How Israel's Haifa Port Stands to Gain From the Coronavirus

Mediterranean ports, including Haifa, can expect to profit from the cruise industry’s distress in the coming tourist season

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The MSC Lirica cruise ship in Haifa port, February 2020.
The MSC Lirica cruise ship in Haifa port, February 2020.Credit: ארז סימון
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The press release issued by the Port of Haifa Tuesday was simple and seemingly routine: “Fresh from a $100 million refurbishment program, the cruise ship Norwegian Spirit arrived in the Port of Haifa, the first port of call on the renovated vessel’s maiden voyage. From Haifa, the ship will continue to the Suez Canal on its way to the Red Sea and eventually to Dubai.

The Norwegian Spirit, which was supposed to spend the rest of 2020 in the Far East, canceled all its port calls in the Far East and will spend most of the year in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, including visits to Israel and the Haifa port, on cruises that will begin and end in the port of Piraeus.”

This announcement, posted on the port’s Facebook page, illustrates a major shift for cruise lines – which are being rocked by a situation characterized by constant change and a complete lack of confidence – along with the ports that have traditionally hosted their ships.

This has led to a switch in destinations: The Far East is largely being replaced by the Mediterranean. After all, the ships have to sail somewhere.

The near-constant and anxiety-producing appearance of the Diamond Princess in the news all over the world has completely shaken the foundations of the entire cruise industry.

This is also an excellent reminder for all those who needed it as to how sensitive and fragile the tourism industry is in general, and the cruise business in particular. Sometimes a single incident, or two, is enough to change a route, or the entire industry.

What this also means is that Mediterranean ports, including Haifa, can expect to profit from the cruise industry’s distress in the coming tourist season.

“We are proud to be the first destination port for the renovated [Norwegian] Spirit and will be happy to receive the ship for a series of weekly visits this fall coming fall,” said Zohar Rom, head of tourism and cruises at the Port of Haifa.

“Cruise lines are expressing their trust in the Haifa port, and we, on our part will make every effort to be at their service in this difficult period they are now experiencing.”

The Port of Haifa says it has already seen an impressive jump in the number of tourists arriving. Between November 2019 and the end of February, a total of 48,295 tourists will arrive at the port, compared to only 9,902 during the same period a year earlier – a 490 percent increase.

“According to orders already approved, in all of 2020, some 103,000 tourists are expected to arrive at the Haifa Port, in comparison to 71,370 in 2019 and 27,509 in 2018,” said the port.

At the moment, there are naturally many more questions than answers. The central question is of course what effect the Corona events will have on other tourist destinations. For example, will Caribbean cruises, which are the main destination for cruises from the United States, also be affected? Next in line comes the question of how long will the present confusion and fear last?

In recent years, the cruise industry has flourished and grown enormously. In 2006, 12 million people went on cruises all over the world. In 2018, over 28 million went on cruises. In other words, the business more than doubled in a decade. While the cruise industry is obviously in a crisis now, it is still too early to say how bad it is and how long it will last. The Far East is a vacation cruise destination only during the winter, and this is the season where people cruise to the shores of Japan, China and Thailand – as well as the islands of the Caribbean. In the summer, the regular destinations are the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

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