Argentina’s 2009/2010 cruise season

Buenos Aires better off than Patagonian ports.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
For international cruise ship passengers who opt for our far south waters, Argentina can be the beginning or end of a cruise featuring Brazilian beaches on the one hand, or of soft adventure excursions to Patagonian wildlife sanctuaries, Antarctica, or the Chilean fjords on the other. The great divide between the two types of enjoyment is the Benito Quinquela Martín cruise ship terminal of the Port of Buenos Aires, which thus far expects 155 calls (or more than 300,000 passengers) during the 2009/2010 season, according to the Argentine Port Authority. That would be 13 calls more than last summer, when the 260,000 cruise visitors who passed through the terminal set a new seasonal record, and the facility had to handle as many as 14,000 passengers from seven ships in a single day. Thus far, 143 calls have been confirmed for this season. The Argentine government recently announced its intention to increase the terminal’s passenger service capacity to 12,000 per day for the 2010/2011 season.
The terminal is less than one kilometer from the city center, but it is not safe to walk in the port area between it and downtown; passengers must move about in tour buses or taxis.
With the exception of a few small “expedition” vessels that reposition between the Arctic and Antarctica at the beginning or end of the October-April season, or luxury liners that call in the course of round-the-world cruises, the ships that use the Port of Buenos Aires between October and March are those that come and go between the Argentine capital and Brazilian ports (the majority), or between it and Chile.
Argentina’s southern cruise destinations seem to be suffering the effects of the international economic crisis and the pig flu pandemic scare more than Buenos Aires. Antarctic and long Buenos Aires-Valparaíso itineraries are much more expensive than short pleasure cruises to Brazil, and passengers who can afford them (and indeed are interested in them) tend to hail from Europe and the United States, where people plan their vacations a year in advance. Better luck in 2010/2011.

Thus far, Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina is reported to be expecting 313 calls by 45 cruise ships during the summer. Of these 45 vessels, 32 will be using the city as a base for cruises to Antarctica, which is just 1,000 km away. This is down from 373 calls (100,400 passengers) during the 2007/2008 season and 400 calls last year, when as many as 8,000 passengers were handled in a single day. The pier – used for both passengers and cargo – gives directly out onto Avenida Maipú and the best part of the downtown area.

Puerto Madryn, the Chubut port on the Patagonian coast between Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego, expects 33 calls, or more than 60,000 tourists, during the present season. But this too will be down on last year, which was 15 percent above 2007/2008, when 66,300 passengers were reported. This city has two piers. The Luis Piedrabuena passenger pier leads straight to Avenida Roca and the nice downtown area, which includes the helpful local tourist office. However, the Almirante Storni cargo and fishing pier – where the cruise ships that can’t dock at the passenger pier are sent – is not comfortably located at all; it is 6 km from downtown.
The international cruise industry is going almost completely over to monster ships that carry small-town populations of more than 3,000 passengers and crew. A big ship whose length and draught deny it a place at an old-time passenger pier must anchor somewhere nearby and send its passengers ashore in tenders – a procedure that becomes a bottleneck when lots of people want to come and go. The economies of scale offered by the big ships make their cruises affordable, but many of their passengers end up exchanging shore visits for life on board luxuries (which, by the way, can end up costing more than tours and souvenirs purchased on shore).

When several of said vessels arrive at a port simultaneously, their sizes and combined populations can pose serious logistics problems for the port authority, the local travel industry, and the passengers themselves, who are so many that they may end up spending most of the time allotted to each port waiting to disembark and re-embark.
Some big cruise companies also offer vessels at the opposite end of the spectrum – large yachts and small luxury vessels for a few passengers who can pay astronomic prices for exclusiveness on board and easy access to ports and pristine nature spots.

Port pros and cons
Buenos Aires is the only Argentine port with what can be called a passenger terminal, and the only one that is moving in the direction of dealing with the ship size problem. But these efforts may have their limit. Total berth length is 585 meters, and alongside depth about 10 meters. The port can’t be dredged any deeper because its approach canal runs across the broad, silt-bearing River Plate estuary that constantly undoes the work of dredges. The shore visit transfer time that would inevitably result from relocating the port and its terminal away from the river would make tours of Buenos Aires less attractive to many visitors, if not impossible for lack of time.

Puerto Madryn presides over a deep-water natural harbor that doesn’t need dredging. Its two piers --- the 400-meter Luis Piedrabuena and the 1,500-meter Almirante Storni – have a maximum alongside depth of 11 meters. It lacks a passenger terminal and most downtown shops are closed during the afternoon, but passengers buy tours at the ship travel desk that show them local wildlife, a paleontology museum or a sheep ranch, or fill them in on the region’s Welsh settlement story outside the city.
Ushuaia is also a natural deep port. It has a multi-use terminal and a broad pier with 1,163 meters of wharfage, and a maximum alongside depth of 11 meters. Passengers who are pressed for time usually book a guided tour of the Prison and Maritime Museum, or Tierra del Fuego National Park. Those with a day in port can see all the city’s four very interesting museums on foot, map in hand.

Southbound passengers tend to be more enthusiastic about Madryn’s wildlife than those coming from Ushuaia down south, where they have already seen penguins and sea lions. However, the landscapes and histories of both cities are different enough to make stops at each worthwhile. And Ushuaia does not have whales or Commerson’s dolphins.
Regardless of their natural and historical attractions, both cities need to build proper passenger terminals with bathrooms, restaurants and lounges, and lengthen their piers into deeper water to accommodate cruise vessels that are getting bigger and bigger. Construction of a terminal for what in reality is a short cruise season could be economically justified if the installations serve as a multi-purpose cultural center during the long months when there are no cruise ships in port.

PHOTO CREDITS: Port of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires Port Authority. Port of Ushuaia, Ricardo Marengo. Piedrabuena pier, Port of Puerto Madryn, Bonnie Tucker. Interior of Holland American vessel, Holland America Line. Guanacos and sheep at the San Guillermo tourist ranch outside Puerto Madryn, Bonnie Tucker. Prison Museum in Ushuaia, Bonnie Tucker.