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South Africa’s inefficient ports keeping big cruise ships away, restricting growth

South Africa will remain an emerging cruise market, attractive only for niche cruises looking to explore the country’s wildlife, and as a cruise destination on select world cruise itineraries, until it rolls out cruise infrastructure capable of serving the modern industry.

Dubai can be used as a case study for the kind of action that tourism officials in Durban and Cape Town need to take. At the recent Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum, Steven Young, director of port services and government affairs for cruise giant Carnival’s P&O Cruises and Cunard lines, pointed out that the big cruise lines will remain wary of ports with inadequate infrastructure.

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Young said out that of the 19 cruise ships Carnival currently has on order (on top of its current fleet of 105), seven will have a capacity of more than 6,000 guests, and will only call at most ports for a single day.

“We really have to have fast processes to get 6,000 guests ashore and back on board, as well as enjoying the destination,” he said. Young was referring to efforts made in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to speed up the boarding and disembarkation processes for cruise liners calling in the two cities, but his comments can just as easily be applied to South Africa.


Cunard is the only ‘big ship’ cruise line that regularly calls in any South African ports, and when it does the Cape Town passenger terminal is overwhelmed.

Passengers cruising with MSC Cruises routinely complain of a chaotic boarding process in Durban, where there is a rudimentary passenger terminal ill-equipped to handle the more than 2,000 passengers carried by MSC Sinfonia (let alone the much larger capacity of MSC Musica).

Similarly, in Cape Town, a port call from one of the big cruise liners (typically Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 or Queen Elizabeth ships), is always accompanied by reports of extremely long wait times in the terminal or at the Cape Town Convention Centre (where check-in is done due to the inadequate facilities at the port).

During Queen Mary 2’s most recent stopover in Cape Town, there were reports on social media of a six hour wait for boarding. For context, Queen Mary 2 carries 2,600 passengers, less than half of the 6,000 passenger capacities of the new cruise ships that Young was talking about.

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As the Big Three cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian) launch ever-larger cruise ships, there is a tonnage cascade happening, with their smaller ships being phased out of the fleet and larger cruise ships being deployed in cruise markets that have traditionally been served by smaller ships.

Costa Cruises (owned by Carnival), for instance, homeported its 48,000-gross ton, 1,700-passenger Costa neoRiviera in Dubai during the 2016/17 cruise season, but deployed the 85,000-gross ton, 2,600-passenger Costa Mediteranea for the current cruise season.

MSC Cruises similarly upgraded from the 59,000-gross ton MSC Opera in 2015/16 to the 137,000-gross ton MSC Splendida in the current season, and will replace her with the 171,000-gross ton MSC Bellissima in 2019/2020, which carries 4,500 passengers.

These changes to the homeporting cruise ships in Dubai will see the cruise tourism industry contributing an additional US $400-million to the UAE economy by 2020, and it’s only been possible because Dubai, Abu Dhabi and surrounding cruise ports have upgraded their cruise infrastructure.


South Africa remains a popular cruise destination for the luxury cruise lines with Crystal, Silversea, and Seabourn all operating roundtrip Cape Town cruises this year, but these lines are out of the budget of the average middle class South African.

It isn’t enough for Cape Town and Durban to launch their new cruise terminals, if other South African ports remain under-developed for cruise ships. “It’s not really any good having six berths in one regional port and all the way-ports only having two berths, because you are going to get great congestion as you get aboard and as the industry grows,” Young said, referring again to the Arabian Gulf.

“We want to see all of the ports in the region growing in parallel together,” he said.

If this is how Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise company with ten major cruise lines within its portfolio, feels about the cruise infrastructure in the Arabian Gulf, its no wonder we don’t see any of the mainstream cruise lines (apart from Cunard) coming to South Africa’s shores.

South Africa has a vibrant source market for cruising, but the luxury cruise lines, Seabourn and Silversea for example, that frequent that South African coast, are out of the budget of most cruising South Africans.

This leaves only MSC Cruises as a viable roundtrip cruise option for South Africa, and until we have cruise ports capable of accommodating the ships operated by the other big lines, this will remain the case.

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