koper with its waterfront old city, and beach-lined Castellon on the Spanish coast between Barcelona and Valencia.

From the looks of things, cruise line executives are taking note. Carol Marlow, president and managing director of Cunard Line, noted at one Seatrade session that affluent cruisers are seeking unique experiences, glamour and authentic experiences; and that fortunately, all of the above are available in abundance across the Mediterranean.