The 21st Annual Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention convened recently in Miami. This is the largest annual gathering of cruise executives, port representatives, ship and shoreside suppliers, analysts and cruise reporters. After the speeches, panel discussions, massive trade show and many press conferences, there was no earth-shattering news, but there was lots of information that cruise consumers might want to hear. Here's a summary:
1. If bookings are booming, are price increases looming?
The main panel discussion, talking about "The State of the Industry," kicked off the conference with an enormous amount of optimism regarding growth in this year's cruise booking levels -- and in cruise fares. Bookings were at an all-time high last year, and that level should be exceeded this year, panelists said. At the same time, fares are going up. Add to this the increases during recent years in the types and levels of on-board charges, and it's obvious that cruises are going to cost more.
What does this mean for consumers? If you know you want to cruise at a specific time and on a specific ship, book now. Shop around if you must, but odds are that the cost will go up if you wait. Can you still find a discounted cruise? Yes, but they are fewer in number than in years past. And they may not cut their prices as deeply as in recent times. The main reason: Cruising is more popular than ever, and demand is reaching a point where it exceeds the supply of available cabins – at least for now. Thus, prices go up.
2. What destinations are hot this year?
The Europe cruise season is booking exceptionally well, according to cruise executives at the conference. While more ships than ever are being positioned in Europe for the summer, demand is so high this year that cabins are already getting scarce. Beyond the simple "rebound factor" of a great destination recovering from a bad stretch, there's also a new economic reality driving business onto the ships in Europe this year—i.e., on a cruise, where most of the expenses are prepaid in U.S. dollars, you're getting a much better deal versus a land vacation, where you'd have to take the gruesome hit of converting your costs to euros. Just a few years ago, you actually got more than one euro for a U.S. dollar. Now, a euro costs about $1.40. Yikes!
Another big trend this year is the increasing number of sailings from embarkation ports in the United States and Canada. At last count, it's up to 30 ports now. A lot of people who would rather drive than fly to start their trip, and these multiple port options are very appealing to them.
3. What's new on board?
When NCL debuts its latest large new ship, Norwegian Jewel, later this year, passengers will see a bungee-jumping trampoline on the pool deck. There will also be one of those gyroscope devices that are not for the faint of heart.
These are just a couple of the on-board innovations the cruise lines are coming up with. Passengers will find more dining options than ever, more varied types of on-board entertainment, more and more balconies seemingly wherever you look. There was a time when alternative dining restaurants were restricted to the luxury ships; the same held true for balconies. Not anymore. The Cruise Lines Industry Association has started using the word "mass-clusivity" to describe this gradual trickling-down of amenities. Today, guests on the large, contemporary and premium ships want -- and are getting -- some of those features formerly reserved for the very wealthy. This applies to destinations as well. You can get a cruise from many lines now to virtually anywhere in the world, no matter what price point you prefer, including Asia, South America and even Antarctica.
4. Are ships going to get even bigger in the future?
Yes, but so what? Royal Caribbean recently announced it has signed a contract for the third ship in its yet-to-be-introduced Freedom Class of vessels at 160,000 tons. Carnival Cruises is seriously in discussions for its Pinnacle Class ships, which should be bigger yet. While some passengers despise these giant vessels simply because of their large passenger numbers, the reality is that the lines take the number of people on board into account when they design room sizes and on-board traffic flows. It's amazing how well these large ships work out; they just do not seem as crowded as people expect them to be. And the amount of on-board options that come with the larger ships is amazing.
5. Where should be go next?
Most cruise lines have either just announced their 2006 itineraries or are getting ready to. My column next month will summarize where they're going, what new ports there will be and any other exciting changes. Stay tuned.
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