Scottish Government ‘unable to say whether MSC Virtuosa cruise ship could dock in Greenock hours before its arrival’

Scottish Government officials were still unable to confirm whether a cruise ship could dock in Greenock as little as 36 hours before its arrival, The Scotsman has learned.

They told the travel industry late on Monday afternoon they would “hopefully be able to provide clarity” over MSC Virtuosa’s planned call at the Inverclyde port this morning – Wednesday.

The continued uncertainty came despite requests for guidance since at least last week over whether the ship, with nearly 1,000 passengers on board, could visit.

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It led to MSC Cruises cancelling the 12-hour stop-off, which was part of a week-long UK cruise with only UK passengers aboard.

MSC Virtuosa is carrying some 970 passengers. Picture: MSC Cruises

Such cruises restarted from English ports last month.

According to an industry source, the Scottish Government had said on Monday that its tourism officials “hopefully will be able to provide clarity on your query about whether the MSC cruise ship which is due in Greenock on Wednesday can still dock, even if no passengers will disembark”.

The cruise ship, which is also calling at Liverpool, Belfast, Portland and Southampton, would have been the first to visit Scotland this year.

The Scottish Conservatives said ministers had created a “completely avoidable situation”.

Transport spokesperson Graham Simpson said: “This is yet another example of how the SNP have completely failed to engage with Scotland’s travel industry.

“Passengers will have been looking forward to their time in Scotland, only for their hopes to be dashed at the last minute.

"SNP ministers have failed to provide clarity to cruise ship operators, which is simply not good enough.

“The industry is rightly questioning why other events where people won’t have to be tested have been given the green light, yet this ship isn’t allowed to dock a few miles down the road.

"This mixed messaging has only created further uncertainty for an industry that is crying out for support from the SNP Government.

“These sort of anomalies in the current restrictions have only heightened the anxiety among passengers and the industry and created a situation which was completely avoidable.”

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The Scottish Passenger Agents Association, which represents travel agents, described the situation as “farcical”.

Council member Alan Glen said: “It’s a hammer blow to the cruise industry in Scotland.

"It’s going to cause enormous disruption to passengers who have booked for months, and a lot of disappointment.

"It really can’t be underestimated the effect it’s going to have on the morale of the cruise and travel business in Scotland.

"It very much looks like the rug has been pulled from underneath them at the last minute, and if that’s going to happen, of course cruise lines are going to think twice because it causes enormous disruption and cost to reorganise.

"It seems absolutely farcical that UK citizens aren’t being allowed into Scotland.

"To have the ports closed to you – the mind boggles actually as to how you can come up with this decision, when thousands of people are driving across the Border every day for staycations.”

However, marketing body Cruise Scotland said cruise lines were still keen to call at Scottish ports this year and had not written them off for 2021.

Chairman Rob Mason said: “Bookings are still strong and cruise lines are ready to sail north.

"With the UK market re-started in England, our ports are needed to deliver these round-Britain itineraries.

"But the green light from the Scottish Government is required for when domestic cruises can restart in Scotland – for UK guests, sailing on UK itineraries around UK ports.

“We’re already around halfway through our cruise season without a single visit.

"There is an urgent imperative for the Scottish Government to provide certainty for cruise operators, ports and the many small businesses the sector supports in the supply chain.”

A spokesperson for Capital Cruising, which operates terminals at Leith, Rosyth, Newhaven, South Queensferry and Dundee for Forth Ports, said: “We are working with the cruise industry on a safe return to cruise as soon as the restrictions allow this in Scotland.

"We have a number of scheduled domestic cruise calls this year into the Forth, booked from the end of July onwards.”

They include Saga, Norwegian Cruise Lines and TUI Cruise.

Mark Simmonds, director of policy for the The British Ports Association said: “Whilst clarity from Scottish ministers this week on their requirements for restart are welcome, there is still no firm indication of when this might be, meaning the industry and suppliers are still in limbo.

"It is bitterly disappointing that Scottish destinations remain closed to domestic cruise passengers but we will continue to work closely with Government to realise our shared ambition of a safe and rapid reopening for cruising at the earliest opportunity.”

A spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association said: “The decision not to allow cruise ships to enter Scotland at this time is very unfortunate.

"Currently, cruise ships calling at UK ports have UK-only guests onboard, including many from Scotland.

"Domestic cruises have safely and successfully restarted in England and across Europe, and the multi-layered measures now in place are there to protect the well being of the destinations we visit, as well as passengers and crew.”

"We continue to seek further clarity from the Scottish Government and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the cruise industry protocols with ministers.”

The cruise industry is worth more than £100 million a year to the Scottish economy, with ships carrying more than 900,000 passengers due to have visited Scottish ports last year before the trips were cancelled by the Covid pandemic.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “For a number of weeks we have been engaging with stakeholders to discuss concerns about transmission risks posed by cruise vessels and have been clear that we would confirm our position in June.”

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