In preparing for Brexit, Dublin halves the number of cruises allowed to dock

Princess Cruises' Royal Princess docked at Dublin Port last summer.
Princess Cruises' Royal Princess docked at Dublin Port last summer. Photo Credit: Noel Bennett/Shutterstock

Ireland's cruise tourism is on a roll, but it could soon fizzle following an announcement by Dublin's port that it will halve the number of cruise calls allowed there to provide more dock space for cargo ships.

The move comes as Ireland braces for Brexit, the exit of Britain from the European Union, which, when it happens, will mean that more cargo from EU countries will head directly to Ireland rather than being trans-shipped to or from the U.K.

Eamonn O'Reilly, CEO of Dublin Port Co., told the Irish Examiner newspaper that although the new cruise curbs were not directly attributable to Brexit, the port is reallocating nearly 20 acres for new border posts and inspection facilities. That contributed to his decision to cut annual cruise calls to about half this year's 160.

Starting in 2021, Dublin will allocate space during the prime summer months for only two cruise ships per week. Moreover, those ships will only be allowed to dock on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.

In addition, the port will completely ban any turnaround cruises that begin or end in Dublin. In the off-season, only one cruise booking will be accepted each week, and then only midweek.

"The effect of this new policy will be to restrict the annual number of cruise ships in Dublin Port to about 80 starting in 2021," O'Reilly said in a statement. "This is the same level of cruise ship activity in Dublin Port in 2010."

Cruise lines, through CLIA UK & Ireland, called the retreat "very worrying" and urged O'Reilly and the port to reconsider.

A statement from CLIA said, "This decision, we believe, has been taken without considering the impact it will have on the other ports in Ireland and on Ireland itself. The number of cruise calls will dramatically drop across all Irish ports as a result of the Port of Dublin's plans."

Ireland has made a concerted effort in the past few years to attract more tourists. This year, it launched the "Fill Your Heart with Ireland" campaign in 20 global markets, backed by $51 million, a 28% increase over last year.

Irish critics of the Dublin Port cutback assert that it undermines everything the country has tried to do in tourism.

Last year, about 11.2 million visitors came to Ireland, a 6% increase.

Irish cruise tourism has also been on the upswing. According to the Irish government's Central Statistics Office, 264,763 passengers arrived in Ireland in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available.

That was a 19% increase over 2016.

Dublin's share of the take was 146,429 passengers, which represents a 33% increase, thanks to the growing number of turnaround cruises leaving and returning to Dublin Port.

This year, both Celebrity Cruises and Princess Cruises have ships that homeport in Dublin. For example, the Celebrity Reflection will begin an 11-day Norwegian fjords cruise on May 26 in Dublin that returns to the city on June 3.

Turnaround cruises far exceed day calls in economic impact because they may be provisioned by local suppliers, and many guests stay overnight in Dublin for pre- or post-cruise visits to the city.

One factor in the growth of Dublin as a turnaround port has been Dublin Airport, where international flights are cheaper than at the London airports and which is closer to Dublin Port than London airports are to England's major cruise port, Southampton. 

Those turnarounds would come to a screeching halt under Dublin Port's plan.

While cruise has been growing, the Dublin Port statement said cargo has been holding its own as well and represents a far larger business for the port, one that can operate year-round, unlike cruising, which is more seasonal.

Cargo volumes have grown 36% since 2012, prompting a big dock improvement program and a rethink about how to allocate dock space, the port statement said.

"Since the 1980s, Dublin Port has provided considerable financial support from its own resources to develop cruise tourism to the capital," the port said. Going forward, if cruise lines want to have more berth space in Dublin, new berths will have to be built, and they will require "co-financing and/or long-term financial guarantees from cruise lines," the port said.

Some Irish politicians, however, said the move was more about Brexit's impact on Ireland's cargo sector than anything else.

An exit by Britain from the EU without a solid trade agreement would mean that most Irish exports bound for EU countries would no longer be sent through the U.K., but would have to be shipped direct. The same would be true in reverse for imports.

In its statement, CLIA said that it "understands the challenges the Port of Dublin faces in terms of Brexit, but its decision to reduce their presence in the Irish cruise sector is very disappointing."

CLIA highlighted the role that Dublin plays as a pied piper for cruise tourism to other ports on the Irish coast, which it called "the knock-on effect at the other ports across the island of Ireland."

Without Dublin, cruise lines might also drop calls to Cork, for example, which hosted nearly 100,000 cruise passengers in 2017, according to the Central Statistics figures. 

Dublin-Belfast is another popular combo. As the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast is part of the U.K., but it lies only 90 miles north of Dublin and is on the sea route north to Iceland, Norway and the Baltic.

In 2017, Northern Ireland hosted 168,100 cruise passengers and crew, of which more than 80% went to Belfast.

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