Major lines slash Med cruise fares

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NEW YORK -- The Kosovo crisis has led to deep discounting in the Mediterranean cruise market as some major lines slashed fares by 20%, 30% -- even 60% -- while others sweetened the deal with two-for-one offers and assorted upgrades.

The line that appears to have been hardest hit by the conflict is Royal Olympic. As reported, the Greek line canceled 13 Greek Isles sailings from Athens this summer, citing sluggish demand.

Despite optimism that the war is nearing an end, Royal unveiled a promotion on seven-night sailings from Piraeus, the port for Athens, that includes air and hotel priced at 30% off brochure rates.

Crystal Cruises is offering a promotional fare on the Crystal Symphony of up to 61% off brochure rates on three Mediterranean sailings in September.

Costa, the leading cruise line in Europe, extended its early booking discounts, which offer up to 20% off, so that they apply to dates throughout the summer (the discounts are typically offered only up to 90 days in advance).

The line also extended to additional sailings its offer of two complimentary post-cruise hotel nights.

Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf is offering a two-for-one rate on most sailings through Oct. 23. The vessel operates weekly cruises between Venice and Rome, Italy. The line is also offering 30% discounts on most sailings of the Wind Song and Wind Spirit in the Greek Isles through Oct. 16.

Orient Lines extended its early-booking discounts of 10% (normally available only up to 120 days before a sailing) for the summer Europe season. Seabourn Cruise Line extended its offer of savings of up to $1,000 per couple for first-time guests and a 20% discount to Seabourn Club Members on Riviera, Black Sea and Greek Isles cruises.

Cunard Line is offering 50% off the rate for a second guest on select Europe cruises aboard the Vistafjord and Sea Goddess I and II. Also available is a reduced rate of up to 60% off regular fares on select sailings in June aboard the Royal Viking Sun. Royal Caribbean cut rates in half on most European sailings for the Legend of the Seas and Splendour of the Seas this summer.

Whether or not the public will take advantage of the heavy discounting is still a question mark to at least one retailer.

Russell Gelfuso, co-owner of the Cruise Brothers here, said his firm is in the midst of an e-mail promotion that highlights the Mediterranean discounts. The promotion is targeting clients who had expressed interest in going to the Mediterranean but haven't booked because of the Kosovo crisis, Gelfuso said.

"The thinking is that many people who weren't willing to buy a $3,500 sailing will be a buyer at $2,200. These are absolutely substantial discounts, but what remains to be seen is the public's perception," he said.

The reductions appear to be limited to the cruise industry so far, as airlines, hotels and tour operators have introduced little or no discounting. "No matter how much you lower the price, this doesn't make people feel the area is safe. So what's the point of discounting?" said Andras Bolgar, president of Los Angeles-based Tradesco Tours, a Hungary specialist.

Bob Drumm, president of General Tours in Keene, N.H., agreed, but he said his firm is doing some spot sales on its Web site, generaltours.com, for destinations that have shown only slight decreases since the war began.

A five-night package to Prague, Czech Republic, for example, was offered at $699 with air, accommodations, breakfasts and sightseeing. The price represents a $200 reduction off the brochure rate.

Several operators to Greece reported that bookings have risen in the past few weeks. Business had declined for some firms after the start of the NATO air campaign, and the situation worsened when anti-NATO protests were held in Greece and the Athenaeum Inter-Continental Athens hotel was bombed on April 27.

Nick Athans, president of New York-based Tourlite, said sales were up 5% over the same period last year and that island-hopping packages were the best sellers.

According to John Peters, president of Zeustours, the firm's yacht cruises are up 20% over last year. Discounted packages that include a Royal Olympic sailing, however, are available from Tourlite and Homeric Tours, also in New York.

A six-night Tourlite package, priced from $999, includes air, three nights in Athens and a three-day Greek Isles cruise. Homeric's seven-night Greek Island package, with three nights in Athens and a four-day cruise, is being offered from $1,199. The original price was $1,759,

Major hotel chains such as Starwood and Inter-Continental had no special discounts in place in the Mediterranean or eastern Europe.

Gilbert Gjersvik and Grant Flowers contributed to this report.

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