Keeping faith with Spain, blooming in Latin America

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The first major decision Jorge Vilches was confronted with as the new president and CEO of Pullmantur Cruises was — “Should we stay, or should we go?”

In recent years, the leadership of Pullmantur — founded in Spain in 2001 to cater mostly to Spanish-speaking guests — thought about moving operations to Panama. Spain was suffering a recession while the Latin American market was growing. Vilches, a native Spaniard, decided Pullmantur should stay put in Spain.

“While the past decade has been tough for the Spanish market, Spain remains one of the top markets for sourcing guests in the cruise industry,” he explains. “It has plenty of potential for growth, and we’re in a position of strength here as the country recovers.”

Pullmantur can remove a barrier for first-time Spanish-speaking cruisers in Latin America with something familiar – language, dining and entertainment – yet also interesting and different.

Although the total of Spanish guests dropped from a high of 703,000 in 2011 to 600,000 in 2013, five-year growth remains over 20 percent for the market, despite the economic crisis. (By comparison, U.S. market growth over the past five years has been about 15 percent.)

If the cruising industry can still increase at that rate during tough economic times, Vilches reasons it will grow even more as Spain emerges from its recession. With positive signs of improvements — such as the financial ministry for Spain recently increasing its growth forecast –— Vilches expects an increase in Spanish demand, followed by a rise in pricing.

While 50 percent of Pullmantur’s activities remain in Europe, the other half already is focused on Latin America.

Whether for the gorgeous beaches of Punta del Este, Uruguay, or watching tango dancers on the cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Latin America has long been a premier cruise destination – and is growing as a source of guests.

Pullmantur expects to welcome 520,000 guests in 2015. That’s about 9 percent more than the year before. (Pullmantuer)
Pullmantur expects to welcome 520,000 guests in 2015. That’s about 9 percent more than the year before. (Pullmantuer)

During the past decade, the middle class in Latin America has grown by more than 50 percent, representing about 50 million Spanish-speaking people. The luxury goods market in the region has bloomed right along, rising 24 percent in 2013.

Vilches, a veteran of the South American travel industry, spent a decade with the LATAM Airline Group as CEO of different business units throughout that company.

“My experiences there provided me with an inside look at the Latin American travel industry,” Vilches says. “Understanding the governments, regulations and infrastructure will help guide every decision I make with Pullmantur in that region.”

Vilches believes Pullmantur can remove a barrier for first-time Spanish-speaking cruisers in Latin America with something familiar — language, dining and entertainment — yet also interesting and different.

His strategy to source guests from all Spanish-speaking markets around the world is positioning the company for growth.

Pullmantur expects to welcome 520,000 guests in 2015. That’s about 9 percent more than the year before.

“The potential for growth in Latin America is certain,” Vilches says. “People there are taking more vacations and looking for different options, and the cruise industry can certainly meet those needs.”