• 2016 May 25

    Cruise port Vladivostok: illusions and prospects

    Several calls per year is a modest reality of Vladivostok neighboring a market which boasts about a thousand of cruise routes. This issue has been discussed twice for a half-year period: at the International Forum “Marine Tourism of the Free Port of Vladivostok” with its futuristic projects and at the recent Pacific Tourism Forum, both enthusiastic and somewhat pessimistic. Roman Shchepov, Deputy Director General of Erma, exclusive agent of all cruise ships in Vladivostok throughout its international history, talks through specific features of cruise business.

    - Could you, please, share your opinion on why cruise ships do not call in Vladivostok?

    - The issue has been in the air for a long time already but nobody has given a clear answer yet. The market of the APR is huge indeed and Vladivostok is close to it. Nevertheless, Pusan is annually visited by a hundred of cruise ships while we see no more than five of them. The city seems to be interesting for tourists and services in the port are as good as in the Asian ports, or even more attractive in certain aspects …

    - Give an example, please.

    - For instance, not so long ago bunker fuel was cheaper here than in, let’s say, Pusan. In fact, they came up last year and the number of bunkering operations have decreased twice. At the same time, port dues nominated in rubles have decreased for ship owners playing in dollars amid ruble devaluation. They are about USD 30,000 now, down from USD 50,000 for a Princess class ship a year before the last. General downward trend of oil prices and consequently bunker fuel, is also good for ship owners. Global bunker prices have decreased three times. As for services provided to passengers by border and customs officers it is quite comparable to that at the Asian ports. Actually, we have only four cabins at the terminal, not thirty as in large Japanese ports, but border service find a way to do passengers processing onboard the ships.

    - Why is the sluggish demand then?

    - We have to acknowledge that for objective social and economic reasons Vladivostok is not a unique port everybody wants to call. At the most, it is an extra point on the route. It is logically to expect cruise organizers to arrange one day at a port. In the nearest future we are not likely to arrange full-scale cruises here as in Pusan or Japanese ports. Moreover, it is a point poorly advertised for both tourists and operators. Fortunately, recent years have seen a positive change. The efforts are being undertaken by federal, regional and municipal authorities as well as business community. International forums are not only a proof of this activity but also present yet another factor to attract tourists. For example, APEC Summit held in 2012 was visited by a nine cruise ships, a record number.  We visit different exhibitions and tell our foreign colleagues about Vladivostok. We arrange Welcome Ceremonies at the port with a cultural and entertainment programmes for all cruises while the ships making their maiden calls are welcomed with a First Call Ceremony attended by a Harbour Master and representatives of local authorities.  

    - Let’s think what can potentially attract tourists in Vladivostok and what hinders the process.

    - There are attractive factors but they should not be overestimated. Vladivostok is, of course, a nice city on the hills, quite comfortable and green. For many foreigners, especially those from Asia, it is an exotic place with the elements of Russian and European culture. There are many sights here: bridges, museums, fortresses, opera and ballet theatre (Costa Victoria passengers visited it during the ship’s recent call). When a branch of the Hermitage and an oceanarium are open, they will become even more popular places. Certain category of tourists is interested in game zone as gambling is not allowed on cruise ships. So, even today Vladivostok suggests quite an interesting programme with historic tours, sightseeing, restaurants, shopping and entertainment. On the other hand, this will hardly inspire tourist from the countries where hospitality and entertainment industry is much more developed. Figuratively speaking, Vladivostok does not have a Disneyland or Michelin starred restaurants while our potential guests do not know so far what Vladivostok has.   

    - What factors, apart from the lack of information, have a negative impact on the situation?

    - There are geographical factors which can be named among them but they do not considerably influence the traffic today. I mean that seasonal factor which limits the period of calls to May -September/October is not an obstacle for Vladivostok to welcome ships every day during these months. Ironically, another factor is the distance from Korea and Japan – it takes a day and a half to get to Vladivostok. For cruise passengers initially focused on comfort it is not very good. Actually, it is one of the reasons why the Japanese, key tourists of the region, prefer visiting Korsakov, though its port infrastructure is not sufficiently developed. In 2014 Korsakov welcomed 20 calls, a record high number among the Far East ports of Russia. Meanwhile, cruise operators can take advantage of visiting Vladivostok due to the time send for it. Onboard time is the main component of the tourist product. So, with all those pros and cons I would not consider these factors as difference makers.

    - What is your opinion about port infrastructure in Vladivostok today?

    - As of today, it is quite satisfactory for operation with the most of cruise ships sailing in the region as their length does not exceed 200 meters, draught – 8 meters. Larger ships like 350-meter long Oasis of the Seas with the draught of 8.8 meters cannot call here. The maximum depth at the berth of the Passenger Terminal is 8.6 meters. The length of the berth is another problem. Though all international pilot books say it is 500 meters long, only 388 meters of the berth is available for cruise ships. The rest of it has limited depth (7.6 meters). Another problem is associated with the Korean ferry Eastern Dream which can stay in the port together with a cruise ship making it difficult to place a ship within the border control zone. Well, it is does not influence the schedule of calls but on such days we have only 200 meters left for cruise ships. If we plan a larger number of calls we should take into consideration the global trend towards larger cruise liners. Then we should think about dredging and efficient use of almost 1/3 of a berth line.

    - DNIIMF has recently presented its project of a new RUB 7 bln terminal on the Russky island. How much would it help?

    - Of course, it is an interesting and important project, but I don’t thinks it is reasonable amid our statistics today. Starting with the first ship, Pacific Venus, welcomed in 1991, the highest number of calls was registered in 2012 – nine ships. On the average, the port is annually visited by no more than five ships: four in 2013, five in 2014, four in 2015. Five ships are expected in 2016 during a half year period. Each vessel brings 300 to 2,500 passengers. During the last five years the city was visited by slightly more than 30,000 cruise passengers. Taking into consideration the port dues and average 100 dollars spent by each tourist in the port the investments will pay back for decades.  

    - Which countries use cruise ships calling in Vladivostok? What is the trend?

    - The bulk of ships are Asian cruise liners sailing near Japan and the Republic of Korea. Over a half of tourists are the citizens of Japan. The number of ships carrying Japanese tourists is growing. They are either the ships sailing the flag of Japan, like Nippon Maru, Asuka II, Pacific Venus, or chartered vessels like Diamond Princess. European ships also come to Vladivostok, like Bremen on her round-the-world voyage arranged for German passengers. The recent trend is the growing interest of the Republic of Korea. For example, Costa Victoria chartered by a Korean operator. Pusan has recently hosted an international cruise forum. The delegation from Vladivostok including the management of our company was among the participants. With the growth of the Korean segment we expect the number of calls to increase to ten in 2017.

    Interviewed by Yevgeny Pankratyev.