NEW YORK -- Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and SeaDream Yacht Club will have all of their ships there. Windstar Cruises will place three of its four ships there, and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises and Crystal Cruises will have their newest vessels there.

The place to see and be seen next summer, especially for luxury small-ship operators, is Europe. Each line will have a significant presence in the Mediterranean -- and most will be venturing eastward to Greece and Turkey.

But as cruise executives keep an eye on the economy and the situation in Iraq, it remains difficult to tell how the summer will shape up.

"You have 9/11, the economy popping up and down ... and then Iraq," said Larry Pimentel, SeaDream CEO. "Those are too many hits. It's precarious."

In addition, the small-ship lines will be facing a good deal more competition in 2003: Larger lines such as Princess, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity also are returning to Europe with large capacity increases. One executive called the 2003 summer season a "battle."

Windstar Cruises is one small-ship line that will sail to Italy in 2003. But many executives said their optimism about Europe stemmed from a higher-than-expected demand for the Continent this year.

"There will be a glut of [passenger] demand because there's a whole season of people who didn't visit [in 2002]," according to Tom Russell, Windstar's vice president of marketing.

Several cruise executives said the pace of bookings for Europe in 2003 so far is holding steady.

"I think it's a mistake for agents to believe it's just going to be close-in [bookings]," said Richard Meadows, Seabourn's vice president of marketing. "There are a significant number of people planning their Europe vacations for 2003."

And that's certainly a good thing for all of the lines. SeaDream will homeport its two tiny ships in Monaco next year and will venture as far east as Istanbul, Turkey, in August.

Meanwhile, Seabourn will have all three of its ships sailing between Spain, Italy and Greece in early May.

The 700-passenger Radisson Seven Seas Navigator and 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity both will sail stints in the Mediterranean when introduced in April and June, respectively.

Silversea is bringing the Silver Wind, which it originally planned to deploy in the Far East, to Rome in June.

Several executives said it is too early to tell what impact, if any, a war between the U.S. and Iraq would have on the 2003 Europe season -- although all said they were watching the situation closely.

"It's difficult to look in a crystal ball," Meadows said. "The good thing for the cruise industry is that ships can move."

Pimentel said, "If it dries up -- and that remains to be seen -- you can either rely on the European market ... transfer a lot of your marketing dollars [to attract Europeans] or move the ships. If one thing is true about the industry's executives, they can get very creative in itineraries."

Nonetheless, with the brochures printed and the pricing out there, the small cruise lines are holding their collective breath.

As Mark Conroy, president of Radisson Seven Seas said, "In our market segment, Europe is critical.

"People are cautiously optimistic that Europe will come back," he said. "I don't think everybody's saying that doors will get knocked down, but if the sun, moon and stars line up, it could be a great year."

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI