Unsung challenges of the Black Sea6 May 2022
The Eurasian sea has long been eclipsed by the Mediterranean to the west, and it hardly helps that nearby regions have often been troubled by war – not least in Ukraine. But with a wealth of natural and historical wonders to explore, could it finally fulfil its potential? Andrea Valentino talks to figures across the region’s cruise industry to understand how far the market has fallen, how operators are adapting to uncertainty and how integration could help the Black Sea rebound.
Once more, the Black Sea finds itself in the midst of war. February and March saw thousands of Russian troops swarming into neighbouring Ukraine, shelling civilians and attacking cities. This is, unfortunately, not the first time the region has seen conflict. In 2014, the Russians took Crimea, and plunged eastern Ukraine into anarchic chaos. In 2008, the battlefield was Georgia, when the seaside province of Abkhazia was taken by Moscow. And before that, other battles: when Austrians and Germans and Turks all hungered for this sea, with its warm water ports and its bounties of crude oil and fish.
To put it another way, the Black Sea has always been in flux, as empires slump and borders wobble and shift. Yet to look upon its shores is to understand that this is a place where humanity has found a way to thrive, its towns and villages as resilient as ever. And, especially since 1990, there has been tourism. A modest but rising cruise industry, which in 2013 saw 419 calls, according to a report by Medcruise. And why not? Between its rich history and its unkempt natural locations – to say nothing of its closeness to the Mediterranean – this is a place that deserves the world’s attention.
But as this latest disaster may once again prove, the Black Sea struggles with the consistent scourge of political violence – and the image problem that constantly troubles it. The region’s cruise sector is suffering heavily, its tourist boards despondent and its ports mostly empty. But however bleak it may be, the situation is not hopeless.
With new infrastructure projects being built, collaboration between countries growing, and operators willing to take risks on the region, the Black Sea could yet fulfil its dormant cruising potential – even if the current unrest seems increasingly likely to postpone its success.
A black mood
Few people are better placed to appreciate the potential of cruising the Black Sea than Christopher Prelog. President at Windstar Cruises – one of the few international operators to venture east of the Bosphorus – Prelog fully appreciates how much potential the region has. “When Windstar visited the Black Sea in the past – pre-Covid – it was very vibrant,” he explains, “The countries all have a very different feeling with their own traditions, and this is what makes the Black Sea cruises so interesting.”
It is a point echoed by Natalia Ilyina, the managing partner at Cruise Black Sea, a port agency and excursion firm. She says the region offers “interesting itineraries for repeat travellers who’ve already travelled round the world”.
These arguments can readily be understood by geography and history. Like the Mediterranean, the Black Sea has always been a cauldron, replenished down the centuries by different groups. Bulgarians, Russians, Georgians and Turks are just some of the people to grow roots here, which makes it an ideal location for tourists eager to taste a variety of food and sip a broad selection of wine. This is just as true architecturally. Fans of the neoclassical, for instance, can visit Odessa in Ukraine, lined with elegant cobbled avenues. Sail south and they will reach Trabzon, its decaying Byzantine churches long since framed by minarets.
This cultural diversity is matched in the natural world. On its northern shores, the Black Sea offers snow-white beaches and orchards filled with apples and grapes. To the south and east are mountains, rocky peaks and pine trees tumbling to a sapphire-blue sea. With all this to seduce travellers, it should come as no surprise that the Black Sea has long honed its cruising reputation. Already reasonably popular among Soviet tourists, the market really took off after the fall of communism. The years before the Russian annexation of Crimea, in 2014, are particularly striking. As reported by Medcruise, from 2009, passenger numbers to the Black Sea increased by 110%, finally peaking at over 200,000 in 2013.
Particular harbours witnessed growth too, with Sinop, Constanta and Batumi all enjoying increased call figures. No wonder Karina Melikjanyan, a cruise expert at Batumi State Maritime Academy, says that, before 2014, the “growing popularity of the region was undeniable”.
This expansion is hindered significantly by conflict. Following the Russian incursion, the Crimean ports of Yalta and Sebastopol became cruising pariahs. Odessa was being shelled by Russian artillery in early March. Even worse, tourists began conflating the unrest in the peninsula with the Black Sea generally, wrecking trust and discouraging operators from venturing past Istanbul.
The statistics speak for themselves. In 2015, for instance, the Black Sea received a mere 76 calls, down 343 from two years prior, as stated in Medcruise’s report. And, though confidence has rebounded slightly since then, Ilyina notes that these days demand mostly comes from local tourists, often with shallower pockets than their richer western neighbours. As Ilyina says, crews and tour operators “just survive”, even as another increasingly deadly war rages.
Board the Star Pride, due to set off from Istanbul in May, and you will embark on a nine-day odyssey across the Black Sea. From Turkey’s biggest city, you will first head north to the Bulgarian town of Nessebar, its narrow medieval lanes kissed by crumbling wood-framed houses. From there, the Star Pride clings to the sea’s northern shoreline, visiting Romania, Ukraine and Russia, before finally sweeping south towards Georgia and Turkey. At Sinop, around 200 miles due south of the Crimea, you will clamber up to Ottoman fortresses and explore an abandoned prison where Turkish writers and political activists once festered. This is, in short, a trip for adventurers; as Prelog puts it, a “perfect” tour for history buffs.
The Star Pride is by no means alone. Over the past few years, international cruise companies have tentatively started returning to the Black Sea. Like for Windstar, these itineraries are mostly historical in nature. Departing in May as well, for instance, is a 12-day trip hosted by Azamara Cruises, where passengers will be taken to a panoply of ancient ruins and archaeological museums. At the same time, it is clear that operators need to take the region’s geopolitical fickleness in their stride.
As Prelog explains, his firm is ready to remove Odessa and Sochi from Windstar’s route now that the political winds have changed. Ilyina casts a similar pose, arguing that collaboration between countries is vital if the Black Sea’s fortunes are to improve. To be fair, there are some signs this is happening already, with academics like Melikjanyan collaborating internationally to promote short cruise trips by local brands.
This is also supported by more practical betterment in the area. Despite the conflict in Ukraine, a number of Black Sea nations are working to improve their port infrastructure. The most impressive example here is Galataport. Opened in 2021, amid the bustle of modern Istanbul, the facility can host three cruise ships at once. Among other things, the port will also feature a 29,000m² underground terminal, as well as cafés and shops. And if other countries have less money to invest than Turkey, they are nonetheless keeping busy. At the Bulgarian port of Burgas, for instance, officials have spruced up facilities, opening an old lighthouse to visitors. Further north, at Constanta, local leaders recently announced an ambitious €500m port expansion project.
An uncertain future
This activity sounds great in theory – but questions about the future persist. In Georgia, for instance, Melikjanyan notes that the government is sometimes reluctant to invite foreign investors for fear of angering Moscow, stoked by the broader Russian threat. Now that the invasion of Ukraine has materialised, operators like Royal Caribbean have seen their share prices slump. This is followed by nervous passengers and cruise forums filling up with posts about the potential of cancelled trips and insurance claims. To quote Ilyina: “Even if everything is solved tomorrow, people will still be afraid for a year.”
Ultimately, though, insiders seem optimistic. “I do believe,” says Prelog, “that once the region is stable, it will be a very successful region for small ship cruising.” Ilyina agrees, suggesting that the Black Sea could one day be integrated into the vast Mediterranean sector. Given that the western sea welcomed nearly 31 million cruisers in 2019, according to a report by Statista, this would certainly be of great benefit to the region. And, indeed, some operators are already sailing in this direction.
Oceania Cruises, to take just one example, now offers a trip that encompasses Black Sea destinations – as well as Greek islands on the far side of the Bosphorus. More broadly, Ilyina emphasises that the region’s hospitality sector is busy laying deep foundations for when cruising finally returns. In her native Odessa, for instance, she points to glitzy new hotels and a revamped airport. We must just hope that they endure whatever Russia has planned over the coming weeks and months.