In the age of the 4,300-person megaship, its tough to get noticed for commissioning two cruise ships that together will carry a total of just 260 people. But American Cruise Lines announcement in March that it would build a pair of 130-passenger vessels -- along with a 100-passenger vessel currently under construction -- represents a near doubling of its current capacity of three ships and 198 passengers.

The two new-builds, to debut in 2008 and 2009, will not only augment ACLs roster with tonnage; they also will be foreign-flagged and will introduce the cruise lines first international itineraries.

The company plans to sail the ships in the Canadian Maritimes, the Caribbean and Central America and is considering future routes to Europe, Alaska, South America and the Pacific. All this from a line that currently operates its two U.S.-flagged ships between Maine and Florida.

Thats big growth for a company that not very long ago had a total of 100 beds, said Larry Dessler, executive director of the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance, of which ACL is a member. Small-ship cruising has international interest and possibilities.

Here, you have a leader in the industry that is expanding quite aggressively, he said. This proves their confidence in the market. 

Charles Robertson, president and CEO of ACL, based in Guilford, Conn., downplayed the significance of the cruise lines expansion.

If we were putting 5,000 berths on those itineraries, it would be huge, [but] 300 berths is not all that significant, Robertson said. What were trying to do is take it to the next level.

He added that the rapid expansion did not come from nowhere.

We feel we are on pretty solid ground, he said. Weve done a fair amount of market testing and have been pretty good at gaining market share because our vessels are newer and, in our opinion, better. 

ACLs fleet is among the newest in the industry. Its three current vessels were built in 2005, 2002 and 2000.  Its next ship, the American Star, is being completed now for a 2007 debut.

When the company entered service in 2000, it did so with a brand-new ship, rather than acquiring one, a departure from standard small-ship line practice.

ACLs additions are edging it closer to Cruise Wests status as the largest U.S. small-ship line.

However, Cruise West itself is also growing: It announced this year that it will head to Vietnam for the first time in 2007, and that it is expanding operations to the U.S. East Coast.

Cruise West has acquired its ninth and 10th ships, buying two vessels from Clipper Cruise Line. But thats the kind of expansion Robertson wants to avoid.

What we see on the seascape is a lot of old ships, and our feeling is new ships are better, he said. We see a strong desire from our passengers to be on modern ships with more amenities.

The two new-builds will offer cabins ranging from 240 to 360 square feet, most with balconies, and will have Internet connectivity and satellite TV. Public spaces will include a single-seating dining salon, four lounges, a full-service spa and a theater.

ACLs expansion was in part driven by its affiliation, via common ownership, with Chesapeake Shipbuilding, a shipyard on the Wicomico River in Salisbury, Md.

Chesapeake Shipbuilding, which built all three of ACLs vessels and is building the American Star now, has completed eight overnight passenger ships, a large number of the tiny overnight cruise sector of the U.S. shipbuilding market.

Despite its ties to Chesapeake Shipbuilding, ACL is in final negotiations with an undisclosed foreign shipyard to build the next two ships. Propulsion engines have already been ordered.

ACL has had a complex history. Launched in 1974 and sold in 1986, the line went out of business in 1989, only to be reinvented as an entirely new company under its original ownership in 2000. 

To complicate matters further, when ACLs new ships come into service in 2008 and 2009, they might not be ACL ships after all. Robertson said the ships may enter service under an as-yet-unnamed subsidiary, because they will be foreign-flagged. 

ACL also recently became the 20th and smallest, in terms of berths, member of the Cruise Lines International Association.

Weve been trying to increase the participation of agents, Robertson said, adding he also aims to educate retailers.

Theres an education process that needs to happen, he said. People arent aware of the advantage of small-ship cruising.

Noting that commissions with ACL are a lot more than on $699 cruise, Robertson claimed that once agents start sending clients to the cruise line, they start to book more and more.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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