When cornered, human beings get inventive and find solutions. But the European marine industry hasn’t yet come to that phase when dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Oscar Siches.
“In the marina world, I feel like we are waiting for when the solution comes” in the form of a vaccine, says Siches, founder of the Global Marina Institute and a member of the International Council of Marine Industry Associations’ marinas committee. “But I don’t see that drive of, we have to address this, treat people in a different way and show ourselves to the world as [an industry] that is fully aware.”
His attitude reflects a desire that some industry leaders have to address the pandemic in a more aggressive way — a desire that can be helped or hampered depending on the actions of local, state and national governments. Boats are an excellent venue for keeping socially distant from others, a reality that has prompted a spike in boat sales and rentals in some parts of the world.
But that interest has been uneven depending on sector and geography, says Philip Easthill, secretary general of European Boating Industry, which represents builders, equipment manufacturers and more. Instead, regional differences in approaches to the pandemic have affected demand for boats and services, and the industry’s ability to respond.
As in the United States, the first wave of widespread lockdowns in Europe affected the industry on the manufacturing and services side. “The most immediate impact was at the start of this,” Easthill says.
By the end of May and early June, companies and some borders had reopened. “That’s been positive for some sectors,” Easthill says. “There are some countries which are doing very well and some that are doing not so well; just like there are some sectors doing very well and others that are more challenged. It’s not as bad as it could’ve been, and there have been some positive trends. Smaller boats did very well in some regions this summer.”
In Germany, Easthill says, “If it’s floatable, it’s sold,” mimicking the U.S. spike in boat demand. “In those countries in Europe where we have a lot of tourism potential, people who normally travel abroad to places like France, Thailand and the Mediterranean opted to forgo their long-distance holiday and spend their money on something more local. I think everywhere we’ve seen an interest in boating related to Covid-19, but the extent of it has been varied.”
Chartering and marina activity, he says, depend on region. “In southern Europe, the situation has been less positive because they rely on northerners to come boating there,” he says. “They haven’t had possibilities to go because of travel restrictions. Borders are open, but restrictions, red zones or varying rules requiring a test or quarantine to do so created challenges. And there simply weren’t enough flights.”
Some countries had a knee-jerk reaction to the virus and began shutting borders, creating supply-chain disruptions out of the gate when trucks were unable to cross borders without drivers going into quarantine, or for captains delivering boats across borders — despite the waterways remaining open for commercial traffic, Easthill says.
“The main problem was really at the start, the first one to two months, max,” Easthill says. “Now, the situation is much better, at least in the EU. There might still be an issue with goods coming from the States. Some things also come from China, so early on, we had problems with getting goods from China, but now that situation has resolved.”
Some countries — including Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden — took a pragmatic approach to dealing with the pandemic, Siches says. They imposed mild restrictions, and conscientious citizens mostly followed government advice. Marinas remained open, and navigation was possible.
Siches labels another group of countries as “the lost ones.” When Italy began designating restricted areas and border closings, Spain and France copied its actions. Airports and harbors were closed to traffic, and sailing was prohibited, particularly to other countries, even after the worst part of the pandemic so far was over, he says.
“Italy … suffered a lot, and they were criticized thoroughly when they started closing cities and streets — everybody was pointing at them as the bad guys,” Siches says. “Then the sickness spread to France and Spain, who looked at Italy and started to follow. They were trying to avoid the mistakes of the guys next door. Tourism dropped drastically, partly because harbors and airports were closed.”
Some regions received most of their usual transient fleet because they opted to do things differently than the overall government, creating corridors for people to travel in countries such as Britain, Ireland and parts of Spain and France, Siches says.
“There was some mobility, but the figure was 30 percent less of active sailing in traditional corridors because people wanted to stay home,” Siches says.
Greece and Croatia approached the pandemic completely differently, Siches says, and in his mind, were the winners. “Greece and Croatia said, Listen, it’s not only that we don’t have people sick in our country, but everybody who comes for a charter — every single boat is welcome because we’re going to have measures ready and rules ready for everybody to feel good with it. They’ve had a fantastic season like they don’t remember for many, many years.
“What they did was give assurance to people that they were safe, and that they would have less of a problem in these two countries because the marinas there could take care of that part,” Siches adds.
Australia and New Zealand reacted to the pandemic in ways that starkly contrasted with many other countries, including the United States, according to Darren Vaux, president of the Boating Industry Association in Australia. The result, he adds, has been positive for the marine industry.
“Australia locked down at 500 cases a day,” Vaux says. “What was interesting is, Australians essentially tend to be quite law abiding, so that worked really well, and by May, we started moving out of that.”
However, international borders to and from Australia remained highly restricted, and closed in some instances. Some state border closures remained in place, Vaux says.
“If Australian citizens were returning from abroad, they had two weeks in a hotel quarantining,” Vaux says. New Zealand had a similar response and has been able to maintain “fantastically” small numbers, he says.
Australia relies on tourism from abroad; it’s an industry worth about $32.5 billion (U.S.). And Australians love to travel abroad, Vaux says, adding that the nation’s citizens spend about $47 billion (U.S.) traveling to other countries. “The conversion of that travel back into domestic tourism has made tremendous difference to the Australian economy,” he says.
“One of the things we’ve been exploring is consumer behavior and the way it’s changing in the boating industry,” Vaux adds.
Behaviors that were expected to come down the pipeline in the next 10 years — such as using apps and technology to interact with the industry — are occurring now. “We as an industry need to look at how we embrace these changes.”
The broader marine industry has been less affected than most others because boating lends itself so well to social distancing, Easthill says. “A lot of these smaller boats have been very popular,” as he puts it.
New boaters have gravitated to smaller powerboats because they don’t need a specific license to drive them, up to a certain amount of horsepower, Easthill adds. “A lot of people have also maybe bought an engine or maintained their existing boat, so there’s a lot of positive development,” he says. “It depends, again, on what country you’re talking about. Even in countries where there is traditionally less domestic interest in boating, Spain for example, people are discovering boating in those countries.”
Some countries support government plans for short-term working disruptions, paying part of the employees’ salaries during furloughs and allowing them to keep their positions.
“Those regions that are more tourist heavy, and non-domestic heavy, that may help them,” Easthill says. “Some companies are very much impacted and hoping that the next season will be more positive. We are less impacted than hotels or cruise ships, so even for marinas and charter companies, it could’ve been worse. That’s not to say that some companies won’t be completely bankrupt by the end of the year.”
The thing to watch next is how other, more challenged industries affect the overall global economy, Easthill says.
“The economic downturn that will probably come everywhere, how will that impact our industry?” he says. “It’s less immediate in our industry, but it could happen. Also, at what point do we get back to some sort of normality? A vaccine or much easier testing would mean that people can travel because more people will have been tested beforehand, making the situation better.”
This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.