GIG: How important is the cruise industry to the Greek economy, and what is Celestyal Cruises’ contribution? What is your market share of the Greek cruise market? Which countries do your customers predominantly come from?
Theophilides: Cruising is a fast-developing industry in Greece, offering significant opportunities and benefits to the national and local economy. Due to its thousands of kilometres of coastline, Greece is the ideal place for marine tourism, with cruising and yachting being one of the cornerstones of the country’s tourism development. Greece is quickly moving towards attaining a preeminent position in the global cruising industry, especially as the focus of big cruise companies shifts towards the eastern Mediterranean. Celestyal Cruises has a long presence in this area and makes a significant contribution to the Greek economy, based on its activities.
From 2014-2018, the company’s estimated contribution to the Greek economy reached €102.5 million annually. In 2018 our direct operating expenditure was €28 million, while we also supported Greek food and beverage companies with €4.1 million. This contribution is expected to grow more, especially with the extension of operating season, and we are adding new destinations to our itineraries such as Patra, Volos, and Corfu. Nonetheless, we have to mention that Celestyal Cruises is also committed to employing local staff: we employee more than 200 Greek seamen and marine officers on our vessels, corresponding to the crew of 40 cargo ships and more than 100 Greek office personnel onshore. Vessel maintenance is also undertaken in Greece, supporting the local ship repair industry. Moreover, our strategy focuses on the achievement of a holistic experience at each destination, which includes activities both onboard and offshore at the destinations while also promoting Greek culture and heritage. This is in combination with the efforts and foundations we have already set in 2019 towards a 365-day approach to cruising.
Celestyal Cruises has built an award-winning reputation and is recognised as the number one choice for travellers to the Greek Islands and the East Mediterranean thanks to its regional expertise and the exceptional hospitality it provides its guests of 140 different nationalities. We welcomed 115,000 guests in 2019 and we expect this number to grow to 130,000 within 2020. 45% of our guests are North Americans with 40% originating from the U.S. and the other 5% from Canada. 10% are from Latin America, 10% from Australasia, while the rest come from Europe and local markets.
GIG: How many vessels does Celestyal homeport in Greece? Do you see this changing? What are your strategic priorities looking ahead, and how have you differentiated your offering?
Theophilides: Celestyal Cruises has a strong and stable presence at the Eastern Mediterranean, operating two medium sized cruise vessels, Celestyal Crystal and Celestyal Olympia, and holding 70% of Greece’s home porting. Our vessels only accommodate up to 1,500 guests, while most cruise ships’ capacity continues to increase to up to 5,000 passengers. Considering our destination-centric philosophy, operating mid-sized cruise vessels is an important competitive advantage because it allows us to enter less developed ports. It is a fact that medium-sized vessels are more efficient in supporting itineraries in the Aegean Sea, since they are more suited to ports that are not easily accessible to larger vessels. This opportunity is unique for Celestyal Cruises, since it allows the company to visit authentic destinations and hidden gems and therefore enhance its destination-centric philosophy.
Our vessels are also an extension of the destinations we visit. Our travellers can expect to find a Greek influence on board, from the way our guest rooms are designed, to our food and wine selection, all the way to our entertainment programs and the overall onboard ambience. This seamless experience we offer – the whole atmosphere – and the opportunities for a deeper bonding with the destination are unique to Celestyal.
Planning for new builds remains central in our focus, but we operate in a very dynamic market, so securing sound financing is paramount before we reach any final decision. Our priority now is achieving year-round operations and building up our distribution. We’re at ten-month-long operations now, and in a couple of years we will be year-round. At the same time, we are constantly introducing more itinerary options for our guests.
GIG: How has the cruise sector evolved in Greece over the past decade, and how do you see it evolving in the next decade? What more needs to be done to further develop cruise tourism in Greece? There has been a lot of talk over the years about extending Greece’s tourism season and of making cruise tourism an all-year-round industry. How can this come to fruition?
Theophilides: The cruise industry in Greece is entering a new era. According to the President of the Union of Cruise Ship Owners & Associated Members, Greece expects to have welcomed more than 5.2 million passengers by the end of 2019, a year-on-year increase of some 10%. This is the result of many major cruise companies including Greek destinations in their itineraries, following a similar trend in 2020, which is very positive.
The first priority should be in turning Greece into a year-round cruise destination. Therefore, in 2019 we expanded the tourism season in Greece and offered the so-called “all-year-round cruising experience.” To achieve this, we have extended our operations for an additional 8 weeks with two new itineraries, the Eclectic Aegean and 3 Continents.
These itineraries are expected to bring 30,000 new visitors to experience Greek hospitality. Within our plans for 2020 and 2021, and in response to the growing demand for winter cruising, we are thrilled to set sail in the Adriatic Sea for the first time with the new 7-night Romantic Adriatic itinerary, while in 2021 – and in an effort to offer new experiences to our guests – we will be offering a special 7-night Steps of Paul itinerary, which traces the footsteps of St. Paul the Apostle across the Mediterranean. In 2020 and 2021, Celestyal will also introduce 14-night truly immersive sailings visiting Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. Modern travellers are seeking new adventure-filled destinations on a yearly basis and Celestyal Cruises is strongly committed to fulfil their needs.
GIG: How are planned developments and the expansion of facilities in Greece’s main ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki, as well as certain Greek islands, going to affect Celestyal and the Greek cruise shipping market? What more needs to be done in terms of existing ports’ infrastructure on the Greek mainland and on the islands? Are existing passenger terminal facilities adequate?
Theophilides: We strongly believe that the development and expansion of facilities in Greece’s main ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki will definitely enhance our presence in the Greek cruise market. However, care needs to be taken to avoid overburdening destinations with more visitors than can sustainably be catered to. Thus, any plans for expansion of the port have to coincide with the development of further attractions in order to accommodate the increased traffic that is expected to follow. This is due to the increasing crowding effect witnessed at the existing primary attractions, e.g. the Acropolis with numerous tourists simultaneously visiting the monument and ultimately leading to a poor guest experience. Unless more points of interest are created to better disperse the flow of tourists, there is no immediate necessity to increase cruise capacity at the Piraeus port. At the same time, road access to and from the port must also be improved.
There is also a need to investigate the establishment of a national berth allocation system for cruise vessels in Greek ports. In this way, cruise operators will be able to schedule their itineraries and calls more efficiently while fostering a sustainable tourism development at the itineraries. Moreover, public-private partnerships could also be a serious option to consider the acceleration of infrastructure development. Individual cruise companies may also be willing to invest in specific projects seeking to facilitate the quicker development of cruise tourism in Greece.
While funding remains the main challenge, we believe that some of the available European Union structural and regional funds could be used to improve passenger transport infrastructures.
There is a great opportunity for Greek tourism at the moment. The first priority is to promote Greece as a year-round destination. The private sector needs to work towards this objective with the support of the Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO) and align strategies to ensure that the country is open 365 days a year for business. There’s still a strong seasonal mentality in terms of tourism, and the destinations themselves need to believe in the prospects of year-round tourism. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for visitors to show up at a destination only to find the majority of activities and services unavailable.
Air connectivity is also an issue: Greece has to improve rapidly in this aspect on a year-round basis, not just seasonally. Seasonally, it has been in a good place for some time, but building up year-round flights, especially for long-haul flights, is an area that needs improvement. We’re very happy to see a constant increase of direct long-haul flights into Athens, which will extend beyond just the summer season. This is vital.
Greece is also blessed with multiple destinations for people to visit; it doesn’t have to be all concentrated in one place. Some people will go for the islands, others to Athens, some to Northern Greece, and some to the Peloponnese. There are so many places to visit. Compared to other European destinations, Greece has a unique opportunity to grow in a sustainable manner, without burdening any single domestic destination with over-tourism. If you disperse visitors throughout the year and throughout the numerous destinations within the country, you can ensure that local communities truly benefit from sustainable tourism development. And with that sort of planning, Greece has great potential.