Amster-dammit – A New Cruise Controversy

Amster-dammit - Amsterdam canal

By Simon & Susan Veness

There is always a lot of push and shove when it comes to major ports and the cruise lines. It is a two-way tug-of-war that has been going on since Julius Caesar took his cruise fleet across the Channel in 54BC and had a major bust-up with the port authorities of Pegwell Bay.

It wasn’t so much that the Roman general wanted to land in this quiet, unsuspecting corner of Kent in the first place but rather that he brought WAY too many passengers for the local administrators to handle, leading to all sorts of issues. There were armoured chariots, horses, spears, shields and swords, and all kinds of jostling. It was a mess.

After it had all been sorted out, with the Romans agreeing to trade the recipe for lasagna in return for somewhere to build their own cruise port – which they called Londinium – it left a legacy of ill feeling between ship owners and port agencies that we’re still seeing today.

In fact, it is an ongoing battle that has flared up again recently in the busy city of Amsterdam, where the port burghers claim they are being over-run in a new ‘invasion’ of cruise passengers that needs to be addressed in the only way they know how – monetarily. And, much like old Julius 2,073 years ago, the cruise world isn’t having any of it.

OK, that may be stretching history a touch, but this week’s news that Amsterdam’s port authorities are at daggers drawn with the cruise lines over what is being seen as a cruise passenger tax is reminiscent of the periodic conflict between ship and shore as both seek to maximise their market position.

In this case, it all comes down to the little matter of €8. That’s what the city has announced as its new charge for every in-transit cruise passenger, per 24-hour period, when a cruise ship docks at the Passenger Terminal Amsterdam (PTA). The levy was brought in on January 1 and it has caused immediate and mass consternation, nay, dissent, in the ranks of the cruise empire, to such an extent that the empire has struck back by making the Dutch capital a no-go zone.

MSC Cruises was the first line to react, cancelling ALL visits to Amsterdam for 2019 AND 2020 and instead sending their ships to Rotterdam, 48 miles away. Britain’s Cruise & Maritime Voyages has announced that their Magellan and Columbus will also treat the major city like the proverbial plague for the foreseeable future, while other lines are said to “assessing the situation.”

Judging by the language being used on both sides, it sounds very much as if an impasse has been reached, and nothing will, ahem, passe the way of Amsterdam for a while, cruise ship wise. A spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Europe insisted last Friday: “It is still a very new situation. Authorities are currently working to implement it and charge the lines, but the process is still unclear today.

“The new tax means that cruise passengers visiting Amsterdam, who already pay a significant amount in port fees and other tariffs, will have to pay (an additional tax) whilst other day tourists, who arrive in Amsterdam by train, bus or car, do not, and also do not also pay port or other fees.”

The CLIA statement also insisted transit cruise passengers represent only one per cent of the total tourist traffic in Amsterdam (around seven million a year, and rising), and argued that “the contribution of cruise passengers is extremely disproportionate.”

Even more irksome for CLIA’s members is the short implementation time for the new tax (just two months), which has thrown a serious wrench into the machinery of an industry that typically needs years to adjust to measures like this. And the cruise association concluded: “There is a real risk of call cancellations, which could result in a budget deficit of several million euros for the city of Amsterdam as a result of reduced fees collected by the Port.”

However, the Municipality insists there is no backing down on this issue, as the increased tax “is in response to heavy demands on the city and its public spaces, as a result of large numbers of tourists. This ‘day-tripper tax’ will only apply to cruise passengers who do not live in Amsterdam and are only stopping over, not to passengers who are starting or ending a cruise here.”

Where this leaves cruise passengers (apart from in Rotterdam instead of Amsterdam) remains to be seen. €8 is hardly a massive cost to enjoy the canals and coffee-houses of the Venice of the North. It is a wonderfully friendly and easy-to-navigate city, and it is the perfect stop-over en route to the Baltic from the UK.

But this is, increasingly, a battleground the cruise world is going to have to deal with. Venice has also announced a new, across-the-board tourist tax for day visitors that is sure to raise the ire of CLIA, which has campaigned against various issues with ships visiting La Serenissima for years now. Dubrovnik introduced ship quotas last year and several other historic ports of call are considering their options where the tourist hordes are having more impact than the Roman legions ever did.

In many ways, cruise ships are caught in the middle, especially in places like Amsterdam and Venice where passengers are almost literally a drop in the ocean compared to the millions who visit by other transit methods. But CLIA certainly has a point that it’s hard for an industry with a long lead-in time for administrative tasks to adjust to something that will potentially cost hundreds of thousands of euros a year.

As ever, you suspect the authorities are making a knee-jerk reaction to a genuine problem that doesn’t think about the short-term ramifications and long-term effects (Brexit, anyone?).

In the meantime, we will need to brush up on what Rotterdam has to offer in terms of cafes, museums and, ahem, ‘coffee’ shops.

What do you think of this new cruise controversy? Does Amsterdam have a case or are they just trying to fleece ship passengers? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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Simon Veness

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