Cruise ships and Barcelona debate: when the figures speak for themselves

November 2022

The crusade launched by Barcelona City Council to reduce cruise activity in the Catalan capital has led to the setting up of a round table of debate between administrations with the aim of resizing this activity, with tough negotiations that will begin this autumn.

Port and operators disagree with the interpretation of the figures made by the assembly. They are asking for objective data and refute the municipal’s thesis which blames passengers for the secondary effects of tourism in the city centre and the industry for its polluting effect. Just a few months before the municipal elections, the controversy is on the agenda and the sector is gambling its development in the short term in Europe's main cruise destination.
The arrival of the Wonder of the Seas a few months ago, the largest cruise ship in the world, brought back media spotlight on cruise ships in Spain. Indeed, in its Mediterranean debut, it docked in Palma and Barcelona, two major tourist destinations in Spain, where for many it symbolised recovery and great expectations. The return of macro landings with the economic impact they have on the territory and the sector, but also the criticisms of those who insist on resizing the sea holiday industry.
The main European cruise port, Barcelona, with more than 3.1 million visits in the historic 2019, had gone from hyperactivity to paralysis due to the pandemic, which particularly affected this tourist segment because of the risks of contagion inside the ship. The upturn in activity was slow and uncertain from June 2021 when the health authorities allowed it. However, as soon as the volume of ships began to normalise last spring, to the satisfaction of the port, the service operators, the shipping companies and, above all, the cruise passengers themselves controversy ensued.
In the whole of 2021 the Catalan port had not reached 521,000 passengers, but in April this year it already had more than 127,000 (220,000 accumulated in those four months). It coincided with a whirlwind Easter week of travellers in a Barcelona that had spent months deserted, and served up the debate on the tourism model just a year before the municipal elections. The image of a small river of cruise passengers lining the Rambla from Colón was decisive in placing this segment at the centre of a controversy that from the outset has been based on a very partial interpretation of the figures, as the Port of Barcelona has criticised.

Unexpected announcement
After some hints to the issue, Barcelona's mayor, Ada Colau, announced vociferously in mid-May that she would ask the Generalitat and the government to limit the number of cruise ships docking in the Catalan capital. The news that 125 arrivals were planned for May led her to fuel the discussion, without taking into account that the level of occupancy of the ships was lower than usual, given that many travellers had not yet regained the confidence to travel, with the aftermath of the omicron variant.
Colau proposed "a calm debate with data" to regulate cruise ships, with the double objective of reducing tourist pressure and also pollution. One of the targets was passengers on stopovers, 40% of whom spend only a few hours in the city. "Thousands of people arrive, they are concentrated in the centre and it generates a feeling of collapse," she said.
The institutional debate on the arrival of cruise ships in Barcelona began two months later, with the first meeting of the so-called study group on the possible regulation of the phenomenon, which includes the three administrations and also the Port. For the city council, the 400,000 cruise passengers that the city receives on average in high season (from May to October) are too many, so its proposal is as radical as reducing them by half.
The leader of Barcelona en Comú found an ally or source of inspiration in the government of the Balearic Islands, which had agreed with the employers' association a limit of three ships a day, of which only one would exceed 5,000 passengers. In the case of Barcelona, Colau put a ceiling of 10,000 or three ships on the table, which made the sector shudder.
To mount an offensive against cruise ship activity, Barcelona City Council has used the document it prepared in haste before meeting with the other administrations. The 'Report on externalities of ship traffic in the Port of Barcelona', prepared by the Strategic Office of the Coastal Area and Barcelona Regional, launches a barrage of figures, the selection and interpretation of which is light years away from that carried out by the Port or the operators.

Peak days and comparisons
It is highlighted, for example, that since 2015 the number of cruise passengers has grown at an annual rate of 7%, reaching the aforementioned record of 3.1 million in 2019. But it insists on the so-called peak or 'red' days of more than 15,000 people, which on certain dates add up to 25,000 theoretical cruise passengers. It is also emphasised that operations are not growing (around 800 stopovers or route starts for more than a decade), but the capacity of the ships is increasing.
Once again, the examples of Palma, Dubrovnik or Venice are mentioned, overlooking the comparison between each destination and its population volume. "Barcelona has to join this group of cities", said the Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Janet Sanz. And in this scenario, it is worth noting that in the Catalan city, cruise passengers are the only tourists who pay a tourist tax without staying overnight, and with an increasing municipal surcharge: 2.75 euros if the ship stays less than 12 hours, and 4.75 if it stays longer. This revenue could facilitate the logistics of improving its place in the Catalan capital, with a little political will.
Barcelona Regional has warned that even in a year of transition like the present, there are up to seven cruise ships docking simultaneously.  It concludes that "the current rate of growth of tourist activity is unsustainable". To the environmental risk they add the questioning of the economic repercussions, highlighting that cruise passengers in transit leave 'only' about 50 euros per day in Barcelona, while those who make turnaround (start and/or end of route) reach an average of 202.
For the city council it is worrying that in 2020 and 2021 the transit passage would have been imposed. Additionally, there is concern about the concentration of these visitors in the Gòtic and other central districts, especially during the 55 days a year with more than 15,000 cruise passengers. This has reached the point of attributing to them the emptying of litter bins on the Rambla 14 times a day to coincide with their presence, and of giving them the title of "flock" when they disembark. Or attributing to them an anti-sustainable consumption of 200 to 300 litres of water per day, "twice as much as a neighbour", they say.

Agreement undervalued
An essential element in the debate is that the city council considers the 2018 agreement to reorganise cruise ships to be "insufficient". At that time, and with similar figures, it was agreed to concentrate activity in the Moll Adossat, further away from the centre and with a maximum of seven terminals, and to dismantle the nearer terminals (Moll de Barcelona), where small and luxury ships used to dock. In this way, there will never be more than seven cruise ships docked at any one time, including even the most elitist ones with barely a hundred passengers.
And although the city is bursting at the seams with tourists this summer of 2022 (still below pre-pandemic figures), with such a political context and the electoral countdown, the cruise passenger has been cast as the bad guy and the cause of the overcrowding.

The other side of the data
In view of the data in the municipal report, the Port of Barcelona has demanded a consensus on objective figures before taking any decision affecting the activity. Clearly, the data from the infrastructure operators and the reports produced by independent bodies and a detailed reading of the figures contradict all those premises with which they want to harm cruise ships.
The controversy opened by the Assembly and not shared either by their socialist partners in government or by part of the municipal opposition has left the sector out of the game. To begin with, as we mentioned at the beginning of this article, the number of passengers embarking is still lower than in the years prior to Covid 19, either because of the health conditions that some shipping companies and airlines still applied this summer or because of the fears that some users may still feel in enclosed spaces, especially the older ones.
Just look at the latest balance sheets. This year the number of calls has practically normalised (between January and July 2019 there were 420 calls and in the same period of 2022 there were 416), but the number of cruise passengers is very different: 1.63 million and 1.02 million respectively). In this scenario, Colau's fight seems to come at an inopportune moment. It is incomprehensible that in 2018 (a year similar to 2019) an agreement that is now undervalued was taken for granted.
Another of the key aspects is the theory of a presumed future relentless growth due to the larger size of the ships. In fact, the city council estimates that in 2030 there will already be more than 3.5 million cruise passengers, according to its growth calculations. However, after a cycle marked by mega-ships of up to 7,000 passengers, this trend has moderated. Only 18% of the ships under construction or on order until 2027 have a capacity of more than 5,000 passengers.

Between externalities and economic impact
From the lack of knowledge shown by politicians, the president of the Port of Barcelona, Damià Calvet, insists on defending the fact that the control of the agreed infrastructure is already sufficient to contain growth. Port Authority sources emphasise that legally, a ship can only be banned from entering for safety or health reasons, as was the case during the pandemic.
Drawing on previous reports, such as the economic report produced by the University of Barcelona (2016 version), Calvet recalls that the activity has an impact of more than one billion per year for Catalonia (especially for Barcelona), with more than 9,000 direct jobs, and that the solution is not to decrease.
The sector is witnessing with a certain impotence what many consider to be a "manipulation of data" that supports Colau's intentions. And it so happens that in this area many figures do not read in a linear fashion. Starting with the 3.1 million passengers in 2019 that is taken as a reference, taking into account that in 2020 and 2021 activity was minimal. The municipal sphere overlooks the fact that this volume is not equivalent to people, but to movements, so that those who start and end their route in the city (the majority) are formally counted twice, when embarking and disembarking, for the purposes of the annual balance sheets. Cruise passengers represent between 4% and 8% of the volume of tourists in the city, according to the Port's calculations (including all types of visitors) and the aforementioned study by AQR-Lab, at the University of Barcelona.
Proportionality is another issue that the city council seems to ignore. Raising the case of Palma as an example is not appropriate in the eyes of the operators, given that the Mallorcan capital has some 400,000 inhabitants, while Barcelona has four times that population, so the theoretical saturation threshold would be much higher. The same can be applied to Dubrovnik, where the limitation does not only affect cruise ships, or to the case of Venice, where the problem is more centred on access or intrusion into the heart of the city.

Influx and arrival schedule
As for the alleged saturation of ships on red days, we must not lose sight of the fact that one thing is the capacity of the ships and another is the real volume of passengers on each route. Any predictions for 2022 are in vain, as cruise ships are arriving with lower occupancy than in the past. When the influx returns to normal, there is room to play with the combination of berths for large and small ships, insist the Port.
To put numbers to these considerations, it is worth analysing in detail one of these peak or 'red' days, with results that highlight the inconsistency of some municipal theories on the theoretical effect on local tourist overcrowding. This past July, the 'top' day totalled 20,400 potential movements, and we say potential because it is never known if all the passengers will leave the boat or if they will stay because that day, for example, there is a storm.
The expected flow was divided into several vessels, varying in size. According to official data provided by Port technicians, the 'Mein Schiff' generated 2,586 people in transit (calling) and only 5 who started or ended their route in the city (T/R); the NCL 'Epic' accounted for 4,892 between those who embarked and disembarked, while 1,161 were in transit. 161 were in stopover; the 'Vaillant Lady' of Virgin, 690 in T/R and 32 in transit; and the gigantic 'Wonder of the Seas' of Royal Caribbean reached 10,110 starting or finishing the trip plus another thousand in stopover, they detail.
A qualitative dissection of these movements shows that some 7,750 (those who disembarked at the end of their cruise) , in most cases, went directly with their suitcases to the airport to take a taxi to a hotel if they wanted to spend an extra night in the city; or they took their own cars or taxis if they were local travellers or travellers in the vicinity. Many other travellers starting their holidays at sea arrived in the same way, from hotels, airports or their homes to embark.
Therefore, the real number of cruise passengers likely to concentrate in the districts of the centre of Barcelona was a maximum of 4,800 people on a peak day.
Suffice it to point out that Renfe's Cercanias line 1 brings some 25,000 users to Barcelona every day in summer (until 12 noon), 20% of whom are tourists because they come from all along the north coast. In other words, 5,000, who in many cases get off at Plaça de Catalunya, at the other end of La Rambla, but take the same route as the cruise passengers in the opposite direction. If we were to add in the flow of rail passengers arriving on line 2 from the south coast of the city, the figure would be much higher still.

The routines of the cruiser
But returning to the disembarkation and the supposed invasion of the cruise ship "flock", as the councillor for Ecological Transition, Eloi Badia, put it, it seems to be overlooked that the operation is not simultaneous for all the ships, but that some passengers disembark first thing in the morning and many others at different times, depending on whether or not they have been to the city beforehand and have greater or lesser ambitious, organised or improvised plans.
After consulting the statistics of the cruise ship agents and the companies themselves, it can be seen that around 4% of cruise passengers do not set foot in the Catalan capital, either because they already know the destination or because they want to enjoy the ship when it is almost empty. Not forgetting that Spaniards (2019) make up 11% of passengers passing through Barcelona, the fourth most common nationality. Of these, many are Catalans who travel from their homes to take the cruise and obviously do not act as tourists.
Among the passengers who do leave the ships, the same sources state that between 10 and 18% go on excursions, depending on the category of the ship. These local excursions are made with coaches taken from the port itself with guides, and include tours of the whole city, but also of the province (10%), from Montserrat to Sitges, to mention just a couple, depending on the time spent ashore. Of the remaining stopover travellers, between 82% and 90% are independent, touring the city on their own. They may take a taxi to give them a personalised tour or know where they want to go, while others opt for the buses chartered by the shipping companies to leave the quay, or the Port's official bus, which drops them off at Drassanes, at the foot of the Columbus statue.

A question of management
Calvet is convinced that the solution is simple: "Improve management". It would be enough to diversify the unloading points in areas of the city without crowds, thus favouring decentralisation, as is already being studied.
The date analysed had more Mediterranean route starts and ends than transit boats, corroborating that for years six out of every 10 users have been using this mode, which is much more profitable (due to the daily expenditure that includes accommodation before or after and gastronomy) and is to the liking of the assembly due to its lower tourist pressure, as travellers’ routines are less concentrated in time and space.
In this sense, it is remarkable that in its diagnosis the city council takes as a reference the singular figures of the years of the pandemic to say that there are more and more cruise passengers on a stopover. These figures are distorted because the restrictions prevented international connections and many regular and international routes from Spain were cancelled. Moreover, the so-called mega-cruises tend to open their routes in the city and not just stop over because of the comfort, modernity and size of their terminals (where the big companies already have one of their own underway or under construction), which other major competitors, such as Civitavecchia (Rome), do not have.

Environmental measures
Pollution and sustainability are the other key issues in the debate, obviously necessary in a context of the crisis due to climate change. The Port gives priority to being a home port for the most modern fleet, as it is less polluting for the environment. They emphasise that 53% of the ships present this season are less than 10 years old and apply measures in this respect.
The Barcelona Regional report includes numerous measurements that show the environmental externalities of this industry, although without taking into account comparisons with data from cargo ships or ferries, which have a greater environmental impact, or with four-wheeled traffic in the city, which is a major urban problem. The document stresses that no concessionaire or operator has opted for projects to reduce environmental impact in order to benefit from the bonuses offered by the Port a few years ago. Calvet replies that the infrastructure is doing its homework. Starting with the electrification of the docks to reduce emissions from cruise ships ("which today account for less than 1% of the city's emissions"), with 0.7% of nitrogen oxides or NOx (lower than ferries), which will be ready in 2026. In this way, ships will be plugged into the grid instead of keeping engines running during their stay for the operation of their services.
In any case, the industry has the advantage of having all the forecasts and short-term planning in hand, to be able to anticipate the side effects of this holiday transport and to look for alternative solutions. It is already known that next year's stopovers will remain at a stable volume of around 800, depending on the evolution of bookings, according to port sources.
It should be possible to reach a dynamic and consensual management model (weighing up the economic data and objectively sizing the figures), which does not strangle or criminalise the activity, but rather optimises and integrates it.

Fewer mega-ships
The shipping companies seem to have slowed down the competition for the 'biggest and most spectacular yet', opting for more human dimensions and specialising the offer. According to official data, the industry has 72 cruise ships under construction or at the start of projects for the next five years of very different sizes and categories (with an average capacity of 2,260 passengers), of which only 13 are for more than 5,000, apart from crew.
What is more, proof that many users increasingly value the experience and quality of services more than quantity is the construction boom of medium-sized ships or small luxury ships. They do not compete in terms of quantity of activities and attractions, but they do compete in terms of service or gastronomy. Half of the projects underway are for less than a thousand people, and 50% of these, for less than 500. And adding up all the ships with a passenger capacity of between 2,000 to 5,000, they account for just 28% of the total.
In this sense, the director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) in Spain, Alfredo Serrano, makes an important point regarding size. Although it has a direct influence on the volume of simultaneous cruise passengers that a port may or may not receive, on the other hand, the largest ships are the ones that most implement environmental sustainability measures to offset their impact and are the first to opt for liquefied natural gas. Their size gives them more capacity to locate and deploy emission purification systems, recycling plants and other processes.

By Patricia Castán