Until we get shipshape, let's not go overboard with Dublin as a cruise ship capital
Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30
Amid all the hype last week about the arrival into Dublin Port of the world's 11th-longest cruise ship, let's not kid ourselves: Ireland still has work to do in tapping into a lucrative - and growing - market.
Italian cruise line MSC's Splendida is a monster of a vessel, but carries a "mere" maximum 3,900 passengers. The world's two biggest ships can carry an astonishing number of 6,296 at max capacity.
Some ports can take three or four giants at a time.
While the global tourism industry was hit hard by the economic crash, cruising managed to weather the storm. And just one in 10 Americans - the world's biggest cruising nation - have ever been onboard a ship, so there's plenty of room for growth.
So how does Ireland, always in the market for the tourist dollar, get a slice of the growing pie?
First the bad news. Dublin barely makes a ripple in the cruising ocean. The latest destination figures (for 2013) show that 209,000 passengers visited Irish ports combined - just ahead of Iceland with a 0.7pc share of the European market. Italy's the destination of choice for 22pc - which is the key point. We'll never be mass market. Families sitting out on decks in hot tubs dream of sun, not showers.
Okay, enough gloom - every Irish cloud does have a silver lining.
Those who take what the industry calls "British Isles" trips - typically featuring ports such as Cork, Waterford, Dublin, Belfast, a few in Britain as well as Amsterdam or Hamburg - don't attract the price-conscious mass market bucket-and-spade crowd who are the lifeblood of today's massive ships.
Older, educated, and with money in their pocket, anyone visiting the Celtic nations tends to have a focus on culture, art, scenery and the finer things in life. So a day-trip stopover in Dublin is a showcase of not just a city, but an entire nation. I think of cruising as a bit like tapas: if you like the first taste, you'll order a bigger portion next time.
Cruise into Venice and you glide past St Mark's Square. Take the Queen Mary II to New York and you can wave at the Statue of Liberty.
Arrive in Dublin and you pass port cranes and silos. Compared to Istanbul's Hagia Sophia or Manhattan's Empire State building, the Pigeon House - and a hike down to the Luas to get into town - doesn't quite cut it. A terminal has been mooted, and if Dublin's aiming to up this year's influx of 140,000 passengers, a facility for tourists, complete with shops and cultural attractions, as well as the céad míle fáilte which really does make us stand out, would be welcome.
Cork's been ahead of the game for years, and large ships - from Cunard's ocean liners to American behemoths - are 10 a penny, with good rail links to the city, plus plenty of vital footfall to the local Cobh economy too. And they're smart enough to visit Miami (the nerve centre of the industry) to engage and learn with the big lines.
Dún Laoghaire has learned from Cork, and Business Improvement District chairman Don McManus told me of a dramatic shift - from 85 passengers a year earlier this decade to 100,000 now.
Free wifi, local kids with language skills helping disembarking passengers, a new urban beach (announced yesterday) and bid for a terminal are signs of a town pulling together.
And that message is spreading nationally - with this just in from Fáilte Ireland:
"We see significant potential in cruise tourism", adding that it is "working with our stakeholders in both the ports and throughout tourism to get more ships to the island and get more passengers to engage with all we have to offer on dry land". In other words, we can see a market here.
There'll be an initial outlay, but it's a win-win in the end.
Mark Evans is a 2015 global cruise industry writer's winner