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The Big Get Even Bigger

Cruise Views

January 14, 1996|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH

While 1995 threatened to rock the boat for the hitherto smooth-sailing cruise industry, 1996 may be even more dramatic. In the words of the late Al Jolson, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

Big new ships will get even bigger, giant cruise lines are looking to expand, and old ships may get their orders to head away from U.S. ports to countries where they won't have to upgrade to meet the stringent new safety regulations taking effect in 1997.

What's in it for cruise passengers? Look for continuing deep discounts, such as Holland America's 50%-off-published-prices offering on seven-day Caribbean cruises in March and April and 25% off in Alaska, the latter for cruises booked before Feb. 23.

Expect sterner vigilance from travel agents, many of whom were caught short by last October's sudden bankruptcy of Regency Cruises. And don't be surprised if an agent suggests you pay for your cruise by credit card instead of check, thus allowing you a 60-day period to dispute billing charges for services not delivered.

But even as doom-and-gloomers still natter about the glut of new ships coming on line in a sluggish cruise market, it becomes increasingly clear that those lines that committed to a long-term shipbuilding program several years ago--Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruise and Princess Cruises--are likely to dominate the cruise industry for the next decade.

Princess' new 77,000-ton Sun Princess, introduced in December and for the moment the world's largest cruise ship, will relinquish that title to the 101,000-ton Carnival Destiny when it debuts Nov. 10. And Carnival's Destiny is likely to be bumped into second place by Princess' 104,000-ton Grand Princess when it arrives in 1998.

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean, which pioneered the big is better concept with its Sovereign of the Seas, Majesty of the Seas and Monarch of the Seas, each more than 73,000 tons, is concentrating on quantity. The six new Project Vision vessels that began last year with the 69,130-ton Legend of the Seas will all be in service by spring, 1998, bringing the line's total number of ships to 14. And an all-new series of ships dubbed Project Eagle, which will carry from 2,400 to 2,800 passengers each, is in the planning stage.

Carnival, the world's largest cruise line, which will have a fleet of 11 ships at the end of 1996, has made "a conscious decision to extend our leadership role to the southern Caribbean," says president Bob Dickinson. The line will have three ships with nearly 5,000 beds sailing from San Juan in the winter of 1996-'97.

Some cruise lines, looking toward a worldwide rather than a North American cruise market, are putting out feelers toward established European companies to create more joint ventures; while other lines are hurrying to divest themselves of vessels built before 1974 because of the 1997 Safety of Life at Sea restrictions.

Other joint ventures or possible mergers include.

* A possible coalition of Royal Caribbean Cruise and Costa Cruises, which would give RCCL a strong entry into the summer Mediterranean cruise market while helping Costa hold on to its modest share of the winter Caribbean market.

* The possibility of a sale of San Francisco-based Royal Cruise Line, another division of the parent company NCL (formerly Kloster Cruise) to outside financial interests. NCL previously announced the sale of Royal Cruise's Royal Odyssey and Star Odyssey with an arrangement to charter them back through April.

* Two family-owned Greek companies, the Keusseoglou family's Sun Line and the Potomianos family's Epirotiki, have announced that they will combine their markets to jointly launch Royal Olympic Cruises in the Mediterranean in March with a summer-long series of Greek Islands sailings. The line would be divided into two groups of ships, the more formal and traditional blue ships--Stella Solaris, Stella Oceanis and Odysseus--and the more casual white ships--Olympic, Triton and Orpheus.

Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears twice monthly.

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