Last winter's cruise season in the French West Indies was cancelled due to low COVID vaccination rates.
‘It has been a hard blow for MSC which was using Pointe-à-Pitre and Fort-de-France as turnaround ports,’ said Pourbaix, explaining how the line made the decision to use Philipsburg (St. Maarten) for turnarounds instead. ‘We couldn't operate normally in the Caribbean and it deprived us of the important FWI market, which love cruises as it is the least expensive holiday choice for the locals.
‘We didn’t know if we would regain our pre-COVID booking levels there this year, so we increased our communication. The results were immediate. Since December, reservations have been excellent and we are catching up.’ Bookings are currently at 92% for MSC Seaside, which is set to sail the islands.
Over 180 departures from mainland France
In 2023, some 183 cruises are planned from four French ports. Cannes will chart 27 departures with MSC Seaview between late April and late October. Toulon, 24, with MSC Magnifica between early May and mid-October. There will be 120 departures this year from Marseille, mostly from MSC World Europa, MSC Seashore, MSC Grandiosa, MSC Lirica and MSC Orchestra. As for Le Havre, 12 departures are scheduled with MSC Virtuosa between January and early April, plus 11 with MSC Euribia from late October to late December.
New Istanbul stay & cruise option
After Venice, Rome, Hamburg, Athens, Miami, Cape Canaveral and New York, there will be a pre-cruise stay offered in Istanbul, which includes transfers, hotel and flights, with some departures from France. ‘We have an agreement with Turkish Airlines for direct flights from Paris, Lyon and Nice, packaged with two-night stays at 4- or 5-star hotels,’ noted Pourbaix.
MSC Splendida, ‘with the option of an MSC Yacht Club stay, much appreciated by French clients, and MSC Poesia will offer ‘attractive’ itineraries with Istanbul used for turnarounds.
For MSC Splendida, a nine-night itinerary is planned May 5 to October 5. MSC Poesia will chart 11-night cruises from September 30 until the end of the year.
Aiming for a record
The line experienced ‘great results’ in 2022, according to Pourbaix, but a number of bookings came in last-minute including up to a month before departure. ‘This year, we see a return to normal,’ he asserted.
‘We didn’t make important discounts [but] our early booking Primo rate worked very well for the travel agencies. We also experienced a lot of first-time cruisers.’
It’s an important outcome for MSC Cruises, which welcomed four new ships in 2022. ‘Back to normal won’t be enough,’ said Pourbaix. ‘For us, growth is mandatory and we have to wake up the French market: Our 2023 challenge is to break the yearly record for the most passengers ever reached by a cruise company in France.'