Travel Weekly's Cruise E-Letter: Aug. 26, 2003

IS ULTRA-VOYAGER STILL on the table? Royal Caribbean International president Jack Williams said the proposed 3,600-passenger, 160,000-ton megaship will be a topic at a board of directors meeting in mid-September. That means the company will miss its first deadline, Aug. 31, to place a firm order with shipbuilder Kvaerner Masa-Yards. But Williams said all that means is that the potential delivery of the ship in 2006 would be delayed by a month. And, he said, the company was "really pleased" by the improvement in the euro-dollar ratio. Monday, it hovered at $1.09-to-1 euro.

WILLIAMS, CEO RICHARD FAIN and other Royal Caribbean execs were chatting with Travel Weekly and travel agents during the post-christening cruise of the Serenade of the Seas, Royal's latest 2,110-passenger Radiance-class ship (actress Whoopi Goldberg christened the ship Friday). Here's what they had to say:
• For all intents and purposes, the Serenade is a carbon copy of last year's debut, the Brilliance of the Seas. "If it's not broken don't fix it," Williams said.
• Royal Caribbean is confident the Voyager of the Seas will perform well when it gets to New York next spring for a series of nine-day Caribbean/five-day Canada and New England cruises. Williams said the Voyager-class turned out to be "a more versatile ship than we imagined originally. We had no thought to have a ship out of Port Canaveral," where the 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas will make land in November.
• Execs said Royal Caribbean isn't considering lowering its option period on deposits down to 24 hours, as other major lines have recently done: The line instead takes a flexible, cruise-by-cruise approach to the length of the option period. When Fain asked how many travel agents in the audience would like to keep the policy as-is, an overwhelming majority of agents raised their hands or clapped.
• The line has been working on making improvements as per travel agent feedback, said vice president, sales Lisa Bauer. Some upgrades: Royal made its Seminars at Sea program more competitive; agents can now personalize documents with their agency name; this week, Bauer said, the line is reorganizing its incentives department.

CRUISE-PASSENGER NUMBERS increased 7% in second-quarter 2003 compared with last year's second quarter, according to the Maritime Administration (MARAD). Among other findings: Port Canaveral, Fla., replaced Fort Lauderdale as the second largest cruise-departure point as several Fort Lauderdale ships redeployed to summer destinations. The western Caribbean, meanwhile, remained the most-visited destination, but Alaska moved into second place, accounting for 16% of passenger days. MARAD's study includes 10 cruise lines that operate ships with a capacity of more than 750 passengers each.

IN AN EFFORT TO BROADEN ITS TARGET MARKET and reach the "mature boomer" -- folks ages 50 and up -- Delta Queen Steamboat Co. will next year initiate three- and four-day cruises from New Orleans on its largest ship, the American Queen, and pair it with three- or four-day stays in the Big Easy. In addition, DQSC's new executive vice president, industry vet Bruce Nierenberg, said the cruise experience itself will cater to the younger crowd by offering more active pursuits [golf and bike excursions were mentioned] on and off the ship.

SARS AND IRAQ "severely affected" Asia-based Star Cruises, which posted a net loss of $29 million in its second quarter, compared with net income of $29.5 million for second-quarter 2002. SARS, it said, "decimated demand" in the Asia Pacific region. The NCL Group, which includes Norwegian Cruise Line and Orient Lines, recorded a 103.6% occupancy rate, down from 105.1% in Q2 2002, and net yields dropped 4.3% in the second quarter. The NCL Group's operating income, meanwhile, fell about 50%, to $113 million. The second-quarter results also included $3.9 million in costs associated with the explosion onboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway; Star said the NCL Group expects profits to fall an additional $7 million in the second half of the year.

A $50 PER PASSENGER head tax proposal in Alaska is staying alive, even though Alaska's lieutenant governor's Loren Leman denied certification of the initiative petition. Supporters of the head tax said they promptly remedied sections of the proposal that were in question and Thursday sent it back to the lieutenant governor for approval. If it's certified, which attorney Joe Geldhof said he "hopes" will happen by early September, it's still a long way from reality: the environmental groups sponsoring the initiative would need to collect nearly 23,000 signatures. Alaska legislators could then draft a bill based on the petition or the proposal would end up on the next statewide ballot.

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