Same Storm, Different Ports

Ports around the world are adopting new technologies and implementing enhanced safety protocols in anticipation of cruising’s return.

moored cruise ships
File image courtesy Port Canaveral

Published Apr 11, 2021 3:18 PM by Tom Peters

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2021 edition.)

British author Damian Barr summed up the world in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic quite succinctly. “We are in the same storm but not in the same boat,” he penned in a poem about the various ways a coronavirus lockdown can affect people.

It could be said that Barr’s insight also applies to the cruise industry, to the ports and terminals that host these massive floating resorts and the shipping agencies that supply essential services. Each, in its own way, has established a strategy to deal with COVID-19 and the resumption of sailing schedules which, at this point, appears to be very uncertain.

Those strategies may involve developing health and safety protocols and using the downtime to move forward with infrastructure enhancements and other improvements.

Ongoing Uncertainty

Jessie Werner, Vice President of Public Affairs at the Florida Ports Council, a nonprofit corporation that serves as the professional association for Florida’s 15 public seaports and their management, says the Council agrees with the present uncertainty in the cruise industry. In the meantime, she adds, “Florida’s cruise ports and the major cruise companies are working diligently to maintain a state of readiness and eventually ensure a safe return to cruising.”

The health and safety of Floridians and visiting cruisers is the top priority, and ports have already implemented numerous procedures over the past year including retrofitting HVAC systems, enhancing sanitation procedures, installing touch-free access points and much more.

However, Florida’s ports have not been spared the economic devastation of COVID-19.

The total economic impact of cargo and cruise vessel activity at Florida seaports is nearly $120 billion or 13 percent of Florida’s GDP. But due to the pandemic, port communities have suffered tremendous negative economic impacts with an estimated 169,000 Florida jobs lost and $23 billion in lost economic activity through 2020.

“We’ve appealed to the U.S. House and Senate to pass additional funding,” Werner says.

Port Everglades, one of the biggest cruise ports, has enacted numerous health and safety protocols to foster the safe movement of passengers, port employees and ships in addition to enhanced cleaning protocols with a focus on high-touch surfaces.

“In the months since mid-March when cruises were suspended,” notes Ellen Kennedy, Port Everglades’ Acting Director of Business Development, “Port Everglades has worked to safeguard our port, our passengers and our neighbors from the virus.”

Meanwhile, construction continues on a new, state-of-the-art parking garage so it will be ready when cruising resumes. The Heron Garage will service Terminals 2 and 4. Terminal 2 is Princess Cruises’ Ocean Medallion prototype, offering touch-free boarding and other technological advances. The new Heron Garage also ties into the convention center expansion and future airport-seaport connector.

Cruise Recovery Team

The Maryland Port Administration (MPA) has reacted to the pandemic with the establishment of a cruise recovery team headed by Cruise Marketing General Manager Cindy Burman, who is working with the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) as well as Royal Caribbean and Carnival, both  of whom home port out of Baltimore.

“We’ve been communicating almost daily with both lines during the pandemic, ensuring we are ready to cruise once the decision is made to restart services,” notes MPA Executive Director Bill Doyle.

During the downtime, Baltimore has been completing extensive improvements to its cruise terminal that include new VIP areas, renovated bathrooms, new signage and other interior upgrades. MPA is also installing transportation worker identification credential (TWIC) readers and outfitted the terminal with a new Customs and Border Protection operations center.

MPA is in compliance with all Centers for Disease Control (CDC) protocols and has stringent personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements and procedures in place. The CDC has mandated that all passengers and ships’ crews be COVID-19-tested and have temperature checks.

 “There’s nothing more important than the health and safety of our cruise passengers, port workers and ground transportation personnel,” Doyle says.

Health & Safety Measures

The Port of Galveston, the fourth most popular cruise port in the U.S. with over a million passengers in 2019, relies on cruising for 65 percent of its revenues.

Galveston has responded to the pandemic by adopting a set of core health and safety measures set out by CLIA including testing for all passengers and crew prior to embarkation, physical distancing and face mask requirements, ventilation strategies and strict protocols for passengers who engage in shore excursions,

“These measures are encouraging because they were informed by the work and recommendations of leading scientists and health experts,” says Rodger Rees, CEO & Port Director.

The port is investing about $100,000 in improvements intended to prevent the spread of the virus at its two cruise terminals including touchless bathroom fixtures, plexiglass shields in customer service areas and enhanced air-handling systems.

“I firmly believe that with these measures in place and with the continued guidance of health officials and outside experts, we can gradually and responsibly bring the cruise industry back to Galveston,” says Rees.

Canada Place

Canadian ports have also felt the impact of COVID-19 and are reacting accordingly. Canada Place at the Port of Vancouver, for example, Canada’s largest cruise ship terminal, has been the leading home port for Alaska-bound cruises for more than 30 years. But like every other cruise port, the COVID-19 storm has blown ill winds over Vancouver’s cruise business.

Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA) says it continues “to follow the direction of Transport Canada regarding travel and cruise-related restrictions as a result of COVID-19” and “is actively working with the cruise industry, cruise lines, cruise terminal operators, other ports and the government to ensure strict safety protocols are in place to be sure we can be ready when the time is right and it is safe to do so.”

Over the past few years, VFPA has worked to optimize the Canada Place footprint while increasing operational efficiencies and improving the guest experience. To that end, it’s developed a three-dimensional, in-house simulation model using advanced analytics and visualization technology to simulate the behavior of passengers during regular and peak cruise days. The data gathered from the model has resulted in a number of logistical changes to improve passenger flow during embarkation and debarkation.

Optimism in Tarragona

Internationally, the Port of Tarragona, located south of Barcelona, is preparing for a potential 2021 cruise season.

“We have berthing requests starting in April, but the situation is very uncertain,” says Josep Maria Cruset, President of the Tarragona Port Authority. “We have defined health security protocols, so it only remains to be able to materialize them with passengers at the dock.”

Tarragona worked from the outset to adapt new health protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. “The result of this proactive attitude was the holding of the first webinar in Spain on the adaptation of the cruise sector to the new control and security measures,” Cruset explains. “With the participation of local and international agents, a protocol was drafted to address the health and hygiene requirements needed to receive cruises at our facilities.”

Tarragona has also been working on new infrastructure to upgrade its cruise terminal. A $33 million project to improve Balears Wharf is expected to be completed this spring. The project will double the size of the wharf and improve facilities for ships and passengers. “We’re also looking into the installation of electrical connections to supply shore power for ships,” Cruset adds.

Role Change

The role of shipping agents has changed drastically since COVID-19 hit, and Inchcape Shipping Services, for one, was quick to adapt.

“Inchcape has been ahead of the curve on key responses to the COVID pandemic and on embracing change for a better future, both for cruise lines and destinations,” says Grant Holmes, Inchcape’s Dubai-based Global Sector Head for the Cruise Industry.

When COVID trounced what was expected to be a boom year for cruising in 2020, “Inchcape stepped up to repatriate passengers and crew as well as provide essential assistance with technical calls,” Holmes explains. After passengers and crews were returned home, Inchcape began looking at economical layup and anchorage possibilities for its clients’ vessels.

But while COVID has crippled cruise for the moment, Holmes sees new opportunities ahead with particular focus on the allure of the sea, onboard offerings and private islands. There’s a definite trend toward smaller ships and more customized voyages of discovery in remote destinations, he says, and Inchcape is helping destinations with operational compliance and sustainable solutions in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere.

“The leading-edge initiatives we’re proactively developing to support the industry are in four key areas,” Holmes explains. “Sustainable cruise tourism development, holistic itinerary management (especially extended voyages and new destinations), crew logistics and business intelligence. We have become the go-to company for anything out of the ordinary and for emerging markets, where I believe sustainable cruising has a promising future. We’re literally developing cruise for the first time in Africa, the Mideast and India.” 

Halifax-based Tom Peters is the magazine’s ports columnist.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.