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Did you know that...?

September 25, 2013

François Belzile: Driving cruise sector development in Québec

François Belzile

As summer 2013 draws to a close, we take pleasure in presenting a passionate believer in Québec and the province's rightful place in international cruiseshipping circles. François Belzile is Director, International Cruises and Major Projects with Tourism Québec

  • Mr Belzile, how long have you been responsible for cruise development strategy in Québec? 

I have been with Tourism Québec for many years. In 2007, I seized an opportunity to formulate a development strategy for international cruiseshipping on the Saint Lawrence. Subsequently, I was commissioned to present the strategy to the provincial government, which in May 2008 announced implementation of the Strategy for the Sustainable Development and Promotion of International Cruiseshipping on the Saint Lawrence River (2008-2013). Granted a budget of $52.5 million, it was I who had the privilege of implementing the strategy that I had worked long and hard to develop.

Through this strategy, the government voiced support for communities which were located in remote areas of the province, and which had chosen to focus on tourism and international cruiseshipping as priority means of achieving economic diversity. 

The development of six new ports of call in remote regions to complement installations at Montréal, Trois-Rivières and Québec presented, and indeed still presents, a path forward ripe with the promise of creating and sustaining jobs in regions across the province. Our task was to equip these new ports of call with international calibre greeting and tourism facilities designed to benefit cruiseshippers, tourists, as well as the local and regional communities themselves. In short, funding earmarked for development and promotion aimed to provide for sustainable development in each of the communities in question.

  • What inspired you to accept this important undertaking?

It was, and remains to this day, a challenge of successfully piloting the transition from THEORY to REALITY. For what had begun as a mere project on paper had been awarded funding sufficient to ensure its successful implementation. 

At Tourism Québec, we endeavoured to take advantage of the favourable conditions prevailing in an ever growing international industry to assist and support communities committed and motivated to prioritizing development of this niche market. There was a unique opportunity to seize upon an influx of international currency to boost regional tourism in Québec, but not at any cost. Hence the sustainable development approach retained. 

A daunting but stimulating challenge, albeit not devoid of risk since it is impossible to exercise control over all the factors required to succeed. Such is the challenge which caught my eye and which continues to act as a powerful stimulus for me, personally, to this day. Then there are the collateral community benefits, often intangible, which I am discovering as I go and which I could never have imagined at the outset. For example, people in many communities point to a renewed sense of collective pride by reason of their successes. Others view the equipment and facilities put into place as tools for local youth, or instruments for better communicating the distinguishing characteristics of local culture.

The project also provided me with an opportunity to put the knowledge and experience acquired during many years of service with the Government of Québec to work for my fellow citizens. Biologist by profession and a native of the Lower Saint Lawrence, implementation of this strategy resonated with my personal values. From my attachment to the different regions and my relations with community leaders and citizens, I derive immense personal pleasure and satisfaction.

  • Tell us about your involvement with the ports of call and Cruise the Saint Lawrence.

I work closely with the ports of call and Cruise the Saint Lawrence. Over time, I have come to appreciate each of the regions and to understand their strengths, weaknesses and how they complement one another. I also believe that I have been successful in weaving strong bonds of trust with each of the different players.

My job is to I interact with port of call management, and to relay their needs and expectations to my organization and across government ranks. I assist and advise each to the best of my ability, and help them acquire the tools and means necessary for consolidating ongoing development.  

It gives me particularly great pleasure to underscore the success of our strategy to date through the close, sustained cooperation of all partners involved. For all continue to do their utmost to support initiatives agreed and undertaken. 

That said, I would be remiss were I not to mention the exemplary partnership with Cruise the Saint Lawrence, the organization commissioned to approach and solicit international cruise line operators. Results achieved in barely four years, a period during which cruiseshipper numbers and industry-related tourism expenditures have doubled, speak volumes about the efficacy of action initiated. 

Through Tourism Québec's coordinating role has emerged an enlightened vision of the needs, challenges and action required to optimize development for Destination Saint Lawrence. This vision, which includes action required by both government and industry stakeholders, provides all partners with a level of 'clairvoyance', if you will, which they appear to appreciate and which they deem vitally important for initiating action.  

  • How does our made-in-Québec product measure up internationally?

Greeting facilities are in place at all ports of call, as are port-specific tourism amenities. Training continues for stakeholders to ensure a quality, second-to-none greeting network which we like to view as our trademark. In short, everything is in place. 

And one thing is for certain. Destination Saint Lawrence and the nine ports of call possess all the attributes required to rival other international cruise destinations, be they major cities, wilderness stopovers or destinations known for the uniqueness of the experiences on offer.  Several of our ports of call already enjoy international recognition for embarkation/ disembarkation efficiency (Montréal), product quality (Québec) and incomparable cruiseshipper greeting (Saguenay). Furthermore, the Saint Lawrence is of undeniable historic value and enjoys an undisputable power of attraction given its association with the discovery of the New World by the explorers of yesteryear. Additionally, the Saint Lawrence Valley is home to an abundant diversity of plant and animal life, unique yet accessible countryscapes, and a warm, welcoming, especially endearing people who contribute handsomely to destination renown. 

It is important to underscore to cruise companies our achievements to date, to demonstrate to them that these accomplishments are only the first step, and to reiterate Québec and stakeholder commitment to ongoing development.

  • How do you view the future of cruiseshipping development in Québec in the medium and longer terms?

Make no mistake. Destination Saint Lawrence is young and ripe with potential. We are currently at what can only be termed the 'development' stage. At the time of initiating our strategy in 2008, we found ourselves at the 'emerging product' stage. The road travelled in just a short time combined with results achieved speak to the scope and relevance of the means deployed, stakeholder efficacy and the coherence of action taken. It is now a matter of delivering on our promises to clients. 

It is in this light, backed by the 2012-2020 Tourism Industry Development Plan, that the government has committed to assisting the ports of call through to March 2016. In so doing, government authorities seek to ensure that the ports of call will, by then, have all the tools necessary to take charge of and pursue efforts deployed to date. 

  • In your opinion, what are Québec’s most important attributes for cruiseshippers and cruise companies?

As I indicated earlier, Québecers are known for their warm, genuinely welcoming ways. What is more, contact with the local people at the various ports of call is regularly cited as one of the aspects most highly appreciated by visiting cruiseshippers. 

Port of call managers must therefore be certain to raise community awareness of the importance of being knowledgeable of local heritage and being poised to share this knowledge with visitors. For visitors are ever eager to learn about the local lifestyles of inhabitants and the specifics of the regions in which they live. Tales recounted about daily life in these regions often rank as the most intense, most memorable experiences for international visitors to our shores. All of these aspects play a determining role, help define the quality of the cruiseshipper experience, and spur visitor propensity to return for longer periods of time. 

On the cruise company side, our attentiveness to their needs and capacity to respond to them through a combination of investment and action taken, also represent attributes which help substantiate the credibility of Destination Saint Lawrence while demonstrating our ability to rise to the challenges with which we are presented.

We received a particularly telling testimonial from Stein Kruse, President of Holland America Line, who detailed several of the reasons which motivated the company to add ships during the summer season in Québec for the first time ever. He summed up destination attributes in the following words: "The legendary welcoming ways of Québecers, product authenticity and natural beauty of the region combine with community, port of call and government determination to develop an offering consistent with the needs of cruise line operators, and to build relationships of trust beneficial to both the destination and the cruise industry."  Readers will doubtless agree that we would be hard pressed to find more inspirational words as we focus on the way forward.

If you were asked to convince a customer to book a holiday cruise on the Saint Lawrence, how would you proceed?

I would invite them to follow in the footsteps of Jacques Cartier and other great explorers, to allow themselves to be moved, to recount to us their first-hand experiences with the immensity, the beauty and the wealth of places and peoples discovered as they travel into the Québec heartland. I would invite them to rub shoulders with Québecers, to experience the genuine warmth of a people posed and ready for the challenges of the 21st century, and rightfully proud of their history, unique culture and successes on the international stage. I would invite them to immerse themselves in our culinary traditions and to savour the world-renowned gastronomic pleasures of the Québec terroir.

These are doubtless convincing arguments certain to inspire individuals to choose the Saint Lawrence as their next cruise destination. Many thanks, Mr Belzile, for sharing with our readers your passion for Québec and cruiseshipping along our shores. 

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