Festival Cruises to expand fleet with new megaships

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ST. NAZAIRE, France -- Following its successful debut of 48,000-ton, 1,200-passenger Mistral in late 1999, Festival Cruises is introducing a series of even larger vessels.

The Pireaus, Greece-based operator that markets in the U.S. as First European Cruises will begin with the 58,600-ton, 1,506-passenger European Vision, which debuts in June.

Vision will be followed in March 2002 by a sister vessel, European Dream.

Additionally, Festival will issue a $200 million European bond funded by European banks later this year for the construction of two more megaships, said George Poulides, Festival's chief executive officer, during a recent keel-laying ceremony at the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard here for European Dream.

The new ships are designed to court North American passengers while offering the company's core European audience innovations previously seen only on U.S. ships.

Festival Cruises' logo on the European Vision."Our main market is Europe supplemented by sales from elsewhere," said Poulides, who estimated Festival's U.S. passenger base at about 20% of the overall total.

Vision, for example, will include features that simply don't exist on other ships serving a primarily European passenger base.

The ship's 12th deck will include a two-deck high rock-climbing wall, while the 13th deck will include a nine-hole miniature golf course.

"It is the only climbing wall on a ship sailing the Mediterranean," according to Festival officials.

European Vision also will feature a virtual reality golf simulator and an instructor for more serious duffers.

In addition, Vision will boast 132 suites equipped with private balconies.

Festival Cruises' chief executive officer George Poulides, left, and Chantiers de l'Atlantique chief executive officer Patrick Bossier at the keel-laying ceremony for the European Dream. A massive pool deck area will offer two large pools, a children's splash pool and several whirlpools. Vision's fifth deck also will include an Internet cafe.

"Europeans are no different from Americans," said Poulides. "We climb walls, play golf and use the Internet. Up until now, we have not had the opportunity to do these things on European ships." Vision will have the additional distinction of hosting this year's G8 economic summit in Genoa, Italy.

Although European passengers represent Festival's core passenger base, "Festival was not planned exclusively for Europeans," said Poulides. "Everyone receives the same welcome although we have a very diverse passenger base."

He called First European's strategy "a reversal of the formula whereby other cruise lines market mainly at [U.S. travelers] and then top up bookings from Europe and other markets. Our main market is and will continue to be Europe, supplemented by our sales and marketing activities elsewhere. No one country can fill a ship today."

First European Cruises represents an opportunity for U.S. cruisers to indulge in European culture through the company's growing fleet of new, feature-filled ships, said Poulides.

Festival is paring its older tonnage (the line's 900-passenger Bolero, formerly NCL's Starward, will move to the Spanish Cruise Line, a three-way joint venture among Festival, Spanish tour operator Iberojet and ferry operator Transmediterranea, beginning April 23) to make way for the new fleet.

"One-half of our capacity will be in new ships with the completion of Vision and Dream," he said.

Poulides said Europe's emerging strength as a source of cruise passengers is a result of new-ship construction, the same phenomenon that is currently driving U.S. passenger growth.

"What has created the market in America is the ships. The ships created the clientele. Today there are only six ships of the entire international cruise fleet that are dedicated to 300 million Europeans," [in the vacation market] he added.

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