U.K. Homeports on the Rise, Competing with Europe's Big Boys

February 18, 2010
Independence of the Seas in Southampton (11:30 a.m. EST) -- Last week's announcement that Royal Caribbean intends to put the 3,634-passenger Liberty of the Seas in Barcelona for a season in summer 2011 -- alongside the likes of Norwegian Epic, Carnival Magic and Disney Magic -- upped the stakes in the battle for Europe's lucrative homeporting business.

But closer to home, U.K. homeports like Southampton are creeping up in popularity -- and holding their own.

Southampton welcomes one million cruise passengers per year (an estimate by Associated British Ports) -- rivalling places like Savona and Genoa, if not Barcelona, in terms of volume. And, like Barcelona, Southampton is expecting a boom in 2010, with new vessels such as P&O Cruises' Azura, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth and Celebrity Eclipse all based at the port. Independence of the Seas (pictured) starts its year-round operation from Southampton this spring, while the port has just won MSC's cruise business from Dover for 2011.

Dover will still enjoy a good summer in 2010, though, with Norwegian Sun, Disney Magic, MSC Opera, Saga's two ships and most of the Fred. Olsen fleet operating out of the U.K.'s second-busiest cruise port (although for 2011, Norwegian Sun moves to Copenhagen, Disney Magic to Barcelona and MSC Opera to Southampton, so the future looks slightly less rosy there). Harwich, meanwhile, has Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas and Voyages of Discovery's MV Discovery homeporting for summer 2010.

But, it's Southampton that's the real U.K. homeport success story – and what's interesting is who is fuelling the port's success. With one in four British cruisers opting to sail from a U.K. port now rather than abroad, according to 2009 figures from the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA), it's easy to imagine that the vast majority of passengers boarding in Southampton and Dover will be Brits. But this isn't the case. Even on ships clearly marketed to British passengers, like Celebrity Eclipse, the booking patterns have differed from what the cruise line expected.

U.K. and Ireland general manager Jo Rzymowska announced recently that while some 90 percent of passengers booking Eclipse were expected to be British and 10 percent international for the ex-Southampton season, the reality has turned out to be 75 percent British and 25 percent international, including many Americans.

The PSA's figures back this up, citing a 5 percent rise in overseas passengers opting to start their cruise in the U.K. in 2008, adding to a growth in ex-U.K. cruising of a staggering 71 percent since 2002.

The key, Southampton port director Doug Morrison says, is investment. “Over the past few years and without any help from the Government or European grants, ABP has invested £41m on our cruise terminals to ensure that we provide the very best for our customers,” he commented in a press statement.

A clearer picture into the success of U.K. homeporting will be revealed later this spring, when the Passenger Shipping Association announces its 2009 figures. We'll keep you posted.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor