Latest report on the state of cruising in France
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Cruising à la Française

The Cruise Examiner did not appear last week because of a two-and-a-half hour delay to a TGV travelling from Paris to Marseilles.
So here finally is Mark Tré's latest report on the state of cruising in France, a country where, despite having produced ships of state such as the Normandie and France and cruise ships up to the size of the Queen Mary 2, its own residents are far behind the rest of Europe in taking up cruising.
Even those operators who have more recently entered the French market sometimes have trouble ramping up to the next ship size as the market grows (or they hope will grow). So let us have a look at this late developing market.

The State of the French Market

Unlike the UK market and more recently the Spanish, Italian and German markets, France is a long way behind in the number of its residents that take a cruise every year. From 212,000 cruisers in 2003 the market had grown by 2007 to only 280,000, a smaller 32% rise compared to it neighbours Italy, which had grown 85% to 640,000 and Spain, up by 69% to 513,000 in 2007.
France, a country of 64 million souls, produced less than 1% of the total European cruise market of 4 million passengers.

Taking fifth place in Europe, French passengers represented only 7.9% of those booking cruises in the top five European countries, while 37.8% came from the UK, 21.6% from Germany, and 18.1% from Italy and 14.6% from Spain, both neighbours. Perhaps too used to their own croissants and espressos, breads, wines and cheeses, the French seem positively reluctant to step aboard a cruise ship and go exploring.
It now seems that the French Line was run entirely for the benefit of French emigrants and American tourists, and after the demise of Paquet Cruises, the country was not represented by a single large cruise ship other than the 394-berth Club Med 2 and 330-berth Paul Gauguin in Tahiti, both of which are niche products.

But things may be changing. In 2008, the French market grew to 310,000 compared to 280,000 the year before, or by almost 11%. While growth from 2006 to 2007 was 15.7%, this was still double digit and in an uncertain year and has to be compared to previous years' growth rates of between 3% and 5%. In Spain, on the other hand, the market actually fell by 4% in 2008 while Italy grew by only 6%.
France is still the poor man, but in 2008 it grew faster than any other major European market outside Germany, which grew by 19%. The big question is can France begin to grow in the same way Germany has. It is still very early days but both Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp & PLC, as well as some indiginous French operators, are keen to find out.

Croisières de France

Formed in late 2007 as an arm of Pullmantur Cruises, Croisières de France has been operating unilingual French-language cruises with the Bleu de France since May 2008. The product is all-inclusive, with fare, port charges, gratuities and drinks with lunch and dinner and in the bars all included in the price.and unconfirmed estimates put carryings by this ship, dedicated to the French market, at about 30,000 passengers during her first year of service.

After having concentrated in its first year by summer on the Mediterranean market from Marseilles and the Caribbean by winter, Croisières de France is changing its approach for 2010. Instead of sending Bleu de France to the Caribbean this winter, the line will embark passengers on a ship of sister company Pullmantur.

The Pacific Dream, formerly Celebrity's Horizon, will carry a mix of Spanish-speaking passengers and francophones from both France and Quebec, sailing from La Romana in the Dominican Republic, a popular haunt as well and with good airlift for French-speaking Canadians escaping the frozen north, as did the Bleu de France last winter.

Meanwhile, the French ship will remain in the Mediterranean, as with so many other cruise ships in recent years, and will also sail the Red Sea. This should allow Croisières de France to build its passenger numbers further in anticipation of further expansion.

In the meantime, a rumour last week had the Bleu de France being sold to another operator, widely touted as being Saga of the UK. Built as Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' last Europa, she would be a perfect replacement for their Saga Rose, which is being retired as the new SOLAS 2010 regulations come into effect.

If this is true, the problem for Croisières de France will be that while the Bleu de France has 374 cabins, the next size up, the Pacific Dream (ex-Horizon), has 715, which would mean having to double the line's carryings in one fell swoop if she were chosen as a replacement.

Although little different from adding a second ship to a one-ship operation, some doubt that Croisières de France would be able to double their business that quickly in an uncertain market. On the other hand, the French economy is now out of recession and grew by 0.3% in the first quarter while the French purchasing manager's index is this month at its highest in almost three years.

Croisières Paquet

While in the larger ship market, other news to come out of France is about Paquet, which was acquired many years ago by Costa Cruises of Genoa. Now dormant for a decade, Carnival plans to revive the Paquet brand in 2010 in an agreement with Marseilles-based TMR, who will market the 820 lower-berth Costa Allegra from Marseilles exclusively for French cruise passengers.
Best known for the cruises that were previously operated by the Mermoz, the last word in French cruise ships of any size, several hundred items from which raised €195,000 recently at an auction in Marseilles, the Paquet brand could have a lot of sway in how the French choose their cruises.

The new Paquet will thus provide head-on competition for Croisières de France, operated by Carnival arch-rival Royal Caribbean. As the Costa Allegra is returning from China, where she is being replaced by a larger ship, it has not yet been announced just how French her crew may be and whether she will be similarly a totally unilingual ship, but it seems certain that a French cruise staff will be taking over for these cruises.

To begin service from Marseilles in May 2010, she will add to Costa's own capacity from that port with an intial program of four 11-to-14-day cruises to the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. These cruises will test the waters through to late June and will be followed by more Paquet cruises, mostly musically-themed, in September and October. Costa now accounts for half the uptake of French passengers, or more than150,000 berths on their Marseilles calls.

Her Future

By using TMR instead of its own Costa channels in France (and Costa has been building up good volumes from Marseilles), the revived Paquet will be using a separate distribution channel to the French market, and one that is a little more upmarket. TMR founder Maurice Ravon chartered the Norway, ex-France, in 1993 and again in 2000, and in 2003 carried some 15,000 French passengers in the 684-berth Insignia (since renamed Regatta), on charter from Oceania Cruises, and in 2004 in her sister ship Nautica.

Compagnie du Ponant

Ponant Cruises, as it has recently been dubbed for the English-speaking world, got its start in 1988 when it was founded by two former French merchant navy officers as Compagnie des Iles du Ponant (recently shortened to Compagnie du Ponant) at Nantes. Its first ship was the 64-berth sail-assisted Le Ponant, built in 1991, and she was joined in 1998 by the 90-passenger megayacht Le Levant.

This pair of newbuildings was joined in 2004 by the former Song of Flower, acquired from Radisson Seven Seas and enlarged from 180 to 226 passengers.

Since 2006, Compagnie du Ponant has been Marseilles-based as the cruising arm of CMA CGM, successors to the original French Line and Messageries Maritime. More than forty CMA CGM cargo ships also carry passengers, of which they can accommodate more than 336 when full, primarily on routes to China, Australia, South America and the French West Indies.

Jacques Saadé, CMA CGM chairman, has made sure that as many new CMA CGM ships as possible include passenger accommodation when they are built as a kind of tribute to the traditions of the once-famous French Line.

Ponant Cruises, meanwhile, is due to take delivery in 2010 of two new ships from Fincantieri, which while not large with 264 berths each, will bring another 528 berths into a company that now counts only 380, thus more than doubling its capacity. To be named L'Austral and Le Boréal, these two ships will be ice-strengthened and will cruise worldwide, to Asia, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Antarctic, Spitzbergen, Iceland, Greenland, the St Lawrence and the Great Lakes, among other destinations.

A good amount of their business will be in charters and the latest news on the that front is that Le Boréal has been chartered to long-time Antarctic operator Abercrombie & Kent for its 20th Antarctic season between December 2010 and January 2011. Unlike any other expedition ship before, Le Boréal provides balconies with 95% of its cabins, something totally new for the Antarctic.

For Antarctic cruises, capacity will be limited to 199 passengers and fares will start at $9,995 or $15,975 per person. Le Boréal will succeed Swan Hellenic's Minerva, which will be cruising the Far East instead. Le Boréal will thus become the first French ship to have been built for polar trades since the Marion Dufresne II, which, built at le Havre in 1995, carried a dozen passengers to Kerguelen and the French Antarctic territories.

The Port of Marseilles

Two-thirds of the French market, about 200,000 passengers, cruise the Mediterranean, and for this its major port is Marseilles. As of earlier this year, the Port of Marseilles has one of the more interesting cruise terminal operations as here, three non-French lines, Costa and MSC from Italy and Louis Cruise Lines of Cyprus, have teamed up to operate a tripartite cruise passenger terminal now called the Marseille-Provence Cruise Terminal (MPCT) under a €12 million plan that will expand cruise capacity in the port, with a goal of handling one million passengers a year starting in 2011.

That presumably means 500,000 each way but is a measure of how significant some feel the French cruise market could be.

All three of these lines already embark passengers in either Genoa or Savona on one day and then in Marseilles the next for their 7-day cruises and the same occurs at disembarkation, with cruise traffic in Marseilles having shown interesting growth in the past few years. While Costa and MSC operate their own offices in France, Louis Cruise Lines relies on its own affiliate, CroisiFrance, to book its French passengers.

And as well as both Costa and MSC having introduced newbuildings to the market from Genoa/Savona and Marseilles, Louis is almost doubling its own capacity with one ship by replacing the 756 lower-berth Coral with the 1,460-berth Louis Majesty on December 4.

CroisiEurope, Plein Cap, CPTM and Others

In addition to the 310,000 French ocean cruisers that booked in 2008, some 142,000 river cruisers significantly increase French numbers. Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope, with a fleet of 26 vessels on the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine and elsewhere, and the 200-berth coastal cruiser Belle de l'Adriatique cruising the Croatian Coast for affiliate CroisiMer, is now the largest river operator in Europe.
It is a sign of the infancy of the French market that CroisiEurope presently has a larger berth capacity than any other French cruise operator. Last month, it also dedicated a new brand, CroisiMusique, to operating music cruises.

Other operators active in France have included Nouvelles Frontières and Plein Cap Croisières, with their chartered 240-berth Adriana sailing from Nice as well as in the Black Sea, and from Brest and Norway in 2010. And in Tahiti, Compagnie Polynésienne de Transport Maritime's Aranui 3 carries 180 passengers on supply voyages to the Marquesas and Tuamotu Islands.

Also Tahiti-based, the Paul Gauguin began life as a French ship, but was sold to in 2006 to Boston owners. This summer, after operating for many years under a marketing agreement with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, the Bahamian-registered Paul Gauguin has been taken over by French Polynesia-based Pacific Beachcomber, owners of four Intercontinental resorts in French Polynesia.

One interesting site in Marseilles today is the laid up Pullmantur cruise ship Atlantic Star, which had been built in 1984 as the Fairsky, only a few miles away in Toulon. Whether the Atlantic Star will at some point be repowered with diesel engines and placed back into service is an open question, but here is a French-built ship laid up in a French port where just a few years before much of the Renaissance fleet had been laid up as well.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if the new Croisières de France, the revived Croisières Paquet and Compagnie du Ponant will provide the seedlings from which will grow strong French cruise brands, as Aida and now TUI Cruises have developed in Germany, and Pullmantur and in Iberocruceros Spain.
In these times, much of this success will probably depend on how the big boys with many resources, particularly Carnival and Royal Caribbean, treat the very particular French market.

(Source: By Mark Tré -

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