Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

Corsica – Mainland France – the great upheaval

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Thursday, March 21st 2013 à 12:15 | Read 895 times

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While the summer campaign is being prepared, 2013 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for ferry connections between France and its largest metropolitan island, Corsica. Rules governing routes for the three competitors (SNCM, La Méridionale and Corsica Ferries) will change on 1st January 2014. Uncertainty reigns.

The Napoleon Bonaparte cruises in Marseille few months before the accident (photo F.Dubessy)
The Napoleon Bonaparte cruises in Marseille few months before the accident (photo F.Dubessy)

This is the last summer before new rules on Public Services Outsourcing come into effect on 1st January 2014 and shipping companies are rattling their sabres. The law on territorial continuity whose principle dates from 1976 and was justified to help open up Corsica, offers a special scheme for maritime services between the French mainland and Corsica, the Island of Beauty.

A long-time monopoly, the SNCM (today a 66% subsidiary of Veolia Transdev, 25% State and 9% employees) and the Compagnie Maritime de Navigation (now La Méridionale) took on this public service role with losses justified by the obligation to supply capacity for the year despite strong seasonal variations.

When Corsica Ferries entered the game in 1996 offering Bastia-Nice, this small economy rejoiced. The yellow Italian-Corsican boats then positioned themselves to service Toulon. Not affected by territorial continuity, the two mainland ports nevertheless benefit from passenger subsidies (Corsican residents, young people, families and older people make up 2/3 of the total traffic) created in 2002. They are therefore competing fiercely for Marseille, the traditional preserve of
SNCM and La Méridionale. Especially as a succession of social conflicts will divert customers to the underdog.

MobyLines a quick turn then off it goes

Mobylines had to stand down (photo N.B.C.)
Mobylines had to stand down (photo N.B.C.)

So, in 2004 SNCM loses its title of number one port for passengers to Corsica to Corsica Ferries which is still Corsica’s main ship owner. The Corsican-Italians are stepping on the old lady’s toes, forcing her to give them a piece of the action of up to 65%.

At the same time, the arrival of this new player boosts passenger traffic, which increased 46% between 2001 and 2010 according to the Transport Office of Corsica (OTC).

In April 2010, passenger subsidies sharpen the appetite for a fourth opportunist, MobyLines. But without public money, the Sardinian company quickly finds itself in trouble. From February 2011 its Toulon/Bastia route will be discontinued.
In 2013, the sworn enemies therefore find themselves alone on the high seas for a summer that promises to be a hot one. All the more since the current concessionaries to provide Maritime Public Services between the ports of Corsica and Marseille, SNCM and La Méridionale, seem in bad shape compared to Corsica Ferries to win the new tender.

An offer focused on the summer

Corsica Ferries : outsider yesterday, leader today (photo F.Dubessy)
Corsica Ferries : outsider yesterday, leader today (photo F.Dubessy)

By combining two paradoxical concepts, public services for “mainland Corsicans’ of whom there are many in the South of France, and fierce competition to attract the increasing number of tourists but to a market limited by its hotel capacity, this service rests on various issues well beyond a simple sea crossing on the Mediterranean.

First of all, for journeys from the French mainland to Corsica sea crossings by boat (3.18 million passengers up 2.3%) are still largely the top means of transport used to reach the Island of Beauty. Flying only attracts 2.7 million passengers.

Then, the real maritime market for France’s biggest metropolitan Island focuses on only a handful of summer months. Good weather brings in revenue for both companies and the local economy. And the rest of the year widens the deficit. As shown in the study by Marc Simeoni Consulting completed in 2013, “the share of maritime tourist traffic goes from 50% in December to 95% in August”.

According to the OTC, the week from 8th to 15th August gives a balance in excess of 400,000 passengers. The summer period (May to September) represents 73% of annual traffic. So, SNCM carried 734,000 passengers during the summer of 2012. Corsica Ferries carried 1.43 million.
July and August alone are responsible for half the annual traffic. 70% of which are French tourists. Ship owners are therefore adapting and adjusting the service they offer by focusing on car ferries.

Secondary ports provide the only increases

The traffics have increased only in the corsica's secondary ports (photo F.Dubessy)
The traffics have increased only in the corsica's secondary ports (photo F.Dubessy)

Since Public Services Outsourcing in 2007, there has been little change in the fleet until the arrival of Jean Nicoli (Easter 2009) replacing the Monte Cinto at SNCM and Piana in January 2012 (replacing the Scandola) at La Méridionale. This summer, twenty ships from all three companies will make the crossing. The stakes are high. So much so that Corsica Ferries has decided, for the first time, to put in place its entire Mega Express fleet, and offer sixteen crossings per day in high season. “To optimise the number of round-trips and thus improve our services compared to 2012”, says the company’s CEO, Pierre Mattei.

This seasonality therefore springs up even in the economy of the Island of Beauty, whose secondary ports are deserted outside the summer months. Without Public Services Outsourcing, would they be served in the future?

With the €35 million drop in compensation from 2014 (passenger subsidies will disappear on 31st December 2013), the service could be disrupted, even though the route has been subsidised since the 1830s!

All this when in 2012 traffic increases are only to be found exclusively in these secondary ports. Bastia (down 5% for 2012) and Ajaccio (down 2%) are declining. Propriano (up 18%), Calvi (up 17%), Porto Vecchio (up 8%), L’Île Rousse (up 5%) and Bonifacio (up 4%) are experiencing strong growth.
Finally, the social aspect remains crucial. Without Public Services Outsourcing, the very survival of SNCM is at stake. Almost all of the company’s traffic is on the Marseille/Corsica route, the only beneficiary of this Public Services Outsourcing.


Its CEO Marc Dufour, pointed this out in January 2013. Only Public Services Outsourcing will enable the company to regain market share and also renew its fleet.

SNCM loses its flagship before the major battle

Some malicious individuals may see it as a symbol! The flagship of the SNCM (Société Nationale Maritime Corse-Méditerranée) fleet is out of service for the important summer season, crucial to the company’s future. All due to a storm on the 28th October 2012 that smashed the Napoléon Bonaparte against the wharf after breaking its moorings.

With discussions on the new call for tenders for services between Corsica and the mainland in full swing, the impact continues to be felt. After several months of penance, the stern resting on the bottom, the ship is now champing at the bit whilst laid up in dry dock 8 of the port of Marseilles, scarred by two 6m2 breaches at the junction of two compartments where the water rushed in. The repercussions remain significant. “The ship’s entire electrics have to be redone. The flood water reached the upper decks” commented Erik Lacoste, director of French company’s fleet.

This nine-month downtime, when the ship (in operation since 1996) was due to leave the fleet in 2014, has forced SNCM to quickly find a replacement with Grandi Navi Veloci’s Excelsior, which in fact entered service under the French flag in February. Delivered in 1999 by Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard at Sestri Ponente in Genoa, the Excelsior was serving the route between Civitavecchia and Palermo. It will now be in SNCM colours until September 2014. At 202.2m long and 28m wide, the car ferry stands up well to its predecessor which is three years older and measures 172m long and 30.4m wide. This said, the Excelsior can only carry 2,253 passengers compared to 2,462 passengers for the Napoléon Bonaparte.


A market of three million passengers per year

In 2012, the ferry services between Corsica and mainland France registered 3.1 million passengers (4.38 million when ferry services linking with Italy are added) compared with 2.7 million passengers travelling by air between the two.
It should be noted that a ferry operator, Moby Lines, which was present on the route between Bastia and Toulon, no longer plays a part in services between Corsica and the mainland, ceasing its service in February 2011. The Sardinian company operated the service for less than a year (140,000 passengers carried in 2010 and 4,000 in 2011).
The two big competitors, Corsica Ferries and SNCM (along with La Méridionale – formerly CMN) once again shared the cake between themselves in 2012.

According to figures provided by the companies, in 2012 SNCM carried 1.09 million passengers, La Méridionale 244,000 and Corsica Ferries 1.83 million. With a total of 3.1 million passengers, ferry services between Corsica and mainland France experienced a 2.3% growth in passenger numbers in relation to 2011.

Despite losing close to 83,000 passengers in one year (-5.6% on the service between Toulon and Corsica and -2.1% on the service between Nice and Corsica), Corsica Ferries remains by far the leading ferry operator for the island’s Franco-French services, accounting for two thirds of the passengers carried on this axis. It is, however, losing market share (-6.5% between 2011 and 2012) in relation to its competitor, SNCM.

Toulon has confirmed its position as the number one port for ferry services between Corsica and the French mainland. Followed by Nice and then Marseille.



Opérations between Corsica and mainland France over summer 2013

Routes Companies Ships used
Marseille / Bastia SNCM and La Méridionale Pascal Paoli, Piana, Danielle Casanova, Excelsior, Paglia Orba, Jean Nicoli
Marseille/Porto Vecchio SNCM Paglia Orba, Jean Nicoli
Marseille/Île Rousse SNCM Monte d'Oro
Marseille/ Calvi SNCM Monte d'Oro
Marseille/Ajaccio SNCM and La Méridionale Excelsior, Danielle Casanova, Paglia Orba, Girolata
Marseille/Propriano La Méridionale and SNCM Kalliste*, Excelsior, Danielle Casanova
Toulon /Bastia Corsica Ferries et SNCM Mega Express, Mega Express II, Mega Express III, Mega Express IV, Mega Express V, Mega Smeralda, Corse, Méditerranée
Toulon/Île Rousse Corsica Ferries Mega Express, Mega Express II, Mega Express III, Mega Express IV, Mega Express V, Mega Smeralda,
Toulon/Ajaccio Corsica Ferries Mega Express, Mega Express II, Mega Express III, Mega Express IV, Mega Express V, Mega Smeralda,
Toulon/Propriano SNCM Excelsior, Danielle Casanova
Nice/Bastia Corsica Ferries and SNCM Mega Express, Mega Express II, Mega Express III, Mega Express IV, Mega Express V, Mega Smeralda, Corse, Méditerranée
Nice/Île Rousse SNCM and Corsica Ferries Mega Express, Mega Express II, Mega Express III, Mega Express IV, Mega Express V, Mega Smeralda, Monte d'Oro
Nice/Calvi Corsica Ferries and SNCM Mega Express, Mega Express II, Mega Express III, Mega Express IV, Mega Express V, Mega Smeralda, Monte d'Oro
Nice/Ajaccio Corsica Ferries and SNCM Mega Express, Mega Express II, Mega Express III, Mega Express IV, Mega Express V, Mega Smeralda, ,Corse

* Extending to Sardinia three times a week during summer.

(Chart sources : Shipping lines / Copyright

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Thursday, March 21st 2013 - 12:15 "The offer was disproportionate"


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