With bookings drying up because of the Gulf War and time growing short on planning for the summer season, several cruise lines are pulling their liners out of the Mediterranean.
"We think Americans want to stick closer to home this year," said Valerie Gadway, a spokeswoman for Royal Cruise Line, which canceled the spring/summer European itinerary of its Golden Odyssey last week.Other Europe dropouts include Sun Line's Stella Solaris, Crystal Cruises' Crystal Harmony, Windstar Cruises' Wind Star and Cunard's Sea Goddess I, all of which will remain in North American waters rather than summering as previously planned in Europe.
"We believe it is not safe to sail to Europe at this time," said Arthur A. Rodney, president of Crystal Cruises.
Several other cruise lines indicated they were carefully studying the situation before making a decision on whether to operate in Europe this summer.
"Our first ship goes back (to Europe) in May," said Jennifer Lawrence of Costa Cruises, "but we have not made any changes in itinerary yet. But I do know we are keeping a very close eye on the Mideast."
Pulling out is not the only way in which the Gulf war is affecting cruising. Because of the hostilities, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has changed course in mid-cruise. Currently on a 94-day world cruise, the QE2 will not transit the Suez Canal nor visit Mediterranean ports as scheduled, Cunard announced last week. Instead, it will sail the long way around Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and calling at a number of African ports.
The Cunard Princess, meanwhile, is giving its all to the war. It has been chartered by the United States government for $31 million to provide R&R (rest and recreation) for soldiers in the Gulf.
Although no large-scale cancellations of reservations have been reported by the cruise lines, demand has been leaking away, said cruise line spokesmen. This is true for all foreign travel, but especially for vacation trips to Europe.
Result: The ship lines are scrambling for a place in North America's cruise sun, and that, in turn, is increasing the choices available to passengers.
In Alaska, reports Rich Skinner of Holland America, bookings are at a record pace. Some of this can be attributed to the Gulf crisis, he said, but not all.
"Passenger safety is the main factor, but the value of the dollar - or rather the lack thereof - is also playing a major role. And we think the increased marketing activity and the new products - you can now go to the Pacific, Soviet Union and Far East (from Alaska) - are having an impact as well."
The Caribbean is a different story. Though the Gulf war has had no direct effect on bookings, the addition of more ships into an already soft market means many cruises are being sold today at prices that may never again be as low.
Despite the Gulf War, not all cruise lines are pulling their ships out of Europe. Several lines are taking a wait-and-see position, and some lines have found the market for cruises in the western Mediterranean, the Baltic and Scandinavia - all well away from the Mideast hot spots - is holding up fairly well.
Cunard has no plans at present to change the itinerary of its Vistafjord, due to sail to the Mediterranean April 24. Royal Viking's Royal Viking Sun is still scheduled to start Mediterranean cruises May 7. Royal Cruise Line expects its Crown Odyssey to fulfill its Lisbon-Venice and Scandinavia voyages.
Shifting ships around, of course, results in a lot of itinerary-juggling.
Windstar's Wind Spirit, for example, was supposed to sail from Piraeus, Greece, to Istanbul this summer, with its sister ship Wind Star cruising from Rome to Venice. Now, Wind Star will make seven-day cruises out of Nassau and Wind Spirit will take over the Rome-Venice run. The same kind of maneuver is being executed by Cunard, whose Sea Goddess I is remaining in North America while its twin picks up its European itinerary.
Princess Lines canceled the Mediterranean and Black Sea itineraries of its new Crown Princess, replacing them with an extended season in the Caribbean, but is keeping its Royal Princess in the Med. Royal Cruise Line's Golden Odyssey, scheduled to go to Europe in mid-April, switched to a mix of Caribbean and trans-Panama Canal voyages in spring and Alaskan ports in summer.
A similar itinerary was implemented when Crystal Cruises decided to forego its planned sojourn in Europe. However, when Sun Line's Stella Solaris canceled its spring transfer to Greece in favor of a Western Hemisphere stay, it ventured into untested territory - a series of seven-day cruises out of Galveston, Texas.
While the cruise lines may find their juggling act a princely pain, it's a joy for prospective passengers. With little time to market new itineraries, many lines are offering tempting discounts and other incentives.
For people who like to cruise, this may be the best of times.