Alaska, river cruising top 2012 cruise trends

By Mitch Stacy

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This image from the mid-1990s provided by the Great American Steamboat Company shows the American Queen riverboat on the Mississippi River outside New Orleans. The ship last sailed the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in 2008 but resumes riverboat cruising in late April following a multi-million dollar refurbishment.

Great American Steamboat Company, AP Photos

MIAMI — Alaska is a hot destination again and river voyages are enjoying a boost in popularity this year as the cruise industry works on luring back potential first-time passengers put off by the Costa Concordia tragedy.

The Concordia accident, in which 32 people died when the ship ran aground off the Italian coast in January, has been an overarching story in the cruise world so far this year. The Costa line is owned by Carnival Corp., the largest cruise operator in the world, which was forced to cut its 2012 profit forecasts nearly in half after the accident. It's also churned up an industry-wide wave of despair.

"What's new is the impact of the Costa Concordia tragedy on absolutely every corner of cruising I can think of for the time being," said CruiseCritic.com editor-in-chief Carolyn Spencer Brown. "That's not something we certainly want to write about or cover or hear about — but the trend as a result of that is the emphasis on safety and security."

Cruise industry officials and travel agents say people who have cruised before and understand how safe it is won't be affected as much by Concordia as potential first-time passengers scared away by pictures of the hulking vessel lying on its side in the water. Still, that's likely to slow growth in a year in which the industry was expected to further recover from the recession amid the debut of innovative ships designed to snag first-timers and families.

"There's no magic bullet," said Christine Duffy, president of the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group that represents 26 major lines. "We have to make sure people have the right information, have access to data on our safety record ... and all the questions that have been raised as a result of the Concordia. That allows for the travel agents and our brands to do the marketing that they do and bring people on board their ships."

Here are some details on what's new in bookings, launchings and other cruise trends for the coming year:

BOOKING TRENDS: Even with the loss of potential first-time cruisers, around 17.2 million passengers are expected to take a cruise this year — up 5 percent from 2011, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. International business is up: Two years ago about a third of the passengers came from North America, now it's about 68 percent. There is definite room for growth, as the trade industry's surveys show that about only about 3 percent of people in the United States have ever been on a cruise. That's why getting first-timers on board is so important. The Caribbean is again expected to be the leading destination.

NEW SHIPS: Fourteen new ships are hitting the market in 2012 (13 new, one re-introduced), ranging in capacity from 32 to 3,690 passengers. The family-oriented Disney Fantasy takes its inaugural cruise to the Caribbean this month and will be based at Port Canaveral, Fla. It's the twin to the Disney Dream, which debuted last year. Disney ships will also sail from three new ports this year: New York, Seattle and Galveston, Texas.

Carnival's newest ship, the 3,690-passenger Carnival Breeze will sail in June, starting with a summer schedule of 12-day Mediterranean voyages before being moved to Miami in November for year-round Caribbean cruises. The 3,030-passenger Celebrity Reflection will debut in October as the fifth ship in Celebrity Cruises' Solstice class, offering eastern Caribbean itineraries from Miami with new twists such as spa suites and a bar with craft beers.

"I think we've also seen, as the business has matured, that there is becoming more differentiation between the brands," Duffy said. "There is a cruise for everyone."

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