As Turkey's troubles fade, cruise lines again come calling

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Alanya port, Turkey
Photo Credit: Credit: Muratart/Shutterstock

Cruise lines are starting to plug Turkey back into their itineraries for 2020 and 2021 in hopes that the country's troubles are finally behind it.

The handful of lines that were already operating there in 2018 are being joined by names such as Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Princess Cruises, Seabourn and Holland America Line.

"We are returning in a small way in 2020 with Island Princess and Crown Princess calling to Kusadasi," said Negin Kamali, spokeswoman for Princess, who said each ship would make one call.

Seabourn will return next year with 20 calls split between the Odyssey, the Encore and the Ovation to ports on Turkey's southwest coast.

The moves come as the Islamic State terror group has been ousted from the small territory in Syria that remained under its control. It also comes after nearly three years of relative stability following a coup attempt by a Turkish military faction in 2016.

In a conference call with Wall Street analysts to discuss fourth-quarter earnings, Frank Del Rio, chairman of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said the revival of interest by passengers in travel to the Eastern Mediterranean and the increased confidence in the security situation expressed by cruise lines is a boon to the industry.

"Turkey is the key destination that has been somewhat off-limits to the industry for the last couple of years," Del Rio said. "So the fact that the Northern American consumer, who is the one booking most of these Eastern Mediterranean cruises, seems to want to come back to the Eastern Med and is willing to pay a premium price bodes very well for 2020."

A few smaller, destination-oriented cruise lines are already making calls on Turkey, including Azamara Club Cruises, Windstar Cruises and Silversea Cruises. They have been joined this year by ships such as Oceania Cruises' Riviera, which on July 12 will make the first of three scheduled calls on Kusadasi for the line.

Del Rio said on the conference call that advanced bookings for sailings this year that included Turkey were "better loaded and at higher pricing than the surrounding sailings that do not include Turkey."

Together, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are scheduled for 12 calls in Turkey this year and 20 next year.

"When the Eastern Med is good, it's as good as any, if not the best, of all itineraries," Del Rio said. "So we are all looking forward to being able to increase our presence there." 

Not all destinations in Turkey are benefitting equally. The country's cultural and tourism capital, Istanbul, was once the anchor of an Eastern Mediterranean itinerary that ran between Venice and Turkey, but it was also the site of an Islamic State-inspired attack on the airport in 2016 in which three attackers killed 45 people.

In 2015, the last year before most cruise lines stopped going, Istanbul had more than 300 calls and 600,000 cruise guests. The number of calls fell to 42 in 2016. Last year, four lonely cruise ships called between January and November, according to the Turkish Directorate General of Merchant Marine.

The situation is set to improve somewhat starting late this year. Celestyal Cruises will sail its Eclectic Aegean itinerary starting in October, bringing six overnight stays in Istanbul through the end of November. It will also call on Canakkale at the entrance to the Dardanelles, allowing for excursions to Troy and Gallipoli, the line said.

Holland America Line has scheduled seven overnights in Istanbul in summer 2020 on departures out of Venice of its Zuiderdam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Veendam. Oceania Cruises has seven Istanbul calls scheduled next summer, as well.

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