Friday, June 6, 2008

Europe Cruises Very Popular

Cruise Lines are Increasingly Big In Europe

Like a growing number of British vacationers, Richard Scott has gotten hooked on cruising the past few years. And yet he's never seen anything quite like Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas.

"This ship's a bustle of activity," says the 31-year-old scaffolding worker from Southampton, England, talking just steps away from the ship's four-story rock-climbing wall — a Royal Caribbean signature. "It's an amazing thing to see."

In just two days on board, Scott has scaled the rock-climbing wall, boogie-boarded on the ship's SurfRider wave pool, played miniature golf and gone to a show in the world's largest theater at sea. And he hasn't even made it to half of the 15-deck ship's attractions, which also include an ice-skating rink, a boxing ring and a luxurious spa.

"It's a big ship," says Scott, one of several thousand primarily British residents who sailed on its maiden voyage earlier this month out of Southampton. "But I like it big. There are a lot more things to do."

Traditionally cruise lines have launched their newest, most groundbreaking ships in the Caribbean, long the hub of the Cruise World. But the 3,634-passenger, 160,000-ton Independence, one of the three largest ships ever built, will spend its entire first season sailing out of the British port.

The deployment marks the first time a line has based a ship of this size in Europe and is a sign of just how important the Continent has become to cruise lines. Indeed, in some ways Europe is the new Caribbean — the place every cruise company worth its bunker oil wants to be.

"Europe is the hottest story in cruising these days," says Mike Driscoll, editor of industry watcher Cruise Week. "It's reaching the point where if a line has trouble selling a ship (anywhere else in the world), they pack up and move her to Europe."

Driscoll notes that cruise-ship capacity in Europe this year will be up an astounding 23%, even as capacity in the Caribbean drops by 5% — the first time on record that year-over-year growth in Caribbean capacity has been down.

Royal Caribbean alone will have a record seven ships in Europe this summer. Rival Holland America is sending six ships, including its newest and biggest vessel, the Eurodam, making its debut in Rotterdam on July 1. And even Carnival, a line synonymous with fun-in-the-sun Caribbean cruises, will base its newest, most advanced ship, Carnival Splendor, in England when it arrives in July.

A New Way to Do the Grand Tour

The growth is partly in response to demand from North American vacationers, who are more than ever looking at Europe for their next big voyage, says Richard Meadows, the head of sales, marketing and guest programs at Holland America.

"The driver is the value," says Meadows, noting that the weak dollar has made Europe prohibitively expensive for the more than 5 million Americans who take land-based vacations there each year. Cruises in Europe, by contrast, remain reasonably priced, he says. "The exchange rate is the single biggest thing that is driving the success of Europe (cruises) right now."

Meadows notes that Holland America has been selling 10-night European cruises this year for as little as $1,499 per person — or about $150 a day. That's a lot less than U.S. vacationers will pay for a comparable European experience if staying in hotels on land, he says.

"People can do the math," he says. "They recognize the value."

In effect, cruise ships are becoming the new way to do the old Grand Tour of Europe — an "if it's Tuesday it must be Barcelona" blitz around the highlights of the Mediterranean or the Baltic.

But growing demand from U.S. vacationers isn't the only factor behind the drive to deploy more ships to the region. Even more significant, many executives say, is the growth in demand from Europeans who are just discovering cruising.

"We're seeing the same phenomenon we saw in the United States 10 to 15 years ago," says Richard Fain, the CEO of Royal Caribbean. "We're getting a critical mass of people (in Europe) who now have taken a cruise, and they're telling their friends and co-workers — in effect becoming missionaries for cruising."

Fain notes that less than 3% of Europeans have taken a cruise, a far smaller percentage than the estimated 15% of Americans who have tried one. But Fain says the growth pattern among Europeans is almost identical to what he saw in the early days with Americans, and Europeans are "a great untapped market."

The Mediterranean and Baltic, he notes, are to Europeans what the Caribbean was to Americans — an easy-to-reach, low-cost cruise destination right in their own backyard.

Tea Makers and Indian Dishes

One of the byproducts of the rapid growth in the number of Europeans cruising is that many of the ships sailing there are taking on a more international flavor.

Some North American-based lines with ships in Europe, such as the Disney Cruise Line, still cater almost exclusively to Americans on their European voyages. But Susan Hooper, the head of Royal Caribbean's European operation, says more than 50% of bookings this year for the line's cruises in Europe are from Europeans, putting Americans in the minority on board. On the Independence, which is sailing out of Southampton through the summer, more than 80% of passengers will be British, she says.

The influx of non-American cruisers has prompted U.S.-based lines to tinker with their ships before sending them across the Atlantic. Royal Caribbean, for instance, has added more Indian dishes, a favorite of British vacationers, to the buffet on the Independence. The line also has had to beef up its supply of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio wines, which the British drink far more than the Chardonnay preferred by many Americans. And in one widely reported nod to its growing British customer base, Royal Caribbean has added tea makers in every cabin onboard the Independence.

So far, Hooper says, Americans aren't complaining about the changes. "If you get (the atmosphere) right for the Europeans, the Americans love it, too," she says.

Another byproduct of the growth in European cruises is increased crowding in popular ports.

"There are some small ports such as Dubrovnik and Venice that do have overcrowding, and they've got to put their foot down," says Hooper, an advocate for limitations on ship arrivals in Europe's more intimate destinations.

Hooper says with more ships heading to Europe, lines are looking for new, less-visited places to stop. Watch for more port calls in countries along the bottom of the Mediterranean in North Africa — places such as Tunisia, a gateway to the Roman-era ruins of Carthage.

Not Just a Summer Fling

Another sign of the boom in European cruising is that major U.S.-based lines are beginning to place ships there year-round, something that was unthinkable just a few years ago. Norwegian Cruise Line announced in February that the 2,400-passenger Norwegian Jade, originally scheduled to spend this summer in Europe, would remain on the Continent year-round through at least 2010. Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, meanwhile, will begin year-round cruising out of Barcelona this winter.

Europe traditionally has been a summer-only destination for cruise ships. But in recent years the season has expanded, starting as early as April and continuing for some ships until November.

The arrival of year-round deployments in Europe means ships will stay during the less-appealing winter months. But while the colder weather is a downside, "there's a lot of benefits for cruisers to winter trips," says Norwegian executive Andy Stuart. "It's less crowded, and the airfares (to fly from the USA to the ships) are half the price that they are in summer."

Airfares, indeed, are a growing issue for cruisers thinking of booking European trips — and a wildcard that some say could derail the rapid growth of European cruising. With the cost of oil soaring, airfares to Europe have been rising rapidly.

"The lines have done a good job with air promotions" that have kept air costs down, notes Driscoll. But the lines had negotiated bulk-rate fares with the airlines "before the fuel prices went out of control. Now, they're negotiating for bulk seats at a time when fuel is over $125 a barrel."

That said, the growth in European cruising is going to continue, says Driscoll, noting the big cruise companies have continued to order new ships for the European market — even as they slow ordering for North America. "Ships for the European market continue full throttle."

By Gene Sloan
USA Today; May 30, 2008