With the backlash against cruise ships in some of Europe’s most popular ports refusing to subside, the cruising map of the region is being subtly redrawn as companies search for alternative stops.
In October this year, Barcelona’s controversial move to ban vessels from its city centre came into effect as the Catalan city acted to curb overtourism and pollution by closing one of its terminals to cruise ships and ferries.
Such was the proximity of the terminal to the city centre, passengers could stroll to the popular Las Ramblas shopping street in just a few minutes. Now they face a shuttle bus journey from the more distant Adossat wharf where ships are required to berth to reduce the impact of emissions.
This latest development illustrates the tightening squeeze on cruise ships from a number of destinations, prompting cruise lines to start substituting other ports wherever possible. One of the prime examples is Venice where, after years of protests and court challenges, the city finally barred all ships over 25,000 tons from sailing past its Renaissance squares and palazzos to the cruise port.
As a result, lines with larger ships have been forced to find alternative cities along Italy’s Adriatic coastline, but still within reach of La Serenissima which remains an irresistible draw.
However, growing tourist numbers and ongoing concerns around overcrowding and overtourism are prompting more lines to seek out alternatives to help ease the pressure.
Not only do new destinations spice up itineraries as fresh points of interest, but they promise a better overall experience for cruise guests, away from the general crowds drawn en masse to Europe’s, and particularly the Mediterranean’s, tourism hotspots.
Here’s a taste of how some of them are being replaced or complemented by alternative ports.
Instead of Venice, there’s Ravenna
The protests of Venetians under the No Grandi Navi (no big ships) campaign were well documented and after years of wrangling, the ban on large ships resulted in many lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, using Ravenna instead.
Located more than 120 miles south of Venice, this ancient city has a wealth of history with Roman roots and medieval churches full of beautiful mosaics. In addition to Ravenna, some lines use Trieste on the border of Italy and Slovenia or Fusina, a small town just 12 miles from Venice that attracts the smaller ships of boutique lines including Seabourn, from where passengers can jump on the ferry to Venice.
Instead of Dubrovnik, there’s Split
The city’s mayor implemented a cap on cruise ship visits in 2018 that limited the number of arriving vessels to two a day and carrying no more than 8,000 passengers between them. Many lines, such as P&O Cruises, have looked to replace or complement visits with calls at Split, Croatia’s second city which is dominated by remains of the Roman Diocletian Palace whose extensive stone colonnades house an extraordinary collection of restaurants and shops.
Another alternative is Sibenik, a lesser-known but charming city north of Split that is a gateway to the Kornati Islands and Kornati National Park. Game of Thrones fans who are naturally drawn to Dubrovnik can also get their fix here as scenes from the cult series were filmed in Sibenik too.
Instead of Santorini, there’s Naxos
Such is Santorini’s appeal and ability to accommodate larger ships that anchor in the vast caldera, the Greek island is still a fixture on many cruise line itineraries. Cruise ship arrivals are already limited to 8,000 per day, but the overall burden of visitors makes the summer peak season unbearable as the tiny stone streets in the capital Fira and the beautiful white-washed town of Oia are packed to bursting.
It is easier for small and medium-size ships to find alternative islands and nearby Naxos, as the largest and most fertile of the Cyclades, has Venetian history in abundance while its main town Hora boasts Venetian mansions, snaking alleyways and small streets full of bars and restaurants, attracting lines such as Explora Journeys, Silversea and Seabourn.
Instead of Barcelona, there’s Tarragona
In addition to closing the north terminal at its World Trade Centre, Barcelona is also reported to be capping the number of cruise ships to seven at any one time. As a major turnaround port, where many cruises start and finish, substituting another port is more problematic.
However, on sailings where the Catalan city is simply a day stop, Tarragona further west is attracting attention as an alternative with lines such as MSC Cruises already calling there. This port city flows with ancient flavours as one of Spain’s most important Roman sites with a seafront amphitheatre and a characterful medieval centre. Further west is Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia, which already attracts several lines including Cunard, and is bursting with culture that underpins its atmospheric old quarter and striking collection of modernist buildings.
Instead of Amsterdam, there’s Rotterdam
When the so-called Venice of the North suddenly ramped up cruise passenger taxes in 2019, a number of cruise lines skipped the city and called at Rotterdam instead. Now Amsterdam’s politicians have the cruise industry in their sights again, having voted in July to ban ocean ships from docking at the city centre port.
However, this is unlikely to happen in the immediate future as port calls are scheduled until 2026, though there are ongoing talks over relocating the port away from its current location close to the central station.
Some lines, such as Viking Cruises, already call at the somewhat industrial port city of Ijmuiden on the Dutch coast, around 18 miles from Amsterdam and regarded as the city’s ocean-facing port. However, Rotterdam, with its dynamic vibe and diverse architecture offers a contrasting flavour with the likes of Princess Cruises calling there.