Riding The Rough Seas Off Africa

Published 11 years ago
Riding The Rough Seas  Off Africa

Sue Viljoen and Buddy Vaughn make their way down to the fourth floor cabin. It’s early in the morning and the weather is warm, the ocean is crystal clear and just yesterday the couple saw hundreds of red starfish as their ship made its way along the east coast of Africa.

The ship anchors offshore. The two climb down the gangway and jump into a small 24-man orange rubber duck boat. Their destination Portuguese Island, off the Mozambican coast, 562km from their home in Johannesburg.

Viljoen sits down near the end of the rubber duck, by the motor. Vaughn, being slightly heavier, is told to sit at the front. Once everybody is seated the boat master shouts that they are taking off.

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A huge swell catches the dingy as it speeds off. Vaughn turns around to Viljoen. She is drenched. Soon, they are all soaked. Here there are no busy harbors, nor busy roads, just untouched white sands.

The couple spends the rest of the morning watching the other passengers disembark.

“The best was watching the ladies getting off, in their dresses, soaked up to their knees with their things held above their heads. And it’s actually really funny,” […] “I could go back right now—I would go back tomorrow and do it all again,” says Vaughn.

In Africa, going on a cruise ship offers more than the average holiday, it’s an adventure and this is one of many travelers’ tales of the 20 million people who cruise the world every year, says Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). This year CLIA expects $36 billion will be spent on cruises.

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According to Allan Foggitt, head of marketing and sales for MSC Cruises South Africa and former owner of Starlight Cruises, business is on the up.

“For the last two or three years it has been recognized as the fastest growing sector of the travel industry.

“If one looks at our local cruise line industry, which we [MSC Cruise Liners] hold a monopoly, we expect a revenue of R450 million ($4.8 million) a year. Each vessel can accommodate around 2,150 passengers and over the period of the season we can expect to accommodate 130,000 to 135,000 passengers annually and about 98% to 99% of them would be South African residents,” says Foggitt.

MSC operates out of Durban, South Africa, and travels along the east coast of Southern Africa en route to Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius and Il Santo Marine. Cruise ships also travel from Cape Town up along the coast of Namibia.

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Cruises around Africa are still seen as small change when compared to the international cruising industry. George Argyropoulos, who emigrated from Greece to South Africa to set up Cruises International, explains that 30,000 South Africans are willing to leave their shores and spend up to $30 million. This is nothing in comparison to the billions made in the industry overall but African business is competing with the likes of Israel, the Middle East (UAE), Belgium, Holland, and Portugal—a market almost six times that of local African cruises. The key to building the African market is acquiring a draw factor.

“When you compare it with a Mediterranean cruise; you start in Barcelona and then you’re in Monte Carlo, and the day after that you’re in Florence and the day after that you are in Rome. So why must I fly 17 hours to Africa for a cruise? To see what?” says Argyropoulos.

Competition is tough but the strong dollar helps the African cruise industry. It means airfares are cheap along with prices onboard ships.

“The vessels have gotten even more elaborate, so that in many cases the cruise ships themselves are the destination, literally offering what one would expect to find on a land-based resort,” says Foggitt.

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Africa looks to Europe for its business. Europeans make up 85% of those who cruise around the west coast of Africa; on short trips around Southern Africa, they are almost entirely South African.

Investment in the cruise industry comes with a number of problems.

Argyropoulos says that Africans earn less money than Europeans and Americans, so the additional costs of flights and VISAs are expensive and time consuming.

There is also a lack of infrastructure in many ports on the continent, restricting the area where large liners can dock.

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“If one looks at Europe you can literally be in a recognized famous city every day of your cruise.In the United States and the Caribbean you can be on a different island every day; you can be in Jamaica one day and then zip across to the belt of Mexico. There are so many different destinations, so many exciting well-established ports that have the infrastructure you would need in terms of buses,” says Foggitt.

“The other thing is distance. If one wants to get to Mauritius which [has] the infrastructure and the tourism background or even Réunion, with these destinations you are looking at cruises of a minimum of 10 and as many as 14 days to get to those destinations. That limits a lot of people in terms of leave,” he says.

Cruising can be dangerous too. There’s piracy off the coast of Somalia and cruise ships have been caught up in it. Anthony Sharp, CEO of Typhon, makes a living out of combating piracy by providing private convoy naval protection units. He says that buccaneering costs the global economy between $7-12 billion a year and costs up to $6.9 billion a year in Somalia alone.

Piracy is waning but it’s not going to go away says Timothy Walker, researcher of conflict management and peace-building at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

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“The latest figures are that there are five vessels with 77 passengers being held captive. But there has been a reduction in the number of passengers and vessels and many of them would have been captive for a very long time and we are not sure if there will be any resolution. Negotiations are still being done,” says Walker.

“The majority of incidents this year have occurred around the Gulf of Guinea along the west coast of Africa. Generally most people credit private security companies onboard as deterrents they provide, and the rate of adoption of the best management practices recommended by the International Maritime Bureau,” he says.

To avoid the pirates Foggitt says MSC follows routes along the west coast of Africa rather than risk being attacked en route from the Mediterranean.

“Cruising in South African waters never goes far north and in these seas there has never been any pirate activity. With huge international effort the pirate situation is very much under control so if anything the danger area has been controlled,” says Foggitt.

Once the fear of uncharted waters and the lack of provident ports is overcome, Africa has untapped potential for the cruise liner industry. As the industry continues to grow more and more ships are being built, it’s a reality that people need somewhere to escape and they are willing to pay for it.