The current situation in Syria- seemingly ratcheted up by the minute by posturing from both the west and east- could have massive ripple effects for the entire cruise industry in the eastern Mediterranean, especially over the coming winter months.
A potential stack of slowly falling dominoes is now firmly in place; one that eerily echoes the situation in Europe back in June of 1914, in the months that ran up to the Great War; the most cataclysmic conflict seen on the planet up to that time.
Syria has uneasy neighbours in the shape of both Turkey and Lebanon; the latter in particular knows to its cost that a desperate and deluded Syrian leadership would have no hesitation in extending the conflict through to Beirut, on the eastern edges of the Med. That potentially makes all of the waters through to the Aegean a probable no go zone for cruise ships, never mind the flights required to bring potential passengers in. And that’s assuming passengers could still be coerced into booking; a long shot in and of itself.
Meanwhile, both Iran and Iraq continue to back the horrific Assad regime, and Israel- the crucible of the entire region- remains jittery, tigger happy, and ready to do whatever it takes to defend its own interests, come what may. Any overt action on the part of either of the first two countries would almost certainly trigger a potentially lethal response from the third.
It goes without saying that this would shut down the rump of what is left of an already seriously denuded eastern Mediterranean cruise circuit. With Egypt still a flaring conflagration, the last six lines offering cruises to that country have now unilaterally cancelled all calls there, and for the foreseeable future as well (See my previous blogs for details). Remove the highlights of the Israeli circuit- Ashdod and Haifa- and the entire eastern Med effectively becomes a no go area.
Who will be most affected? The obvious candidates are the perennial winter visitors, such as Costa and MSC. But Norwegian also have the Norwegian Jade in this area for most of the shoulder season winter months, based out of Civitavecchia.
No doubt all of these lines are looking nervously at the potential ramifications of a meltdown in these waters. Sudden redeployments, and even possible winter layups, could be on the menu. Already, a glut of cruise tonnage, about to be expelled from the seasonal winter Red Sea market, will soon be surging west towards the warm, soon to be serially over saturated cruising grounds around the Canary Islands.
Future abrupt redeployments would be a logistical nightmare, and certainly difficult to operate at a profit. But that is potentially not the worst of it.
You only have to think back to 1985, and how the murder of American tourist Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro plunged the entire Mediterranean cruise market into freefall for well over a year. The difference is that nowadays, there are five or six times as many berths to fill.
Add to that the still prohibitive air fares from America to Europe- the very thing that has done such damage to the Med cruise industry this season- and you have the makings of a perfect storm, with potentially awful ramifications. Plus, the increasing volatility in Libya makes the entire north African coastline look and feel like a slowly smouldering brush fire.
Of course, none of this might come to pass. Common sense and mutual self preservation could yet prevail over the jingoistic, often self serving sabre rattling of the political classes in all the countries concerned. But, given the past record of politicians in dealing with the Middle East- more than a dozen centuries of abject failure, appreciation and complete lack of understanding- it seems that we are all looking at what amounts at the very least to a winter of discontent.
Let’s all hope and pray that’s truly the maximum extent of it.