From trainee to trailblazer

15 August 2018



As chairman of Carnival UK and a member of numerous maritime trade associations, David Dingle is one of the most influential figures in the European cruise sector. Greg Noone talks to the industry veteran about the challenges thrown up by Brexit, the importance of a close relationship with governments on both sides of the Channel, and opportunities for Carnival in China and India.


There are good days and there are bad days in any career. Few, though, involve wading through the bilge of a passenger liner in search of rust. “Oh God, that was in 1978,” sighs David Dingle, the chairman of Carnival UK. Then a management trainee with the P&O Steam Navigation Company, he had been sent by the engineers aboard the liner Canberra to inspect the underside of its boiler.

“The reason I had to go and inspect these boiler feet was that, in the cavity underneath the boilers – which was probably no more than 2ft high – half of it was filled with a combination of ash and seawater,” he explains. The young Dingle had been lured away from accountancy by a neighbour employed by P&O, who persuaded the Cambridge graduate that a life on the high seas was much more exciting. Now, he was being forced to inch his way down a narrow cavity with no more than a wetsuit and a torch. “Whether it was just to give me my induction, or whether it was necessary, I will never know.”

Experience counts

Few people in the cruise industry have accrued as much experience, in as many positions, as Dingle. That enthusiastic young trainee, willing to take on any job, would gradually ascend the managerial ranks of P&O and then, after its merger with Princess Cruises in 2003, Carnival UK. His subsequent promotion to the chairmanship of the company, and his membership of multiple maritime trade associations, has seen him become one of the most influential members of the cruise industry in Europe.

The ascent has not always been smooth. Dingle’s time at the top table of P&O and Carnival has seen him weather several crises, including engine room fires, a pay scandal involving junior staff and the sinking of the Costa Concordia. Throughout, the industry veteran has remained unflappable, almost to the point of quiet defiance. Every other photo of the chairman – Dingle at a lectern; Dingle interviewed on CNBC; Dingle in a dark suit, sat on a deskside sun lounger – gives the impression of a man used to saying, “Actually, I think you’ll find…” Any note of outspokenness is absent today, however; the Carnival chairman even sounds a little shy as we discuss the interview format. “The degree to which I can personally help you, I think, remains to be seen,” he says. “We’ll have a crack anyway, shall we?”

No day is typical for Dingle. “My responsibilities are almost entirely outward-facing,” he explains from Hamburg, where he is attending Carnival’s quarterly board meeting, itself testament to the fact that as much of his work is on behalf of the entire corporation as it is for its UK subsidiary. The day-to-day running of Carnival UK, Dingle adds, is the responsibility of the president; nevertheless, his membership of several trade boards – including, but not limited to, chairing CLIA Europe, the UK Chamber of Shipping, the European Community Shipowners Associations and Maritime UK – has placed him at the nexus of cruising and maritime matters on the continent. It’s a position that has brought him into close contact with the UK Government. “Only yesterday I was chairing a meeting with the secretary to the Treasury, to talk about how we can further enhance the shipping business environment in the UK,” explains Dingle. “And it was a very good meeting, too.”

The uncertainty of Brexit

Not all of Dingle’s run-ins with Westminster seem to have worked out so well. In February, he complained publicly that getting a firm answer from the UK Government about the maritime industry and Brexit was like “banging your head against a brick wall”. Since then, its position has been clarified: the government’s latest white paper has the country acceding to a common rules framework with the EU. A deal on these terms does not overly worry Dingle, who considers the upcoming divorce with equanimity: “Brexit doesn’t give us many extra opportunities, but it doesn’t affect us too badly – I hope.”

The EU has been quite rigid in not really wanting to talk to industry. It’s tried to keep all Brexit discussions government to government.

This is, of course, contingent on a deal being struck between London and Brussels. The possibility of no agreement being reached at all is something that does concern Dingle when it comes to cruising, not least because several vital, sometimes arcane, areas of regulation could negatively impact any harmonisation of rules between the UK and EU. It starts with basic travel restrictions.

“If a hard or a no-deal Brexit occurred, it could mean major restrictions on the movement of not just workforces, but also the movement of British tourists in and out of the UK,” he explains. That could not only mean long queues at ports, but also visa requirements. “We have to get 3,500 passengers on and off cruise ships very quickly, particularly at ports of call. People do not sail into a particular port of call only to be held up for a couple of hours with immigration controls.”

With a firm commitment from the UK Government that this right will end after Brexit, Dingle is worried that there isn’t a system in place that could adequately cope with the sheer volume of people trying to enter the UK from Europe for tourism purposes. “Equally, we have to make sure that British cruise tourists calling in European countries don’t experience similar problems,” he says.

Another area of concern has been the mutual recognition of ‘certificates of competency’, or qualifications for officers staffing cruise ships from either Europe or the UK. “We have, on our UK ships, a number of officers from other European member states,” Dingle says. “One of the reasons is that there is, in general, a shortage of British officers on ships.” Equally, Holland America Line – which, as the name suggests, has been partial to employing Dutch officers – relies on a healthy supplement of officers from the UK to make up for a similar shortfall. Any lack of mutual recognition would make recruitment that bit harder.

Dingle acknowledges that, out of all the maritime interests he represents, the cruise sector will not be impacted as drastically as others, like the rollon, roll-off ferry industry. And, for what it’s worth, he does think that the UK Government is listening to his concerns and those of his colleagues, Brussels is another matter.

“The EU has been quite rigid in not really wanting to talk to industry,” explains Dingle. The EU remains perfectly happy to discuss any other issue, he states. When Brexit is invoked, however, the drawbridge comes rattling down. “It’s tried to keep all the discussions government to government, and so it’s been much harder in Brussels to get the ear of the European Commission on Brexit issues.”

This is even more concerning to Dingle because of the assertion from both sides that nothing about the UK-EU future relationship is agreed until everything is agreed. “I think that there is enough recognition on both sides of the value of tourism, that there will not be the imposition of a complete visa scheme,” he says. “But what I am still concerned about – especially in the short term, in the early days – is that we could have a huge amount of congestion at airports and seaports, just in the sheer processing of people.”

New waters

This might give the impression that the view from Dingle’s unique vantage point is decidedly bleak. He insists this is not the case. Indeed, cruising on the continent – which contributes €45 billion annually to the region’s economy – is reaching new heights. “We see North America in a more mature position, growing by 3–4% a year,” Dingle explains. “Europe is still growing at a faster rate than that, probably 5–7% a year… both of those markets are growing, and they’re growing fast enough to absorb the very big advanced order book that the cruise industry has.”

And there is plenty of room for demand to increase. “The key thing is that, in Europe as a whole, the market penetration of cruising is only just over 1% of the population,” explains Dingle. “In the US, it’s about 3%. You just look at that and you recognise that there is a lot of unfulfilled potential.”

Part of the reason why cruising has proved so popular in Europe, according to Dingle, is down to the stories that can be told with new vessels. “As our cruise ships get bigger, the variety we can offer is more exciting,” he states. “We’re on this continuing growth trajectory; we can spend more, and, particularly in an underpenetrated market like Europe, that really unlocks a lot of potential. It’s no more complicated than that.”

Europe, though, isn’t everything for Carnival UK’s chairman. Dingle is also excited about the operator’s prospects in Asia. Its Italian brand, Costa, became the first international cruise company to ply China’s waters in 2006, and since then, demand among Chinese passengers for cruises has “grown and grown”. Dingle also considers the country to be a key source of fly-cruise passengers, having seen an upturn in the number of Chinese tourists joining cruises across East Asia, Alaska and Europe. In time, he believes that the country has the potential to become the world’s biggest cruise market, saying that, “it is a matter of when, rather than if”.

India is also a source of interest for Dingle. While the cruise market there is still in its infancy, P&O Cruises has enjoyed a 150-year long history in ferrying passengers to and from the subcontinent. Dingle has taken an active role in laying the groundwork for a viable cruise market in the country, “working with the Indian Government, and particularly the Mumbai Port Trust, to create the right conditions for cruise businesses in India”.

As he chats about his work in India and China, the UK and Europe; about the ins and outs of Maritime UK; the decarbonising of cruise ships; and the obscure consequences of Brexit on shipping, the impression is inescapable that Dingle views none of what he does as just a job – it’s a vocation. “We have massive opportunities for growth,” he concludes. It’s not merely industry sloganeering – it’s a sentiment borne of infinite curiosity. Boilers be damned.

It remains to be seen how Brexit will affect travel destinations like Venice and the wider European cruise market.
Dingle is confident that China will one day represent the biggest cruise market in the world.
Finished in 2015, the Britannia is the flagship of the P&O fleet.


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