For cruise industry, the best of times is now

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FORT LAUDERDALE – Cruise company CEOs acknowledged that times are very good at the Seatrade Cruise Global trade show on Tuesday, searching in vain to find much to complain about in 2018.

"Business is strong. Let's keep it going," Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio told State of the Industry panel moderator Peter Greenberg. "If this were Christmas and you were Santa Claus, I would ask for nothing."

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. chairman Richard Fain said that the industry needs to take the lead in fighting the perception that some destinations have become overcrowded. Even though cruise ships are a small part of the problem, he said, they have an outsized profile and can be a target.

"What we're really talking about is more sustainable tourism," Fain said, citing RCCL's 2011 opening of a port in Falmouth, Jamaica, as an alternative to busy ports in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. "We've ended up with more people but less density."

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said the cruise lines met with the mayor of Dubrovnik, Croatia, after the city's UNESCO heritage status became threatened by overcrowding there. "We all met at his request and coordinated our schedules," Donald said, so that cruise arrivals would be staggered.

All the CEOs agreed that another key to keeping growth going in the cruise industry was to remain hyper-responsive to guest demands.

Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages, said the line initially thought it would build two 4,500-passenger ships for its debut in 2020, but downsized them to 2,800 passengers after getting feedback from prospective cruisers. "Guests were concerned with scale," he said.

"Being passionate about the guest experience is key to what both of us are doing," said Douglas Prothero, CEO of the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.

Another key to fueling further expansion is coming up with new destinations, or improving old ones. MSC Cruises executive chairman Pierfrancecso Vago cited that challenge in China, where MSC and others have plenty of potential customers but a relative shortage of close-in destinations to visit.

Vago suggested that the industry work with China to drop cabotage rules that restrict foreign-flagged ships from carrying passengers from one domestic port to another. 

"China would have a much bigger boom If you have that capability because there are not many other countries to visit in the China region," Vago said.  "If you could go along the coast, it would be an incredible opportunity."

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