Feature: Rising cruise tide lifts money boats

The world’s only remaining ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2, cut a grand figure in the Cape Town harbour this month as it docked for a few days as part of a world voyage.

Though many cruise ships roam our seas, typically hugging the coast as they flit between ports, an ocean liner is designed to make grand crossings, for example from New York to Southampton.

And, with room for 2,000 passengers, the Queen Mary 2 is the grandmother of all ocean liners.

In sharp contrast to the disastrous years of Covid, when the cruise industry all but died, the Queen Mary 2 disgorged hordes of passengers who decamped to explore the city, the winelands, Table Mountain and the V&A Waterfront.

When the FM climbed aboard,  it was easy to see why these majestic ships dominated leisure travel in the era  before air travel exploded.

And demand for ocean travel still exists. The industry body Cruise Lines International Association predicts 39.5-million passengers globally by 2027 — 32% up on 2019.

Evidently, ships haven’t lost their glamour  — the Queen Mary 2  does the transatlantic crossing 20-25 times a year. (It will, however, be out of service for a few months from October, as it undergoes a $1m revamp.)

The ship, longer than the Eiffel Tower is high, has been the flagship of the Cunard Line —  which was founded in 1840 in Southampton — since succeeding the Queen Elizabeth 2, which is now a floating hotel in Dubai, in 2004.

It’s the kind of vessel that triggers thoughts of “Cool Britannia”: besides boasting the largest library at sea (about 10,000 books), it regularly hosts the Royal Shakespeare Company (though last week it was the turn of Bob Geldof to entertain passengers). There’s a formal dress code for dinner, which is served by  white-gloved waiters.

The liner has 14 decks, five swimming pools, a casino and the only ocean-going  planetarium.  And, as a reminder of its lineage, décor includes portraits of bygone British royals,  along with busts of Queen Mary herself (aka Mary of Teck) and her husband King George V.

Walking through the King’s Court buffet area feels like strolling through an upmarket canteen. I was pleased we were dining in the Britannia Club restaurant (positioned as an intimate formal dining room), which could be a set for Titanic: winding staircases, breathtakingly spacious and majestic, with an Art Deco theme.

Lunch options are very Brit — think fisherman’s pie, leek and potato soup, vegetarian shepherd’s pie and sticky toffee pudding.

A sweeping staircase on the ocean line. Picture: Greywolf Studios Limited

The statistics are awe-inspiring. Annual beef consumption on board is equivalent to that of Southampton, and every year enough tea is served to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. More than 1.5-million drinks are served every year.

The Queens Room ballroom is the biggest on any liner at sea, and is used for dance classes and afternoon teas, among other things.

There is a theatre, a cinema, a lecture hall, a wraparound promenade deck of 550m, a gym and spa, a nightclub, a cigar lounge and a maritime history walk that tells the history of celebrities who have travelled on the ship.

It’ll be no surprise that passengers are often older. The ship is also popular with “swallows” — people who spend part of the year in Cape Town, then travel back to the UK for the northern hemisphere summer.

Ocean travel is a boon for the Cape. Since October, the start of the official season, about 160,000 passengers and crew members have been processed through the V&A Waterfront cruise terminal, which opened in 2018.  About 95,000 of them are foreign tourists.

The city has benefited from the high proportion of foreign visitors arriving on cruise liners — by 2020, foreign travellers  made up 68% of the total, up from 48% in 2017 — because they outspend local tourists.

James Vos, mayoral committee member for economic growth, says the average port visit brings nearly R100m in tourist spending, a major economic boost that helps to generate jobs across related sectors.

Multiply that by the 75 ships that have visited the port in the current season, it’s quite a windfall. And the season only ends in May.

*Cover picture: The Queen Mary 2 in Cape Town. Picture: Henk Kruger

Article by Adele Shevel originally appeared in the Financial Mail