Record 180,000 passengers will cruise into Belfast this summer

The 4,900-capacity Royal Princess cruise ship will be docking in Belfast 12 times this summer
Gary McDonald Business Editor

A RECORD-breaking 115 cruise ships will dock in Belfast this year, with at least 180,000 passengers and crew spilling out into shops, restaurants and tourism attractions, new figures reveal.

And they are likely to spend a combined £20 million, marking a money-spinning tourism high for the city, which until recent years had missed the boat on this type of highly-lucrative business.

The season starts with the Portuguese registered Astoria, carrying 550 guests, docking on March 19, through to the Fred Olsen-owned Black Watch dropping anchor on October 17.

In between, the behemoth 14-decker Royal Princess, one of the world’s leading cruise ships with a capacity of 3,560 guests and 1,350 crew, will have an unprecedented 12 stops in Belfast between early May and mid-September, which alone will give the region a 40,000-plus footfall boost.

The summer schedule, seen by the Irish News, is contained in a tender document seeking coach operators to provide a luxury shuttle service from Belfast Harbour's Stormont Wharf and, from after July, the new £15 million purpose-built cruise docking facility at Airport Road West.

Delivered by Cruise Belfast partners Belfast Harbour and Visit Belfast since 1999, cruise tourism has been a major city success story and is an increasingly vital part of the city’s tourism mix, along with city breaks and business tourism.

High-spending tourists - many of them Americans whom will have spent upwards of $6,000 on their cruises - will be disembarking from ships virtually every other day this summer (August alone sees 25 ships arrive).

And with many of the liners berthing from 7am until 10pm, it gives those high-rollers the chance to visit the likes of the Giants Causeway, Fermanagh Lakes and the Mourne region, providing significant business not just for Belfast.

The cruise initiative has been criticised in the past, however, amid claims that a third of the passengers often don't bother disembarking during the Belfast leg of their cruise. But Visit Belfast insists that between 80 and 85 per cent of passengers normally get off each ship.

Last year its chief executive Gerry Lennon said: "Based on a number of industry indicators that show potential growth such as an increase in the global cruise fleet and therefore the overall market size and the historic growth of cruise tourism over recent years, estimates show that by 2020 Belfast could be welcoming up to 230,000 cruise visitors, resulting in an economic impact of up to £22m."

In 2010 just 35 ships called on Belfast, bringing 54,790 visitors, but by 2016 that had risen to 84 ships and 143,000 visitors - growth of 140 per cent and 160 per cent respectively. Ninety ships dropped anchor in 2017, bringing more than 145,000 passengers - a figure set to be eclipsed this year.

However, one vessel which won't be setting down in Belfast is Royal Caribbean’s newest vessel Symphony of the Seas, launching in April and which will usurp Harmony of the Seas as the world’s largest cruise ship.

The giant of the ocean will carry 6,870 passengers (versus 5,479 on Harmony of the Seas) in 2,774 cabins (27 more than its predecessor), and will have a crew and staff of 2,500.

To put that in context, at 1,188ft long and 215ft wide, with 16 decks and weighing 230,000 tonnes, it will be around five times bigger than the Titanic.

According to Ben Boudin, Royal Caribbean’s managing director in Ireland & UK, the infrastructure at Belfast Harbour can't yet cope with such a vessel, and it will spend its inaugural summer season in Europe on seven-day rotations, calling at Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Provence, Florence, Pisa, Rome and Naples.

He told the Irish News: "But Northern Ireland remains the fastest-growing market in the UK and Ireland for cruises, and many from here have already booked for Symphony."

He added: "A record 1.9 million holidaymakers from the UK and Ireland took an ocean cruise last year, mostly in the the Mediterranean, and that figure has doubled in just 10 years as more people convert from land to the cruise concept.

"And when you consider that 40 million Britons do package holidays, there is huge growth potential for our sector, particularly as companies like Royal Caribbean continue to invest in new ships and offer new on-board and ashore experiences."

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