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Belfast’s titanic cruise efforts

Onboard Mein Schiff 3 (l-r): Kay Greenway (Cruise Britain), TUI's Maria Tauschke and Marcus Puttich, Ian McQuade (Cruise Britain chair) and Gary Hall (Belfast Harbour)
Hosts of Cruise Britain’s summer meeting, Belfast Harbour and Visit Belfast, received praise from destination experience experts for their joined up approach and strategic partnership in working with the cruise industry.

‘The port is taking care of the ships – its expertise and Visit Belfast looking after the passengers once they step ashore and the pairing continues to expand and grow,' commented Gary Hall, commercial executive at Belfast Harbour.

His claim is evidenced by the increasing number of cruise ships and brands calling at Northern Ireland’s biggest port.

The port’s engagement with cruise ships started in 1996 with one call by Berlin. ‘Following the Good Friday agreement Belfast started to open its arms to tourism and cruise ships have always been welcomed here,’ Hall said.

Last year 159 calls and 300,000 cruise guests brought around £20m into the local community. In 2019, the port invested £0.5m in Ireland’s only dedicated cruise terminal and whilst the current 480mtr long berth where the cruise terminal is located will return to serving the offshore sector in 2027, the port has plans to build a new cruise berth and terminal in D3, an area adjacent to the existing berth and closer to the entrance to the harbour, to be ready in time for that transition.

Destination experts

Destination experts from Excursions Ireland, Intercruises and Akorn shared their thoughts during a panel discussion held onboard TUI Cruises’ Mein Schiff 3 at the Belfast Cruise Terminal on Wednesday.

‘Overtourism is not an issue in Belfast and we are hoping to see growth in the shoulder seasons as we are not exactly visited for our weather, noted Excursions Ireland MD Niamh McCarthy whose company handled 146 calls in Belfast last year.

Ruth Flynn, leisure account manager at Visit Belfast noted while the Titanic Museum and Giants Causeway are the two most popular attractions it has set out a new tourism strategy to spread the footfall to provide more immersive experiences and engagement with the local community. A new attraction, Belfast Stories, is planned to open in 2028 and covers a 5,000sq mtr site transformed into a state-of-the-art, interactive, and immersive visitor experience that celebrates the stories of the people of Belfast.

Looking at the wider UK cruise market, Janine Moore, commercial development manager North Europe, Intercruises said availability of coaches and guides continues to be a limiting factor in planning destination experiences throughout UK and she calculates coach capacity of around 10% below that compared to pre-covid.

Looking to the future, McCarthy thinks demand for popular places and key attractions will likely remain the same, ‘but the manner of how people visit them or interact with those places is changing: instead of arriving by vehicle there is growing demand for walking, kayaking, e-bikes, boats or paddle boarding excursions taking in those highlight attractions.’

Glen Gardner, shorex consultant for Akorn Destination Management, said he can count over 90 potential places that could accept smaller vessels and expedition cruise ships across the UK and he asked destinations to think what can they do differently and to provide access to more local vendors, ‘which is something the operators of smaller cruise ships are asking for more of.’

Cruise lines

Marcus Puttich, director destinations and Maria Tauschke, head of shore operations outlined the differences between the two brands they are both responsible for: TUI Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, whilst Matthew Ducharme, manager port services EMEA spoke about Royal Caribbean Group’s 66 ships spread across Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity and Silversea brands (and the two above). Some 23 of the ships visit Europe calling at over 300 ports.

All highlighted the complexity of their fleets, the passenger demographics, nationalities and preferences and outlined the need for ports and destinations to understand what each stands for.

The event finished with a tasty lunch at MS3’s Surf and Turf restaurant and then a ship tour including visit to the bridge and accommodating welcome from Captain Simon Bottger. Mein Schiff set sail from Belfast headed for Southampton and a day at sea. Meanwhile German passengers onboard sat down to watch their national football team win another game in the UEFA European Football Championship.