The nation's major cruise lines are offering few surprises this winter for vacationers interested in sailing the Caribbean.
The major lines have left their winter itineraries largely intact from last year, despite Hurricane Gilbert and the addition of several new ships, while boosting prices slightly.Gilbert ripped through Jamaica and Cozumel, Mexico, in September, causing extensive damage, but both islands remain as stopovers on western Caribbean cruise routes this year.
The lack of fresh itineraries and higher prices underscore the strength of the region's cruise industry and its success in attracting new customers.
Many lines are experiencing record bookings, and industry executives said advance sales this year point to a strong season.
"Last year was a record-breaking year for us and this year is going to exceed that," said Bob Dickinson, senior vice president of marketing at Carnival Cruise Lines Inc. of Miami. "We are going to sail full this winter."
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, which launched the mammoth Sovereign of the Seas last winter, is leaving the ship's Caribbean itinerary unchanged this season.
"That ship is going to be there for years to come, because it is so successful," said Rich Steck, spokesman for Royal Caribbean in Miami.
The stay-the-course strategy among cruise operators also reflects a common marketing attitude in the industry.
"We look at the ship as the primary destination. The ports of call are our green stamps," said Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher.
Adds Steck: "There are really only so many top-flight islands you can go to with ships our size."
Ships new to the market this winter include Holland America Line's 1,120-passenger Westerdam, set to make its debut in November, and Norwegian Cruise Line's 1,500-passenger Seaward, which arrived in Miami in June.
In March, Sitmar Cruises will launch the 1,500-passenger Star Princess on Caribbean tours from Fort Lauderdale.
Of course, not all companies are sticking by last year's schedules. Holland America of Seattle for one is offering a new eastern Caribbean itinerary aboard the Noordam this winter.
"Our new itinerary will be a big draw for our repeat business," said company spokesman Rich Skinner.
Repeat business is important for cruise lines - Royal Caribbean estimates that 30 to 40 percent of those booking the Sovereign are repeat customers - but the industry continues emphasize new business, in the belief that the market is largely untapped.
"Only five percent of the American public has ever taken a cruise, so we are still a relatively young industry," said Carnival's Dickinson.
Cruise Lines International Association in New York estimates that nearly 9 million Americans have been on a cruise, up from 7 million in 1986. About 40 percent of those who booked cruises between 1986 and 1988 were first-timers, the group estimates.
"Our efforts always have been aimed at attracting the first-time cruiser," Carnival's Gallagher said. "Our stratgey for years and years has been to grow the market. We consider our competition to be other resort destinations."
Carnival, the largest line in terms of passengers carried, operates seven ships, six of which sail to the Caribbean or Bahamas. Royal Caribbean operates five ships, all of which cruise the Caribbean.
Other major Caribbean cruise operators include Princess Cruises of Los Angeles, which operates two ships on seven and nine-day cruises and a third ship that sails between San Juan and Acapulco via the Panama Canal.
Princess recently acquired Sitmar, which also operates Caribbean cruises and a trans-canal sailing.
The cruise association lists 24 companies that offer cruises in the Caribbean, the nation's top cruise arena, and several other lines that sail to the Bahamas, such as Premier Cruise Lines Ltd.
Premier combines three and four-night cruises from Port Canaveral, Fla., to the Bahamas with trips to Walt Disney World in central Florida. The company, a subsidiary of Greyhound Corp., operates three ships.