Two pints in, and SevenStreets is ready to make use of the gents at the Phil. Come on, it’s hot out there…
Only, we can’t. There’s a score of perfumed retirees – gasping Deep South ladies, festooned with Beatles caps and Tate carrier bags – snapping away with their Fujis at the ornate marble and enamel fittings.
Vera sees us edge away, nervously.
“Hey, back home in Tennessee, we have a saying: ‘We aim to please’, but here, I’d say ‘You aim to please,” she grins, and grabs our arm.
Nice line Vera. What are you having?
Back at the bar, Vera and her Golden Girls reveal that they’re in town a scant six hours – passengers on a Princess Cruises holiday, skimming the shores of the UK and Ireland.
Vera, a lifelong Beatles fan, really wanted to spend the night here, and take in a show at the Cavern. But, as the ship set sail from Southampton, and merely docks for half a day, she’ll have to postpone that Hard Days Night stay for, well, next time.
“I can’t believe you don’t have cruises leaving from here. I mean, Liverpool...?” Vera rolls the word, lovingly, around her gin-moist lips. “It doesn’t make sense. This is a city built on cruise liners isn’t it?”
Sometimes, it takes a stranger to bring you to your senses.
As tourist season approaches, there may be some in Liverpool who’d be glad to see the back of a cruise ship full of naked Germans in port (the German ship, Aura, has a nudists’ deck, should you want to watch, next time it docks), but most of us realise that, attired or not, cruise liner passengers bring a lucrative new revenue stream into the city.
So it’s a shame that, from next year, Fred. Olsen has cancelled its programme of cruises from Liverpool. Olsen, the only company operating cruises from the city, blames the terminal’s dangerous location, its larger ship – Boudicca, and its complicated three-tug arrangement to turn her around, as the reasons it’s cancelled all cruises from 2011 onwards.
But the real reason, SevenStreets figures, is the fact that, for cruises leaving Liverpool, the disembarkation point is actually not in the city at all. But in Bootle docks, in Sefton. It’s nothing to do with the water. The problem is the land.
Here, amid the car scrappage yards and disused warehouses, is Liverpool’s 21st Century Gateway to the World – The Langton Dock.
The dock is regularly voted as cruise passengers’ most hated in the UK. But let’s not concern ourselves with that.
Liverpool – the city – is always at the top end of the charts that count: that of the most enjoyable ports of call.
“We’ve had a sensational time here. We just don’t want to leave,” says Vera, to general murmurs of approval by her friends.
Passengers on Princess Cruise Lines’ mega-liner Grand Princess scored us as the sixth most enjoyable port of call, from 38 European destinations, with a ‘welcome and enjoyment’ score of 87.5 out of 100. No surprises there – we’ve always known how to welcome and enjoy.
In another poll, Liverpool scored the highest out of all UK ports for the question: “Which port most influenced you to book this cruise?” Of course, respondents were yet to experience a guided tour of Seaforth.
So something’s got to change.
Fortunately, our £20million cruise berth at the Pier Head is an altogether more welcoming affair – and, last year, 15 cruise ships brought around 23,500 passengers into the city for the day. Eleven of these were American cruise liners – the largest being Vera’s Grand Princess at 951 feet long, carrying 2,600 passengers ready and waiting to pump their part of nearly £3 million in tourism bucks into the bars and shops of the city.
Vera shows us her travel brochure, from leading American cruise agents Cruise Critic. She’s circled attractions, and ticked off those she’s managed to squeeze into her day so far.
“The city itself is a must-see for international visitors,” the brochure froths, “Liverpool One is one of Europe’s largest downtown malls, including Raymond Blanc’s Brasserie Blanc (really?). The Beatles Story museum has doubled in size with new exhibitions. The world’s first Beatles-themed boutique hotel – Hard Days Night Hotel – has opened. Liverpool Cathedral, the world’s largest Anglican Cathedral, has completed a $6 million restoration and visitors can be wowed by panoramic views from the tower. One of Europe’s finest civic buildings – St. George’s Hall – has re-opened following a $46 million restoration with a new Heritage Centre and public tours….”
“We just don’t have time to see half this stuff,” Vera says, crestfallen.
VisitBritain’s Director of Travel Trade, Carl Walsh, told SevenStreets: “Liverpool’s done an incredible job of promoting itself as a world-class cruise port, and the fact that it’s done it in such a short time is almost unheard of.”
As Walsh states, our attractions – and our compact city centre – are tailor made for this new, buffet-style of travelling.
“It’s not surprising Liverpool’s such a hit with cruise passengers,” Walsh says, “as it offers unsurpassed visitor attractions within a half hour walk from the terminal, and such amazing history, not to mention the legacy of the Beatles. Put these together, and Liverpool’s appeal to Americans is a no brainer…”
Few cities have arrival points right at their heart – New York, Sydney and Stockholm do, and, after a fashion, so does Venice – but Liverpool’s new terminal is not allowed to become a disembarkation port, as the EU grant towards our new facility came with strings attached: which mean that we miss out on millions in tourist cash every year. Strings that mean that we might have dipped a toe in the waters, but we’re forbidden from diving in further. Strings which prevent Vera from having a night at the Cavern.
And, as anyone in the travel industry will tell you – when a city becomes a disembarkation point, it’s not just the tourists who spend. The entire ship’s crew wash ashore too. And if you’ve been couped-up at work all week with a load of gouty empty nesters, what’s the betting you’re ready to splurge your tips up Mathew Street way?
You can tell Liverpool’s cruise business is doing something right. Because, in the usually placid waters of the cruise world, we’ve started to make waves. And Southampton’s starting to feel a little sick.
For years, the southern port mopped up most of the UK’s lucrative cruise business – as a result, its terminal is huge, impressive, and portakabin free.
Southampton port owner Associated British Ports (ABP) has so far blocked moves for us to get a European grant to upgrade. Doug Morrison, port director of ABP Southampton, claimed that Liverpool’s plans should be sunk because “taxpayers’ money distorts the marketplace”, and that it’s an “abuse of state aid”.
Warning shots over the bows, to which Joe Anderson, Liverpool Council leader, responded, saying that, as ABP’s parent company is based in Jersey – and doesn’t pay corporation tax – they’re perhaps not best placed to take the moral high ground.
“Whatever it takes,” Anderson has said, “we’ll get our turnaround facility.”
In the meantime, Peel continues to do very nicely out of the upturn in cruises – from just one visit in 2000, to 20 slated for next year – charging each ship which moors alongside its land.
So, as the mud slinging continues, you have to wonder – why doesn’t Peel, or a consortium, stump up, privately, to give Liverpool the world class port the city – and Vera – so badly needs? Surely that’s the real no brainer here. Increasingly, cruising is the way we’re going to travel – and overnights before or after, as well as the days ashore, is where the smart tourism money is. So the question remains – did our EU grant come at a heavy price?
Let the passengers decide where they’d want to overnight before or after their cruise holiday, and how many of them would want choose Southampton over Liverpool?
Southampton is nervous because it knows, when it comes to tourist-friendly cities, we’re the ones to beat. So it’s such a shame we can’t let them step inside, and stay.
Who’s to say what swingeing taxes are set to hit the no-frills airlines? It would only take Ryanair to bail out for John Lennon Airport to be forced into a holding pattern while it works out a new business model. Cruising, however, is set to explode (not like in Speed 2, thankfully).
We’re never going to get the transatlantic airlines to Speke, but we really should be going full pelt to get the liners back where they belong.
And, sorry, Sefton, as Vera says, that’s in Liverpool.
(Langton Dock pic: Scouse Hobbit)