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Chris Theophilides: Cyprus will welcome 200 cruises by end-2023

Demand for cruises shot up this year, increasing by almost 30% compared with 2022 in the Eastern Mediterranean alone, with Cyprus expecting to have welcomed 200 cruises by the year’s end, according to Celestyal CEO Chris Theophilides.

In an interview with InBusinessNews, Theofilides describes Cyprus’ current cruise sector, discusses the impact from the unrest in the Middle East and reveals Celestyal’s growth strategy for 2024.

He says Cyprus should take advantage of its strategic geopolitical position and become one of the main cruise homeporting hubs in Eastern Europe, with the state-of-the-art new cruise terminal in Limassol hailed as a good first step.

Here is his interview.

How would you describe Cyprus’ cruise sector and how well are you cooperating with the local authorities and stakeholders? What could Cyprus do to further develop the sector?

2023 was a particularly positive year for the cruise sector, marking a significant increase in the number of cruise ships approaching, but more importantly docking and boarding from the Cypriot ports.

Last October alone, the island was approached by 31 cruises and 48,000 passengers disembarked, recording the highest numbers since 2017, while overall, it is estimated that Limassol port will have welcomed 200 cruises by the end of the year, with similar numbers expected next year.

These results are the outcome of a very important and coordinated effort by the Deputy Ministry of Shipping and Deputy Ministry of Tourism, especially during the coronavirus pandemic with the help they offered the big cruise companies, and then afterwards with the cooperation of all these stakeholders.

This effort led to the resurrection of Cyprus’ cruise industry, making it a key cruise destination for the coming years.

How is the war in Israel and the general unrest in the Middle East impacting on your company, but also Cyprus’ cruise sector?

The tragic events in Israel and generally the situation that has been created in the Middle East will work in the Cypriot ports’ favour in the short term until the end of 2023, as many companies have cancelled their visits to Israel and added Limassol and Larnaca instead.

In the mid-term however, starting from 2024, the broader Eastern Mediterranean region will be affected negatively when it comes to cruises, as Cyprus was a destination that was approached by ships docking from Israel, or ships docking from Greece or more west and headed to the Middle East.

In 2023, Celestyal initially maintained its approaches to Cyprus. As part of the 3 Continents itinerary, while maintaining the approach to Limassol, it replaced the approach to the port of Ashdod in Israel with the port of Heraklion in Crete and the port of Port Said in Cairo with that of Alexandria, thus distancing its ships from the conflict.

However, due to the duration of the negative developments in Israel, Celestyal followed the decision of the rest of the cruise companies active in the broader region and temporarily suspended this route until there is calm again in the broader region.

What changes did you make to counter the above development? For example, did you change the route or add different destinations that may not have been a choice in the past?

Celestyal is active in the Mediterranean and it is always striving to develop new destinations in the broader region. To this end, we replaced our approaches to Israel with more approaches to Greek destinations, as well as with new routes in the Ionian and Adriatic.

How in demand are cruises and what were the occupancy rates this year?

2023 saw a significant increase in demand for cruises on a global level. In our region particularly, this increase was close to 30% compared with the previous year. Occupancy for most companies ranged between 90% and 100%.

The same applied for Celestyal, which saw occupancy rates of close to 100%. This boosted Celestyal’s confidence and had a defining impact on its strategic decisions for bigger investments.

Celestyal recently purchased a new ship, the “Celestyal Journey”. Are there immediate plans for any further investments?

As part of our investment plans, we completely renewed our fleet by acquiring two mid-size ships, each boasting around 630 cabins. Beyond Celestyal Journey, we recently acquired Celestyal Discovery, which carries out three- to four-night cruises.

Celestyal Journey is undergoing an extensive technical upgrade and renovation of its passenger space, worth €26 million, which will continue during the winter until the start of the new tourism season of 2024. It has 280% more suites with balconies, seven luxury restaurants, eight wonderful bars and lounges, plenty of deck space, two pools and an entire deck dedicated to wellness.

With this ship, the company is debuting the Penthouse Suite, which has a private balcony and offers a top premium cruise experience, while it also has 120 Junior Dream Suites and 28 Grand Dream Suites, all with their own balconies.

Feedback from our passengers as well as industry research has been instrumental in the implementation of our plan to upgrade our already top quality product in order to offer a new premium accommodation experience to our passengers.

Celestyal Discovery will also undergo extensive upgrades until March 2024 when it enters service. Both our ships embody a sense of adventure and exploration, the company's culture of creating unforgettable moments, pushing for new discoveries and "travelling" its passengers to the Greek islands and beyond.

But what is worth emphasising more is that we make sure our investments have the friendliest environmental footprint, as our new acquisitions are more modern, with advanced waste and pollution management systems.

Finally, the company systematically invests in strengthening its sales network, its operating systems such as that of reservations, but above all it boosts its human resources.

What is the profile of a typical cruise lover and which markets show the biggest interest?

Cruises are for all age and social groups and people from all countries of the world. There has been increased demand from the younger generation and especially families.

The most important market for all companies is still the USA, while for Celestyal in particular, besides said market, there are also the markets of Latin America, Central European and the Balkans, which are just as important.

Inflation and the energy crisis have reduced people’s purchasing power and increased businesses’ operational costs. What has the impact been on your company and what measures have you taken to counter the effects?

Cruising has always been an affordable holiday proposition and this is evidenced by the increased demand despite any rise in inflation. Undoubtedly inflation has significantly affected the cost of our services offered.

But considering that Celestyal is a relatively small company, it has the flexibility to keep its operating expenses at reasonable levels. This is reflected in its cruise rates.

Overall, what are the main challenges for the cruise sector currently?

At present, the priority is to restore stability, tranquillity and the common feeling of security in the wider region.

But as challenges almost always lead to growth opportunities, I believe that Cyprus can take advantage of its strategic geopolitical position and in the future become one of the main cruise home-porting centres in the easternmost point of Europe.

Cyprus seems to be on a positive growth trajectory, having already taken the first step with the state-of-the-art cruise terminal in Limassol, while the investment in the port of Larnaca is also to in the works.

The final goal, however, can be achieved with the submission of a comprehensive plan and with the active participation and cooperation of the cruise companies and all the relevant authorities and stakeholders.

It may not yet have become a recognisable and popular cruise port in the minds of travellers but this is a resounding opportunity that we must implement a coordinated project in this direction locally and internationally.

Connecting Cyprus with other countries, such as the USA, which do not have direct flights but raise a keen interest must also become a common goal.

At the same time, the island’s favourable climate that allows the tourism season to extend into the winter months, offers another opportunity to showcase what an ideal cruise destination it is – and not only.

What is your growth plan for 2024?

We believe that from 2024, having completely renewed our fleet with two newer ships, Celestyal’s cruise schedule will be carried out unhindered and with even more success.

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