NCL ship move indicates stiffer competition in Texas market

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NEW YORK -- Norwegian Cruise Line's decision to reposition the 1,534-passenger Norwegian Sea from Houston to Miami beginning Jan. 15, 2001 could be a sign of stiffening competition in Texas, a state not even on the cruise map as recently as five years ago.

Even in announcing the change, which effectively will end NCL's pioneering series of seven-day Texaribbean cruises to eastern Mexico and the Caribbean, the company acknowledged that the itinerary, cruising's first regular departure from the Lone Star state, was a hit with regional vacationers.

"We successfully opened a new home port in Houston with our Texaribbean cruises," said Art Sbarsky, NCL's executive vice president, but "we will have a greater need for the ship elsewhere in 2001."

For NCL, "elsewhere" is the Bahamas, to which Norwegian Sea will sail on three- and four-day cruises that also feature Key West, Fla., and Great Stirrup Cay, NCL's private island.

"The three- and four-day cruise market always has been a staple of NCL's product mix," said Sbarsky. "The Norwegian Sea performed well in that market several years ago, and we feel she is still the perfect size and capacity to remain competitive on shorter cruise itineraries."

NCL launched the Texaribbean series in 1997 with Norwegian Star, a smaller vessel NCL has since transferred to its Norwegian Capricorn Line joint venture.

The ship proved a popular cruise option for regional vacationers who generally arrived at the port by car rather than air. The product seemed to retain its appeal through a handful of mishaps with Norwegian Star, which NCL replaced with Norwegian Sea in 1998.

"I hope [NCL] brings some other ships here, because we did have a lot of customers" for the Texaribbean series, said Martha Ceballos, a CLIA MCC agent with A Fantasy Cruise in Houston.

Ceballos finds the NCL move puzzling. "From what we were told by [NCL], they were successful," she said. "We didn't hear anything different. It's very disappointing."

Ceballos said many of her agency's Texaribbean customers, new to cruising, appreciated a nearby cruise option with a well-rounded product offering.

"[Clients] liked the food and the shows," said Ceballos, and also were satisfied with NCL's change to the "more upscale" Norwegian Sea last year.

NCL will receive a little intra-state competition this fall, when the 1,486-passenger Celebration begins offering four- and five-day cruises from Galveston to some of the same ports (including Cancun and Cozumel) served on the Texaribbean series. Ceballos said she is "excited" about Celebration's arrival in Galveston, set for Oct. 5.

Also, Premier Cruises is planning to arrive in Houston in May with 1,146-passenger IslandBreeze, a vessel that is nearly two decades older than Celebration and Norwegian Sea.

"Our market studies indicated the cruise market potential offered by Houston was enormous," Bruce Nierenberg, Premier's president, said. "Houston is the Gulf gateway to the vast southwestern U.S. market," he said, "which offers 75 million cruise passengers."

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