Port of Galway, Ireland, aims to land big ships

By Donna Tunney
If there's a pot of gold at the end of the cruise ship rainbow, the movers and shakers in Galway, Ireland, are bound and determined to find it.

Galway, located on the Emerald Isle's west coast, is the republic's third-largest city after Dublin and Cork. Poised to begin a $70 million redevelopment of its port, including the creation of bigger berth spaces, it is courting several major cruise lines in the hope they'll call in Galway in 2015 and beyond.

Next weekend, the city and the port will host cruise line representatives for a three-day tour and meet-and-greet.

"We knew, from attending Cruise Shipping Miami the last two years, that cruise lines with big ships want to berth as close to a city center as possible, and they don't want to have to tender their passengers in," said Eamon Bradshaw, director of the Galway Harbour Co., which operates the port.

"We can provide that. Our port is in the city center, and we're going to build berths so that there won't be any need for tenders."

Connemara National ParkThe harbor company is owned by Ireland's Department of Transport but operates as a stand-alone economic entity.

A full schedule of activities is set for the cruise line representatives, who will arrive in Galway on Sept. 23. Marketing, business development, shore excursion and charter and incentive managers from Azamara, Windstar, Royal Caribbean International, Crystal and Norwegian Cruise Line are confirmed to attend; Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania are penciled in but hadn't confirmed, Bradshaw said.

The VIPs will take a helicopter tour of the region, including the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands, and attend lunches and dinners with local political, business and tourism leaders.

Cruise lines typically avoid commenting about future deployments; only Windstar replied to a query to some of the lines about the level of their interest in Galway. Windstar spokeswoman Vanessa Bloy confirmed that the line is participating in the weekend event and is "exploring possible opportunities" to visit Galway in coming years. The line has two ships, the Wind Spirit and Wind Star, accommodating 148 guests, and the larger Wind Surf, accommodating 312.

The port project, Bradshaw added, still needs "planning permission" from Ireland's National Planning Authority, because it is considered a Strategic Infrastructure Development.

The port redevelopment, which will be completed in four stages, is to be financed by a combination of government investment and revenue generated by the sale of lands owned by Galway Harbour Co. in the vicinity of the existing docklands, according to Brian Walsh, a member of the Irish Parliament who represents the Galway West region.

The project calls for the creation of two new berths: one 1,320 feet long and a second 660 feet long. The port has one cruise ship berth now, at 405 feet long. Smaller vessels such as Star Clippers' ships have called at Galway in the past, and Silversea Cruises' 132-passenger Silver Explorer will make a maiden call to the port next spring.

"It is anticipated that all four phases of the redevelopment will be completed by 2017," Walsh said. He added that the first phase, including the largest berth, is expected to be completed by 2015, "by which time some of the world's largest cruise liners are expected to be docking in the city's port."

Dredging of certain areas in the port and the construction of a leisure craft marina also are part of the redevelopment plan.

Bradshaw said that since cruise lines plan their itineraries about two years out, it isn't too soon to try to influence those decisions.

"It's really not too far off, 2015," he said. And up until that year, the harbor company is hoping to continue to attract smaller cruise ships. Next year, for example, in addition to the Silversea ship, Hapag Lloyd's 164-passenger Bremen, Companie du Ponant's 226-passenger Le Diamant and Cruise & Maritime Voyages' 850-passenger Marco Polo are among the ships scheduled to call.

"We used to have a bigger cruise ship presence here, until about the 1950s, then it died away. But there does seem to be a very strong interest from the cruise lines today," said Bradshaw, who added that before the port redevelopment is completed, efforts will be made to improve the tender facilities for those ships that will visit between now and 2015.

Silversea spokesman Brad Ball said that Galway "fit the bill perfectly" for the line's Silver Explorer, which typically visits ports that are off the beaten track.

"And due to the presence of a large university [the National University of Ireland], the city has a bohemian vibe and is filled with musicians, artists, and intellectuals creating a lively, entertaining port for our guests to visit for the day," he added.

Walsh, who will participate in the weekend event with cruise line representatives, cited the wealth of sightseeing options and shore excursion activities around Galway that the delegation will visit.

"Galway is a beautiful, medieval city with a rich history," he said. "Outside of the city, we have the panoramic mountainous landscape of Connemara National Park, a breathtaking coastline and, to the south, there is the otherworldly rocky terrain of the Burren in County Clare."

Bradshaw said that a revival of the cruise port with the capacity to attract big ships is exciting not only to the port but to the entire west of Ireland.

"We have hidden gems here that are not well known to people," he said.
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