A transport policy expert who has worked in leadership roles at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for over a decade, including serving as Assistant Director for EU Affairs, Marie-Caroline Laurent is the newly appointed director general for CLIA in Europe during a tumultuous period for travel and tourism. Abi Millar speaks to the travel industry veteran about the decision to move into the sector, the major challenges facing European operators, and Laurent’s aims and priorities in the coming year.
The prevailing narrative around the cruise industry is so often a story of despair. We have heard many times how the pandemic has affected the sector – the stories of devastating financial losses, Covid outbreaks onboard ships, and empty ‘ghost’ ships marooned in the English Channel.
Even prior to the pandemic, negative incidents were typically the ones to make headlines. And with climate change becoming harder and harder to ignore, the cruise sector is frequently positioned as one of the bad guys in a much bigger story.
In short, the things that make the cruise sector so attractive – the sightseeing, the adventure, the onboard experiences – are sometimes in danger of being occluded by a relentless stream of bad news. That’s why Marie-Caroline Laurent, the new director general for the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) in Europe, wants to help the industry tell its story on its own terms.
“There are endless untold tales of people who work for the industry or whose livelihoods are supported by it,” she says. “There are stories of collaborations with the great shipyards of Europe to build these magnificent, future-proofed cruise ships, and of our partnerships with cruise destinations to support responsible, sustainable tourism. There is huge potential for the future as industry innovations are emerging every day.”
Laurent, a transport policy expert who assumed the role on November 15th, comes to CLIA from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It is undoubtedly a tumultuous time for travel and tourism, whether you’re talking about air travel or maritime. That said, predictions do look brighter for the year ahead, and as the pandemic starts to recede, the whole industry should see some recovery.
“I’m delighted to stay within the transport and tourism industry,” says Laurent. “At the same time, after 20 years in aviation, I’m very excited to be joining the cruise sector, and hopefully bring some of my learnings to my new role.”
Laurent started her career as an advisor in the French ministry of foreign affairs, before moving on to a range of policy roles. She served as a parliamentary advisor to the European parliament, and as senior policy officer at the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, eventually joining IATA in 2011.
“My entire career so far has been in the arena of international and European politics,” she says. “I have had the good fortune to have studied in France, Austria, Hungary, and Belgium, which inspired my passion for working in a multinational, multicultural environment.”
Laurent’s passion for transport was apparent very early on. She had always been interested in the interplay between the public and private sector, and joined the Association of European Airlines at a time when the aviation industry was introducing its ban on liquids in cabin aircraft. One of her first tasks was to work with governments to find the right level of restrictions: how could passenger safety be balanced against an acceptable travel experience?
This challenge set the tone for her time at IATA, where she served as assistant director for EU Affairs. So often, it was necessary to apply operational measures – clamping down on anything that could jeopardise safety or sustainability – but in a way that didn’t compromise the passenger experience. This balancing act will surely resonate with anyone who works in the cruise sector.
“Transport is highly regulated as it touches everyone’s lives,” says Laurent. “Whether we travel for necessity or leisure, the quality of the experience matters to us all. Infrastructure, safety, and customer service are all important to the travelling public and to the communities supporting transport infrastructures and operations.”
Moving into the cruise industry, then, was a natural transition for Laurent. Both industries are highly regulated, requiring an engagement with governments at an international, national and local level. Both industries have had a less than rosy time during the pandemic. And both industries have made firm commitments towards decarbonising in recent years.
“Since taking up my role, I have been impressed by the scale of efforts already underway to introduce more sustainable practices,” says Laurent. “Cruise operators are leading the way to meet the maritime decarbonisation challenge through support for research and development of new technologies.”
In her new position at CLIA, she will be looking to showcase cruising as a sustainable form of tourism, casting off the dirty, polluting image that still dogs the sector today. As she points out, many CLIA members have invested heavily in new technologies and emission reduction projects, and have made significant progress in their sustainability efforts even since 2020.
“It is well understood that safety is an operational imperative for cruise. What may be less well known is the industry’s commitment to sustainability,” she says. “Our vision is net carbon neutral cruising by 2050 and our members are driving innovation to achieve this ambition. In Europe, our industry’s ability, and our commitment to investing in green maritime technology, will be integral to government and societal aspirations for the continent to become carbon neutral during this timeframe.”
For instance, ships now routinely feature advanced wastewater treatment systems and water management systems, and sophisticated recycling schemes. This means operators can repurpose 100% of the waste generated on board – removing it, reusing it, recycling it, and converting it to energy.
On top of that, CLIA is committed to the use of shoreside electricity, which allows engines to be switched off when in port. Two thirds of CLIA’s fleet will be equipped within the next five years.
“Cruise ships have also invested substantially in more sustainable propulsion solutions,” says Laurent. “By 2027, 26 new ships will be powered by LNG, representing 52% of new capacity. As well as the immediate benefit of reduced emissions, LNG-ready ships pave the way for future renewable fuels.”
Of course, sustainable tourism also means caring about the destinations you visit. Cruise activities, remarks Laurent, can bring positive impact to shoreside economies, especially the many remote and coastal communities that rely on cruise tourism across Europe. The goal is to help these communities thrive, while preserving their heritage and culture for future generations.
“CLIA and its members are engaging with local authorities and communities to promote a sustainable management of the destinations,” she says. “For example, CLIA’s partnership with the city of Dubrovnik is focused on collaboration and innovative solutions to help manage tourism flows.”
So as Laurent gets established in her new role, what does she see as her key priorities? She remarks that, while driving green growth is part of the picture, she also wants to help the industry recover from what has been the most challenging time in its history.
“Full resumption of cruise is the foremost priority for the coming year. We continue to make solid progress in the right direction, and we anticipate being almost back to full capacity by August 2022,” she says.
That said, we are all still living with a measure of uncertainty that makes some people loath to plan vacations. Laurent thinks we need clear, safe and consistent rules to help support traveller confidence. What’s more, these rules need to be agreed through coordination between national governments.
“While cruise operators are extremely agile in their ability to adapt, for example changing itineraries based on local circumstances, the changing travel restrictions are challenging for the entire travel sector,” she says. “We have added our voice to the wider travel and tourism sector urging governments to ensure a clear and harmonised process at European level.”
There can be no doubt that this is a challenging time for the sector in general – and for someone lacking Laurent’s experience, it would probably be a daunting time to begin a role at CLIA. However, she is bursting with enthusiasm for the cruise industry and its potential: the people who make it tick, the technologies driving it forward, and all the new, more positive stories she hopes to tell.
“People who work in travel are passionate and driven, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the people across the cruise community, whether onboard or onshore, who all contribute to putting on such incredible, unique travel experiences,” she says.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of World Cruise Industry Review