It’s hard to overstate the importance of the relationship between cruise lines and port communities. It might sound like a cliché, but in this industry, first impressions really are everything. Having a good experience ashore is almost as important as the ship itself; a recent CLIA travel agent survey found 77% of passengers cited destinations and itineraries as a major reason for taking a cruise.

As the industry grows, the pressure to deliver facilities that work for cruise lines and for guests is rising, and 2014 has been a particularly busy year. Since 2013, CLIA’s global fleet has risen from 393 to 410 ships at a total capital investment of around $8 billion.

As vessels get bigger and more numerous, operators are demanding infrastructural upgrades and expansions at existing ports, as well as new locations to accommodate their growth.

"Ports are making major commitments to the success of the cruise industry," CLIA president and CEO Christine Duffy said in a recent statement. "There has been significant investment in modernising existing ports and building new ones that are technologically and environmentally advanced, while also being very cruise and passenger friendly."

This is happening all over the world. Business has been historically clustered around specific areas such as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and while these remain central to the wider market, the outlook has been forced to broaden as new international destinations are sought.

"With competition fierce and so many ships sailing the same routes to the popular ports around the world, every line is under constant pressure to find a new ‘wow’ factor," columnist Jill Schensul observed recently. "Big lines are adding ports everywhere around the globe. Regent Seven Seas has added 21 ports, ranging from Natal in Brazil to Nosy Be in Madagascar.

"Crystal’s two ships have 12 maiden calls, including Oban in Scotland and Luanda in Angola, and Holland America is adding Angola and Burma, and Labrador in Canada, as well as itineraries out of Singapore."

International waters

In response to this globalisation, CLIA announced the establishment of a new Global Ports Committee in early 2014, as well as new regional assemblies in the Americas, Australasia and Asia.

Places such as Europe have always had strong connections between ports and cruise operators, but other areas lack the kind of direct engagement with port operators and local governments that is required to work on major operational and strategic issues.

"CLIA is now focusing on engaging directly with port communities around the world," the association said in a recent statement. "Port partners will now have increased opportunities to engage with CLIA member lines through this newly established committee structure.

"This committee will serve as a forum where cruise lines and ports from around the world can come together to discuss port-related issues of interest, and will help to more fully integrate port development and operations within the larger industry."

The new committee is chaired by Giora Israel, Carnival Corporation’s senior vice-president of ports and destination development. Tom Spina of Norwegian Cruise Line, Gianluca Suprani of MSC Cruises and John Tercek of Royal Caribbean are also members.

"Lines and destinations can benefit significantly by providing excellent service to passengers who embark and disembark ships," Israel said. "Establishing this committee together with my colleagues from the other companies will help us to achieve our mutual goals of maximising the positive impact of cruise tourism."

Go for Bo

Bo Larsen has also left his position as a director at Cruise Baltic to take up a position at CLIA as director of port engagement and business development. His appointment is central to the restructuring, reflecting the fact that ports need to be given more space to engage with cruise lines on the issues that matter.

"Bo’s strong background in cruise port development, international sales and marketing expertise, strong relationships with port representatives, and success growing the cruise industry’s presence in Copenhagen and the Baltic region make him an ideal fit to represent CLIA in this important new position," said Pierfrancesco Vago, chairman of CLIA Europe and executive chairman of MSC Cruises.

Of course, not everyone has welcomed the decision. For established port associations like Cruise Europe – a group that has had strong dialogue on port development, operations and excursions for the past 20 years – the added layer of bureaucracy is confusing, and prohibitively expensive: "I cannot see what value would be gained by our members joining CLIA at the reported global membership price of circa $25,000," the chairman of Cruise Europe, Michael McCarthy, has said.

That same criticism has been voiced by the president of Medcruise, Stavos Hatzakos, in an article on advancing the industry’s joint aims.

"[It’s important] to avoid duplication of associations’ formats," he said. "These too-costly formats for membership are unnecessary, and they confuse all those involved in cruise."

But Hatzakos also offered broad support for the global ports committee and CLIA’s overall restructuring: "This move will facilitate interaction between cruise lines," he said. "It will also help our port members to better understand the views, requests and demands of their clients."

If the industry is to carry on expanding, this is the kind of dialogue that will be required. Port operators, port authorities, governments and cruise lines may not share precisely the same interests, but proper, direct conversations are the best way to achieve individual aims. This is what the Global Ports Committee has set out to achieve. Let’s hope it fulfils it.