Lefebvre sees escalating port charges as one of the three most crucial current obstacles to more cruise growth in Europe, the other two factors being visa restrictions for non-European passengers and the implications of the imminent deadlines for using the more expensive low sulphur fuel in emission control areas.
On the subject of port charges, he says: “There is no doubt that the current economic downturn in Europe has prompted some ports to raise charges or add new ones. They are simply trying to milk the cruise cow, but there comes a time when this particular cow has to move elsewhere to protect its own margins. Ships have already been switched from ports because of too-high charges and they will not be the last to do so.”
Rising costs at the port of Venice are of particular concern to the cruise lines, he says. “We have a situation in Venice where we are trying to establish what they are going to do and what will be the benefits and – most importantly – the costs for the cruise industry. We can only tell them what our reaction will be – and it may be that we just move the ships away.
“If they think that Venice is indispensable to the cruise lines, maybe they are right and the lines will not pull out altogether but it does not mean that they won’t lose half of the ships. Some lines could opt to call at nearby ports where there are lower charges and maybe the chance to make more revenue from shore excursions as passengers do not need a city tour when the ship docks in the heart of Venice.”
European visa rules are another area of concern for Lefebvre. Although he says he is happy that the European Commission has indicated that changes to Schengen visa rules and procedures are likely to be implemented by 2015, he observes: “What everyone wants is for the rules about when you can apply for a visa to change, as we need people to be able to secure one much further in advance than the current three-month limit as so many still book cruises much earlier than other vacations. Equally, we want people to be able to get multiple entry visas much closer to departure than the current two-week cut-off so as to tie in with late cruise bookings. In fact, the current system is so complicated that we need the whole process to be speeded up, with fewer requirements and at a lower cost to the traveller.”
As he points out, research has suggested that half a million Chinese plan to come to Europe by 2017 and cruising wants to make sure it gets its share of these high-spending tourists.
Fuel is the third thorny item on Lefebvre’s CLIA agenda. Regarding low-sulphur fuel, he says that the industry is seeing some flexibility on alternative or delayed compliance options from the US Environmental Protection Agency and it is looking for signs of the same from the EC.
“There needs to be some understanding of what is happening out there, otherwise they will just be imposing operating conditions that simply cannot be fulfilled.
“If low-sulphur fuel supply does not increase to meet the new demand, then its cost will skyrocket and the EC has to allow us the flexibility to put in systems to avoid having to pay for excessively expensive fuel, even if this means installing scrubbers, which are also expensive.
“It is encouraging to see that the UK government is very active in supporting the shipping industry in lobbying for this kind of flexibility. If that support grows, maybe something can change.”
He believes that the recent CLIA globalisation will pay off for the sector. “We started by trying to be coordinated as independent bodies – CLIA, the UK Passenger Shipping Association, the European Cruise Council – but it was very complicated and although we were all working closely together to try to make it work, it remained a cumbersome process.
“It needed to change and it was clear that globalisation was inevitable. It would have happened anyway but the post-Concordia situation made it more urgent because there was a lot of focus on the industry and we needed to respond with a single, common voice. As well as linking the existing associations, we needed to create new associations in important markets like Germany, Italy and Spain.”
Changes to regional responsibilities are an inevitable part of this process, explains Lefebvre. “The cruise industry has grown so much that it needs its own presence which is why – in changing from PSA to CLIA UK & Ireland – that association had to shed its responsibilities for the ferry sector. CLIA Global also releases greater resources for those fledgling associations in Brazil and Asia.
“To make an allocation of funds in a way which met everyone’s needs, the CLIA globalisation was a rational move. By doing things globally, you can also optimise on skills and talents.”
Harmonisation of practices within various aspects of the industry follows naturally from this, he says. “Obviously, you have to be compatible with local legislation where you operate ships but, when we make our own rules and laws, that is necessarily global as you can’t have one level of safety for North America and a different one for Europe.
“It is the same with travel agency training. You need firstly to implement the rules of the particular state and to follow the requirements of its local cruise sector. But you also need to have a baseline of training that means agents meet a global set of standards.”
This article appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2013 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.