Passenger traffic is recovering rapidly from the pandemic, but there are new challenges ahead

The coronavirus pandemic hit maritime transport in many ways. Cargo traffic has experienced surprising ups and downs, including the current difficulties that major international ports are experiencing in serving their customers, which has in turn led to an almost worldwide shortage of containers. Very few problems have been seen in cargo traffic in Finland, although we have also experienced container shortages recently.

Cruise traffic, however, collapsed completely as a result of the pandemic. In 2020, cruise traffic volumes in the European Union fell 85 per cent on the previous year. Passenger traffic also fell by 39 per cent throughout the EU. In Helsinki, passenger traffic volumes collapsed from 11.6 million in 2019 to 4.8 million in 2020.

However, a noticeable rise is already being seen in cruise traffic. The first cruise ships arrived at the Port of Helsinki in early August. Cruise companies have updated their practices to prevent the spread of the virus. Passenger numbers are only 50–75 per cent of capacity, so as to avoid congestion. Some shipping companies require all passengers to be fully vaccinated, and it’s possible to take a coronavirus test onboard ship. Cleaning and ventilation have also been enhanced. There are also restrictions onthe use of certain facilities: for example, restaurants and gyms can only admit a certain number of customers, and people have to wash their hands before entering a restaurant. Unvaccinated travellers may also face specific restrictions at their holiday destinations.

Some less-frequented Finnish ports – Hamina-Kotka, Oulu and  Vaasa – have also welcomed their first cruise ship in several years.

The Port of Helsinki’s cruise traffic has always been tied to the principal ports in its neighbouring countries, above all St Petersburg, but also Stockholm and Tallinn. Cruise ships usually visit all four. When cruise traffic increases in St Petersburg, it also rises in Helsinki.

Passenger-car ferries

The Helsinki–Tallinn route is one of the briskest routes for international passenger traffic in the world. Passenger volumes have grown significantly over the past twenty years. In 2007, first Tallink and then other shipping companies introduced fast passenger-car ferries that made it easy to spend the entire day in Tallinn without staying overnight, and this increased both business and leisure travel.

The coronavirus pandemic led to a collapse in passenger volumes, from 8.9 million in 2019 to 4.0 million in 2020. Although this was a huge collapse that caused financial
difficulties for shipping companies, it should be noted that this route still retained 46 per cent of its 2019 passenger volume. In other words, even though leisure travel fell to almost nothing in all but a couple of months, business and other non-leisure travel continued in spite of the difficulties.

The Helsinki–Tallinn route is  ntherefore increasingly serving non-leisure travel and the twin cities’ companies, employees and cargo. Conditions for working onboard ships are excellent, and have been improving year after year. In fact, I’m riding the Gulf of Finland’s waves as I write this sentence. A considerable increase in passenger volumes was also visible during the autumn half term.

Source: Traficom and Its predecessors

Although winter is always a quieter time for passenger traffic on the Helsinki– Tallinn route, passenger volumes are expected to return to 2019 levels next summer – and the introduction of Tallink MyStar in early 2022 will definitely attract more passengers.  In previous years, it has been obvious that people are to some extent choosing between cruises and holidays in the sun. So the future of air travel, and in particularw the availability of cheaper holiday flights, will have an impact on Tallinn’s passenger traffic volumes.

Passenger traffic between Helsinki and Stockholm is of a different type than that between Helsinki and Tallinn. The commuters and cargo with the tightest schedules travel to Stockholm from Turku, and some people also fly. This route is most popular among families and cruise passengers.

Finland also has a bustling passenger route between Turku and Stockholm, and Viking Line will be adding a new ferry to this route next summer. The Aurora Botnia also began serving the Vaasa–Umeå route in August. This new ship is expected to significantly increase passenger volumes on that route – both business travellers and cruise passengers.

The Aurora Botnia has been built using the latest technology, and is currently at the forefront in areas such as energy efficiency and environmental friendliness. She sails into port under electrical power, which reduces both noise and emissions. Although the vessel’s main engines primarily run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), the Aurora Botnia is also able to use biogas.

Stricter environmental norms are coming

Passenger traffic is expected to return to almost pre-pandemic levels very soon. Maybe not this year, but definitely by next year. However, the changes will not stop there. After years of debate, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and European Union (EU) are taking a stricter approach to greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. These changes will be very stringent.

Shipping currently accounts for less than three per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This may seem small from certain perspectives, but will grow as other transport and energy production sectors lower their emissions.

In June 2021, the IMO decided on measures aimed at reducing shipping’s carbon-intensity by 11 per cent in the period 2019–2026. Decisions on the measures for 2027–30 will be made at a later date, and likewise for those in 2030–2050. The EU presented its “Fit for 55” package in July 2021. This package includes proposals for including shipping in emissions trading, the carbon content of fuels, the abolition of tax exemptions, and distribution infrastructure for alternative fuels.

Shipping emissions can be reduced in three different ways: with fuel solutions for ships, ship design, and operational solutions (such as the type of ship used and sailing speeds). Energy companies are currently engaged in increasingly lively debate about fuel solutions, and ship designers about new technological solutions. However, at least in the short term, operational solutions may generate the largest reductions in emissions at the lowest cost.

In practice, a fleet will always have a service life of more than 20 years – and sometimes 30 and above. Ship designs that are currently on the drawing board must therefore take the future’s stricter environmental norms into consideration – they must use energy solutions that are as emission-free as possible and minimise the ship’s energy consumption in relation to its cargo.

The sector is now on a firm footing in that respect, and we are heading towards emission-free shipping – at a faster or slower pace. Some cruise companies, such as MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) have already announced that their ships will be carbon neutral by 2050.

This blog has been previous published in Port of Helsinki Magazine 1/2021 19.11.2021.

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