The risks of long-term itinerary planning

By Tom Stieghorst

InsightStability ought not be underestimated as a factor in the future of the cruise industry. And often, cruise lines look for growth in areas of the world where order and political stability are only a sometimes thing.

That’s particularly true in the Middle East, where fighting has flared between Israelis and Palestinians, a civil war rages in Syria, unrest has gripped Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, and even relatively peaceful Bahrain is the scene of daily protests against the ruling monarchy.

Last week, cruise companies were busy rescheduling to avoid calls in Ashdod, near Tel Aviv, as rockets flew from Gaza and plumes of smoke filled the television screens and home pages of news viewers.

The number of cruise calls rescheduled in the Middle East this year is mounting.  Royal Caribbean International has cut short a schedule of cruises from Dubai this winter and won’t return in 2014.

Sure, cruise ships can always move to avoid the strife. But cruising is also a long-term business, where itineraries have to be planned years in advance. And guests book on the basis of those itineraries, pinning their hopes on seeing treasured destinations.

In the scheme of things, the Middle East provides only a small part of the cruise industry’s revenue. But as cruise executives look to add foreign markets for growth, they have to calculate the odds that something unforeseen will upset all of their plans.

Oceania Cruises was one of the lines impacted by the fighting in Gaza. This week it replaced two nights in Ashdod and two in Haifa on the Nautica with stops in Athens, Mykonos and Rhodes, Greece, and Limassol, Cyprus.

Fortunately, political change can also work in favor of the cruise lines. In 2014, Oceania plans a call in Yangon, Myanmar. Long off the radar for tourists, Myanmar is seeing a resurgence of interest with the softening of harsh military rule there.

“One door opens, one door closes,” is how Frank Del Rio, chairman of Prestige Cruise Holdings, the parent company of Oceania, sums up the recent international experience of cruise lines.

Western cruise passengers who have strong interest in ancient civilizations, religious sites and cultural attractions will find the Middle East a naturally appealing place. But until there is more stability, it will be hard to commit ships to the region in a meaningful way.

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