Is Cunard about to ditch Southampton for Liverpool?


Liverpool enjoyed a day of pomp and ceremony last Thursday when Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth made its maiden call, an event celebrated with a rousing service in Liverpool Cathedral. But the excitement surrounding the visit has further fuelled the row between Southampton, Cunard’s long-time homeport, and Liverpool, where the line was based until 1966, which has been pushing aggressively for increased cruise business.

The reason? Peter Shanks, Cunard’s president and managing director, was widely quoted in the British press last week as saying that Cunard may one day offer cruises from Liverpool, a statement that has set alarm bells ringing in Southampton and sparked a lively debate on the Web site of local paper, the Daily Echo.

This clash between the two ports has been going on, very publicly, for some time. Liverpool’s business leaders want the new £20 million Pier Head terminal in the city centre to be used for cruise turnarounds — in other words, beginning and ending voyages. But because the facility was built partly with taxpayers’ money, Department for Transport (DFT) rules state that it can only be used for cruise ship day visits, as it has to compete fairly with other, privately-funded port facilities in the U.K., including Southampton. Southampton closely guards its position as Britain’s leading cruise port — no surprise, given that the industry contributes more than £300 million a year to the local economy.

But would Cunard really pack up and move to Liverpool, as Southampton fears? No. It turns out that there’s a big gap between the possibility of offering one or two cruises in the future — with DFT approval, of course — and moving the line’s entire operation. To set the record straight, we spoke to Shanks. “Southampton will always remain our base,” he said. “But in the same way that we offer occasional departures from Hamburg, Venice, Athens or Barcelona, if Liverpool port were to develop, we would look at doing one or two voyages from there. We’re absolutely not saying we are moving to Liverpool.

“All credit to Liverpool for what they’ve done there. It is a wonderful place to arrive by ship, and there are so many things for guests to see. But we’re trying not to get involved in the politics.”

What about the pesky rules currently barring Pier Head from operating as a turnaround terminal? (Note: Liverpool has an alternative dock at the nearby commercial harbour of Langton — which allows for turn-arounds — but it’s overlooked by a scrap heap, and prey to fast tides and high winds, so not highly coveted.) The city has applied to the government to change the use of its new cruise terminal, proposing that it pays back some of the public money used to build the facility so that it can compete with Southampton and other ports on a fair basis. A decision is expected this week.