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Cruise industry convention gives glimpse into vacations of the future

MIAMI BEACH

When your cruise ship pulls away from some exotic port, have you ever wished for just a few more hours? Even a second day to explore the art of Rome, the beaches of Aruba or the glaciers of Alaska?

Or have you hoped for entertainment more sophisticated than the magic act in the Royal Grand Queen's Court Theatre? Perhaps an intimate concert with John Legend or some hip-hop moves from Usher?

While such amenities have been available for luxury cruisers for a time, the massive mass market ships soon may be offering these types of choices on the daily schedule. For an up charge, of course. These developing ideas and the state of worldwide cruising in general were among the topics discussed at the Cruise Shipping Miami conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center earlier this month.

Rock star CEOs from the world's biggest lines proclaimed their industry as robust as ever despite the Costa Concordia disaster in January and subsequent troubles, including several norovirus outbreaks and the robbery of cruisers on a shore excursion outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The Concordia grounding caused bookings to fall immediately, but the numbers are back, said William Gibbons, director of the Passenger Shipping Association in London.

For consumers, this year's troubles may mean a continuation of two-for-one deals, free airfare and on-board credit. The cruise lines were beginning to eliminate those at the end of last year, anticipating a healthier economy and more people back at work.

The annual conference was largely a trade show, with everyone who wanted to sell anything to the cruise lines staffing booths in the large exhibition hall. However, a number of sessions led by the executives of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, Cunard, Regent Seven Seas, MSC and Norwegian, among others, provided a glimpse of the future of cruising for consumers.

Here are some snapshots.

New destinations

To attract repeat cruisers and lure first-timers, itineraries need to grow, they said. There are some 300 cruise ships in the world, and it's becoming more difficult to differentiate between them, especially the ships carrying 4,000 or more passengers. Itineraries are a way to do that. Places that destination developers are excited about include:

• The coast of west and central Africa, spread across 20 countries from Mauritania to Namibia. Luis de Carvalho, CEO of Consult DC, a Danish port and development destination firm, called this region "the last cruise frontier." Some port renovations could pave the way for larger ships to explore the natural and cultural riches there, but there are challenges, among them environmental, infrastructure and security, he said.

• The northeast coast of South America, plus the Amazon River across the continent to the Atlantic Ocean.

• The multitude of islands of Indonesia, which several speakers noted are as beautiful as anything in the Caribbean. Sarina Bratton, founder of Orion Expedition Cruises, said that more extensive mapping of that area needs to be done for the region to truly open up to passenger ships.

• Asia, from China to India. The Asian market has cruise executives excited about the potential growth in business because of the rapidly growing middle class there, especially in China, Japan and India. The increase of cruisers there could provide new destinations for American cruisers.

• Madagascar, the island off the southeastern coast of Africa, has the world's most diverse flora and fauna, said Nigel Lingard, a longtime cruise industry analyst and marketer.

One of the issues hampering destination development is the trend toward the behemoth cruise ships, billed as floating resorts with their multitude of restaurants, shops, sports facilities and entertainment venues. New destinations, Lingard said, traditionally have been forged by small ship exploration, and there are fewer and fewer of those.

Shiny ships

The pace of new ships will slow to just seven major vessels in 2013-15, and that's because orders dropped off when the economy crashed in 2008. From 2010 through the end of this year, 21 new ships will be sailing the seas, the orders for those vessels coming before the fall.

The newest ship in the Disney fleet, the Fantasy, launches in a week, and still to come this spring are the Costa Fascinosa, the Carnival Breeze and the MSC Divina. Celebrity debuts the Reflection this fall.

Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan unveiled innovative dining facilities for the Breakaway, a 4,000-passenger ship to set sail in April 2013. As new ships increasingly have embraced the inside spaces, the Breakaway turns that trend around to give diners a better view of the sea, Sheehan said.

The Waterfront and 678 Ocean Place span three decks of the ship with 17 restaurants and 12 bars and lounges that wrap around in an oceanfront boardwalk. There are shops there, too. Diners may be seated, cafe-style, on the deck. Protection from the wind and chilly weather will be provided, Sheehan said. Indoor seating will also be available.

The Breakaway will feature the first all-seafood restaurant on a Norwegian ship. Passengers can belly up to the raw bar and sushi bar at Ocean Blu.

Sheehan showed renderings of the new ship with a stark white hull. The no-doubt colorful design by 1960s pop artist Peter Max will be unveiled closer to the launch.

International experience

Cruisers leaving from U.S. ports will find mostly Americans onboard, with a healthy dose of Brits and Germans. As American cruisers venture to other countries, beginning trips from European or Asian ports, the demographics of passengers change.

Itineraries out of Barcelona will have more people from the United Kingdom and Spain. Asian ports will attract more Australians, and Brazilians, cruising's newest demographic superstars, embark from South American ports.

The globalization of the passenger list is a good thing for cruisers looking for a more international experience. These passengers like sharing a dinner table with people from other countries. The cruise lines welcome the diversity, too, mostly because it means more people in the world are cruising.

Diverse passengers do present challenges. For instance, Brazilian cruisers want to eat dinner at 11 p.m. and then hit the clubs. Americans prefer to eat early and retire about the time the Brazilians are eating. Japanese passengers want more karaoke bars, and French cruisers, when they will cruise at all, want to speak French the whole time. Asians aren't so keen on the poolside experience, and it's difficult to get the Brits to come in from the sun.

"Staffing for all of these differences can be a challenge," said Pierfrancesco Vago, CEO of the Italian cruise line MSC.

Perhaps, but as cruising grows globally, passengers seeking a broader connection with people around the world will enjoy the experience even more.

The fuel challenge

The disabled Concordia off the coast of the Italian island Giglio may seem to be a reminder of the industry's biggest challenge right now, but it's the cost of fuel and impending environmental legislation that may affect the bottom line more.

In August, new regulations will require ships to burn cleaner, low-sulfur fuel within 200 nautical miles of the United States and Canada. Europe also is considering such changes. Several CEOs are meeting with congressional panels this month to discuss the impact on the industry, plus the availability of the fuel.

The cost of that legislative action, plus rising fuel costs in general, will be partially passed on to customers in either higher fares or reduced services. Fuel costs also affect airfares, discouraging cruisers from leaving from ports to which they can't drive.

In the short run, fuel costs may reduce the number of stops and lengthen port stays. This is one reason that Mediterranean cruises are so popular with the cruise lines. Cruisers can see variety in short distances, which use less fuel. From Barcelona east to the southwestern tip of Italy, there are a number of attractive ports that lead to Nice, France, and the Italian cities Florence, Pisa, Rome and Naples. On the east side of Italy is the Adriatic Sea and many more ports; farther east are the Greek islands and beyond that Turkey. In a 12-night cruise, passengers can see nine cities, including the embarkation port.

Another way to save fuel is to stay in a port overnight, which opens up different types of shore excursions. An overnight land package could include a stay at a B&B or a nightclub experience. This helps the cruise lines save fuel, plus offers cruisers more choices.

Larry Pimental, CEO of luxury line Azamara, talked of "bespoke" excursions, tailor-made to special interests, including culinary and shopping. Imagine a stop at an Italian olive grove for an oil tasting and a sunset dinner at an out-the-way Tuscan restaurant. For many cruisers, that beats lunch with a few thousand people near a very congested St. Peter's Square.

And an extra $150 for a Celine Dion or Cher concert in a small ship theater for a one-night-only performance? That could be coming, and the industry is starting to believe enough of us will pay the price, just like we do for specialty dining experiences.

"Years ago it was about thread counts, now it's about what counts," Pimental said. "Experience is what counts."

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

Cruise industry convention gives glimpse into vacations of the future 03/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 4:31am]

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