French city rides high on surge in sea and air travel

Saint Nazaire builds 40 percent of the world's cruise ships. New orders for a giant Airbus passenger jet will give city another lift.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

This Atlantic port city is a modern day boomtown, profiting handsomely from the return of an industry once thought to belong to another era - building ocean liners.

At the Chantiers Navales de l'Atlantique here, shipyard workers scurry like white-helmeted bees on no fewer than five ships in various stages of construction. Among the liners is the monumental blue and white Infinity, whose 965-foot length and capacity for 3,450 passengers and crew makes it the largest liner ever built, surpassing even the legendary France, re-baptized Norway, which was constructed here in the early 1960s.

"This is a city that always believed in industry as the principal motor of economic development," says Saint Nazaire Mayor Joel Batteux. "I am confident in the future of our industrial culture."

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Such optimism is well-founded. Last March Cunard Lines signed a letter of intent here to build the Queen Mary 2, a 1,130-foot giant (just 117 feet less than the Empire State Building). It will have five swimming pools, and carry 2,800 passengers on regular runs between Europe and the United States. In addition, Chantiers Navales de l'Atlantique, the world's largest builder of oceangoing cruise ships, has received firm orders for another 10 cruise ships with options on two others, worth $4.3 billion.

Saint Nazaire, with about 40 percent of the world's total production of cruise ships, is one of the major beneficiaries - along with the Italians and the Finns - of the spectacular expansion of the cruise market in recent years, the result of strong economic growth, an increase in leisure travel, and innovations such as thematic voyages and a wide range of prices that are attracting a younger clientele.

The average age of Americans who go on cruise vacations is now 45, compared with 60 just a decade ago. Eight million Americans are expected to take a cruise vacation this year compared with just 2 million Europeans. But the European market has recorded double-digit growth in passengers for the last three years despite the war in Kosovo, which hurt Mediterranean cruises, according to Barry Rogliano Salles, a Paris-based brokerage firm that specializes in the maritime industry.

"It's a type of vacation that responds well to our era," says Jean-Noel d'Acremont, a former president of Chantiers Navales de l'Atlantique. "People are completely protected on a cruise ship, they can travel the world without having to change hotels."

The revival of shipbuilding represents a new lease on life for this city of 68,000 people, which had become a virtual ghost town during the 1980s when its two traditional pillars, shipbuilding and aerospace, were in crisis. Smart boutiques and cafes now line its renovated main street, Place de la Republique.

Polish, Italian, Czech, and other languages can be heard in the shops, spoken by the foreign workers.

Unemployment has fallen below 11 percent, an incredible 27.4 percent decline during the past year alone. In addition, plans to build a giant 700-seat plane are expected to increase employment at the two Airbus factories here that build frames for airplanes.

"When I arrived here five years ago it was the opposite," says Armel Leboterf, director of the National Employment Agency. Indeed, Mr. Leboterf's main problem today is finding qualified workers.

"I don't regret coming here," says Remi Dugas, a mechanic. Mr. Dugas says he left a troubled Paris suburb in February, and has worked at a variety of temporary jobs and is convinced that something permanent will turn up.

Unlike many European cities, Saint Nazaire was founded just a century ago as a port for the nearby city of Nantes. Its two major activities have traditionally been shipbuilding and aerospace, the latter first developed during World War I when American troops landed in the city and introduced the hydroplane.

"Saint Nazaire is a city that has no history and no tradition, created from scratch for economic reasons," says Jean-Francois Guitton, director of the Saint Nazaire Development Council. "We used to say that Saint Nazaire is the most American city in France."

What sets this port city apart are the resources. "Saint Nazaire's advantage is that it has developed around the shipyard a wide network of subcontractors that bring added know-how to the shipbuilder, which reduces costs and increases productivity," says Jean-Bernard Raoust, president of Barry Rogliano Salles. But he added that while Saint Nazaire builds more ships, the Italians dominate the cruise market in terms of passenger cabins because they construct the biggest liners, something that is expected to change once work begins on the Queen Mary 2.

"The entire range of modern technology comes together in these ships," says d'Acremont, the former Chantiers Navales de l'Atlantique president. "The Japanese have never succeeded in this market because the complexity of the projects requires a quick decisionmaking process."

Mr. d'Acremont estimates that the good times will continue for another decade or so, but he says the industry will eventually have to adapt once more if it hopes to survive. Having lived through booms and busts in the past, city and regional leaders are trying to diversify the economy. In addition to cruise ships, Chantiers Navales de l'Atlantique is building a new generation of high-speed ferry boats and small military craft.

The city is also trying to profit from the boom in industrial tourism. A massive, bunkerlike submarine base built by the Germans during World War II has been converted into a museum and shopping area, complete with fancy boutiques, cafes, a visit to a retired submarine, and a tour re-creating a transatlantic crossing. "People here are very proud to see the ships in the basin," says Guitton of the Saint Nazaire Development Council. "When one of the liners leaves the port, thousands line the docks to see it off."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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