30 April 2020

As the cruise industry suffers, coastal communities need support more than ever

By Harry Theochari

In the United Kingdom it’s not possible to be more than 70 miles from coastal waters. Even in our most landlocked villages, towns and cities, you can find a deep connection to the sea. We are an island nation, and that’s why the shuddering halt of our cruise sector is so worrying for many of our coastal communities.

More than 3 million people in the UK live on the coast, and these communities have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Already they were struggling after years of underinvestment. For many, the period beginning at Easter and running through summer is the most important time of year. This is when thousands from the UK and abroad flood to our coastlines, and the commercial activity that takes place at this time can make up the vast majority of the yearly take for local businesses. With Easter gone and the summer trade looking increasingly uncertain, tourism and recreational activity cannot be relied upon whilst the lock-down continues.

And if the outlook for domestic tourism looks bleak, then the potential for international tourism looks non-existent. With international borders across the world effectively closed, this means there are no tourists coming from abroad or arriving on cruise ships to our seaside towns and cities. And that matters, not just for the cruise lines, the people who earn their living on board, the many millions who choose to holiday at sea, but crucially for many of our coastal communities. Communities that are crying out for jobs and growth.

The reduction of cruises has dealt a huge blow to these communities: it’s an industry that contributes £9.7 billion to the UK economy each year and directly supports 40,517 jobs. It also supports local communities and business ecosystems.  Southampton and Portsmouth alone are facing a £3.5 billion shortfall from the loss of  their cruise and ferry business and that assumes that business returns to usual by September. These figures include the important, deep regional supply chains that benefit from maritime activity like manufacturing, hotels, restaurants, laundry, taxi drivers and other suppliers.

The Prime Minister was absolutely right to focus on ‘left-behind’ communities during the general election campaign. The maritime sector can help restore economic activity and drive new growth around our coastline, but that needs to happen now and must form part of our efforts to recover  from the social and economic effects brought upon us by Covid-19.

Though many businesses have found ways to keep up commercial activities during the lockdown, be it by using technology, or by pivoting to delivery or another kind of service, our coastal communities cannot replace the experiential value of cruise business. It cannot be replicated.  The UK has become a global centre for cruise, providing great commercial opportunities for British companies and the chance to see the world with a career at sea for our young people

Globally, the cruise industry has completely ground to a halt. There is no ‘quick fix’ and it’s a situation that looks likely to continue for some months. For the millions who rely on the cruise industry, it is therefore vital that as soon as it is safe to do so, cruise lines can operate once again.

This means working with the UK government on enhanced public health protocols to be ready for a time when Covid-19 measures are lifted.  Our cruise lines chose to voluntarily cease operations ahead of government guidance and are ready and willing to work with government now to plan an orderly lifting of restrictions.

The close relationship between the maritime sector and the prosperity and wellbeing of the communities it supports can’t be overstated. Neither can the importance of these communities to the UK economy. Coastal communities are the UK’s gateways to the rest of the world. They manage and support the provision and delivery of 95% of all goods that pass into the UK. That means food, medicine, fuel and all vital commodities.

Whether it’s tourism or trade, maintaining seaborne supply chains is vital both to the people who live on our coast lines, but also to those in cities who enjoy the benefits they deliver.  Every part of our maritime ecosystem helps support the ability of our island nation to trade with the rest of the world.

For the time being, our coastal communities find themselves in a very difficult position. As domestic travel restrictions look likely to ease long before international travel returns, we must ask if coastal communities shoulder an unequal burden simply by virtue of their location and the nature of their business. Cruises are an integral part of the maritime ecosystem, and their recovery will be important to the lives of the millions who live by the coast.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Harry Theochari is chair of Maritime UK.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.