The MSC Grandiosa is not a ship that goes unnoticed. With 331 meters long, 43 wide and 19 decks, it has a capacity for 7,400 people between passengers and crew. It is one of the largest ships that, until the beginning of the pandemic, could be seen regularly docking in the Port of Barcelona. Fifteen months later, at the end of last June, the jewel of the Italian company MSC returned to the port of the Catalan capital and became the first cruise to open the season. From there, the arrival of ships has been increasing and, in the last two weeks, most of the passenger ships that were frequent before the pandemic have returned to call in the city.
According to data from the Port, during this August there are six fixed cruise ships, which embark and disembark every week, usually always on the same day. To these are added the cruise ships that make non-periodic stopovers, in addition to the smaller boats, of the ferry type or that transport private vehicles. The latter have been operating normally from Barcelona for a long time, to cover the regular lines. However, the arrival of cruise ships has been a novelty this July and only at the beginning of this month have they been seen acting normally again.
In the last week alone there have been seven major cruise calls in Barcelona. The MSC Seashore and the AidaPerla left last Friday. A day later the Marina and the aforementioned MSC Grandiosa left. Already on Sunday, the Harmony of the Seas resumed its route in the direction of Palma de Mallorca, in what was the first post-pandemic trip of Royal Caribbean in Europe. In the following days, the Costa Smeralda and the Europa 2 arrived in Barcelona. The Mein Schieff 2, another of the large usual ships of the Catalan port, will arrive next Friday, will load, and will leave on Saturday in the direction of Valencia.
“From March 2020 to the end of June we have not had passenger cruise activity. If there was a large ship, it was either a cargo ship, or entrances or exits due to technical operational issues,” explain sources from the Port of Barcelona. But in recent weeks, activity has recovered sharply. If in June there were five cruise ship stopovers registered, several of them in the testing phase, in July the figure already amounted to 16. So far in August, the number of stopovers has already reached 17 and those responsible for navigation expect that bends before the end of the month.
Despite the fact that both companies and the authorities have tried to relaunch cruise activity, passenger data is still far from the figures recorded in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic stopped. In July 2019, 358,760 people passed through Barcelona aboard a large pleasure boat, either as a point of departure, arrival or as a place to visit on a longer route. In June 2020 the figure was obviously at 0 and, a year later, the July in which the sector has resumed operations, the total passengers have been 39,560.
The port authority indicates that the figure was part of their plans, since the recovery of cruise passengers is the slowest because it is related to a very specific type of tourism that has not yet been reactivated globally. That is why they contrast the volume of cruise passengers with that of the rest of the passengers, most of them on ships that cover regular lines. In July 2019, passengers on this type of journey were 214,776, while last month they were 151,557. That is, while cruises are 89% below the pre-pandemic figures today, on regular lines there is only 30% left to resume the rhythm of 2019.
Bet on cruises despite complaints
Despite the fact that cruise lines and regular lines are recovering at very different rates, the weight of both businesses has little to do with it. In 2019, three out of four passengers who passed through the port of Barcelona did so on board a large cruise ship, which with just one stopover can transport up to five and six times the passengers that can fit on a scheduled ferry. In the coming months, the intention is to energize the cruises to take advantage of the end of the high season and, there are even two additions to the Barcelona grill planned: Norwegian Epic, which will arrive at the end of this month, and another of the cruises of the Swiss company Viking. No less important is the project led by the MSC shipping company to build a new terminal in the port of Barcelona by 2024, which received the green light in May.
These growth prospects prove the firm commitment to cruise ships both from the Port and from the shipping companies themselves in the post-COVID stage. However, this claim collides with the growing voices that demand to rethink the sector. Last June, entities such as the Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic, the Federation of Associations of Neighbors of Barcelona or Ecologists in Action joined in a demonstration demanding that the Government stop the resumption of cruise ships. In a note, the environmental organization denounced that Spain is “the second European country with the most greenhouse gas emissions from ships and the first most polluted by cruise ships.”
The view on cruise ships is also one of the issues that divides the Barcelona municipal coalition between Barcelona en Comú and the PSC. While the mayor Ada Colau has been in favor of limiting the arrival of large ships, the deputy mayor and socialist leader in Barcelona Jaume Collboni applauded the reactivation of the arrival of cruise passengers during the summer as a way to “oxygenate” the economy of the city linked to tourism.
Health plans, distributed
Last May the Government and the communities established a plan for a gradual resumption of cruise activity. A document that also imposed some sanitary conditions, such as the obligation not to exceed 75% of the maximum capacity, that all passengers provide PCR or vaccination certificate, undergo tests during long trips and take the temperature both inside as at the time of embarkation as in the disembarkation.
The Health document also imposed the need for companies to provide their own health plans, in which they must specify both the measures adopted to prevent infections and the protocols to respond to possible outbreaks. These indications are not too far removed from those subsequently approved by the Generalitat through its committee against the pandemic, the Procicat, which imposed a prior authorization to these health plans by the community.
However, it is the State and not the autonomies that have powers in everything related to international travel, so if a cruise ship stops in Italian, French, Maltese or Maghreb ports, as is the case with most of the that dock in Catalonia, the body responsible for reviewing the health plans of each ship is the Ministry of Health. The Generalitat has reported that, since last June, only one cruise ship has requested authorization to dock in Barcelona: the Mein Schiff, which between June 29 and July 13 covered a small route between the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Barcelona, with a passage of 1,879 people, that is, 60% of its capacity. He received permission.