Cruise liners could return to Highland waters as early as next spring, after staying away throughout 2020 due to the pandemic, the boss of the region’s busiest port has said.
But, the Port of Cromarty Firth’s (PCF) chief executive, Bob Buskie, forecast a grim year ahead for the area’s oil and gas sector, with the impact of the pandemic on the industry leading to a lack of contracts and increase in the number of out-of-work rigs.
Mr Buskie’s comments came ahead of last night’s launch of the Invergordon-based PCF’s annual report and accounts for 2019, a year in which the Easter Ross port enjoyed its busiest cruise season to date, with 104 visits by liners, carrying a total of 167,000 passengers.
He said the cancellation of all calls at the start of Covid-19 restrictions had caused “total devastation” in the sector, which accounted for just over a quarter of the trust port’s £10.6 million turnover last year and is estimated to contribute £18m to the north’s economy annually.
He continued: “The jury is still out on what we are going to see cruise-wise in 2021, but we know that Germany, Italy and Greece actually started their seasons in late August, with no new Covid cases recorded. The amount of work that the industry has done has been fantastic and I think that the management processes and procedures that they are putting in place are going to be so robust that if anything did happen on a cruise ship they are going to be much better prepared and much better able to manage it than they would have been last year.
“It’s still not possible to say when the first liner will sail into the firth. We have got over 100 bookings for 2021 and the operators have continued to book with us like they are going to be returning as normal.
“The feedback from all the industry agencies and clients is suggesting there will be cruising throughout 2021.
“So, hopefully, we will see some cruising back by the springtime.”
Mr Buskie described the PCF’s 2019 results as “excellent”. They showed its turnover had fallen from £11.4m in 2018, when the organisation enjoyed the most successful 12 months in its 47-year history, buoyed by the award of a £10.6m renewables contract, booming cruise business and an increase in North Sea oil and gas drilling activity.
The port’s pre-tax profits also dropped from £4.1m, to £2.5m over the period.
Mr Buskie said the 2019 figures reflected a decrease in the gross tonnage of shipping using the port last year, compared to 2018.
Oil and gas activity, which accounted for 45% of the PCF’s revenue was down 9% year-on-year, but still was stronger than it had anticipated, according to the chief executive.
But he warned that, following the oil price crash, the sector had been “really devastated” and showed no signs of recovery in the year ahead.
He said: “The prognosis in 2021 for oil and gas isn’t good. We see a continuation of rig stacking in the firth, we see very little capex being spent on subsea fabrication, which is another big part of where we obtain shipping revenues.
“Usually by this time in the year there’s contracts being tendered for work that’s going to take place over the winter and into the springtime, but there are no tenders out there just now.”
Mr Buskie said that while the oil and gas sector “isn’t going away” the future success of the Cromarty Firth lay in increased work for offshore renewables projects, developments in the hydrogen sector and success in a bid by the organisation, as part of a local consortium, in securing free port status for the area.
He paid tribute to the PCF’s 35-strong workforce for their efforts in keeping the port operating throughout the pandemic.