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Norwegian Cruise Line
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TODAY contributor
updated 12/26/2007 12:03:53 PM ET 2007-12-26T17:03:53

This year was another record one for the cruise business, as more people are taking cruises than ever before. In response, more ships are being built, big and small ones, and new onboard activities are being offered.

In 1980 only 1.4 million North Americans had ever been on a cruise. In 2007 more than 12.6 million Americans set sail on cruise ships, an increase of almost a million passengers from 2006. In fact, passenger growth is averaging more than 8 percent a year, and 2008 is expected to be another record year, with cruise ships sailing out of about 17 ports in the United States. 

This increasing number of cruise goers is good news for cruise companies. In 2005 Carnival Corporation generated a billion-dollar profit in a single quarter, and in 2006 the company broke that record with a $1.23 billion profit in the third quarter. And that's just one cruise company’s profits!

To keep up with this demand, there are more than 375 cruise ships out on the oceans. And more vessels are on the way — more than 35 ships are expected to be launched within the next three years. Most of these boats are small, but the biggest ships ever built will be introduced later in 2008. Two new ships were actually launched in the last two weeks, the 90,000-ton Queen Victoria and the Norwegian Gem.

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The Queen Victoria is set to replace the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2), which will become a floating museum next year in the port of Dubai. There was a departure from protocol when naming the Queen Victoria — for the first time the Queen of England didn't name the ship. Instead, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, accompanied by Prince Charles, did the honors in Southampton, England. No one does funerals or ship namings quite like the British, though this celebration went slightly awry. Camilla named the ship, but the bottle of Clicquot champagne she launched at the ship’s bow didn’t break, as it should for good luck. She pushed the button to launch the champagne again — and again — and it still didn’t break. In the end a crew member had to smash the bottle with a hammer.

Despite this royal mishap, the Queen Victoria was named without further incident and soon set sail on her inaugural cruise. Though the Queen Victoria isn’t the biggest ship (it weighs only 20,000 tons more than the QE2 and is dwarfed by the 151,000-ton sister ship Queen Mary 2), it comes with bells and whistles and then some. The ship has three-tiered lobbies, grand ballrooms, signature restaurants (including a Todd English restaurant), an 850-seat theatre complete with royal boxes and well-appointed cabins.

The also-new Norwegian Gem, which makes her debut in New York this week, is slightly bigger than the Queen Victoria. It’s 93,530 tons and holds 2,394 passengers. The ship will be ported in Manhattan for the winter and Barcelona for the summer. It will do seven-day Florida and Bahamas trips through next April, and then it’ll head to Barcelona to do seven-day Western Mediterranean cruises.

The new ships don’t stop there. Celebrity Cruises now has Azmara class ships, which are more intimate 700-passenger vessels. These ships are currently cruising the South American Riviera. If you prefer bigger ships, get ready for the biggest one of all: A 5,400-guest, 220,000-gross-registered-ton prototype ship is being developed under the project name Genesis. At 1,180 feet long, 154 feet wide and 240 feet high, this isn’t just a cruise ship, it's a massive floating convention center. Genesis is being designed to compete with Las Vegas, Orlando and other U.S. cities that are popular for conventions.

As these new ships get developed and built, there are also new activities being offered aboard cruise ships in 2008. On the Norwegian Gem you'll find bowling, while the Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas has rock-climbing walls and skating rinks. Princess Cruises offers the ScholarShip@Sea program, where guests can take classes in ceramics, cooking, photography and computer technology, and the Queen Victoria has fencing lessons — not that there’s an overwhelming demand for this sport! And here's a hot one for 2008: Celebrity's latest at-sea amenity? Glassblowing!

So where exactly are all these cruise ships headed in 2008? Europe will continue to be a big trend, as the devaluation of the U.S. dollar is making it harder to maximize your vacation dollars. With a cruise, though, your money can go farther, since you’re spending U.S. currency, and paying in advance for meals, entertainment and transportation between cities. Also, in 2007 both Carnival and Disney introduced large ships in the Mediterranean: The 110,000-ton, 2,984-passenger Carnival Freedom and the 83,000-ton, 2,700-passenger Disney Magic, the company’s first foray into the European continent. This will make it easier for Americans to cruise through Europe in the upcoming year.

While the Caribbean is still a popular destination, representing about 50 percent of all cruises, and Alaska continues to be popular, another big growth area for cruises is Asia. Royal Caribbean is now in Singapore; Princess offers a six-night Thailand and Cambodia land portion to its Bangkok sailings; and Crystal Cruises now stops in Vietnam. Last, but not least, a number of cruise lines, including Crystal and Silversea, will be stopping in the African cities of Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya as soon as visa restrictions are lifted.

Not all cruise goers are limiting themselves to one continent, though. In 2008, just when some observers thought the traditional world cruise was becoming extinct, the greatest number of world cruise itineraries will take place. People spend upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars each for these 90-plus-day itineraries. Here are some of the world cruise itineraries set for next year:

Cruise line history will be made on January 13 when Cunard’s Queen Victoria and the QE2 (beginning her last year of service) will each sail from New York to Fort Lauderdale and then part ways. The Queen Victoria will go on an 105-day voyage to 36 cities in 23 countries and QE2 will sail for 90 days visiting 17 countries. Holland America is sending two ships out in honor of its 50th anniversary: MS Amsterdam and the MS Prinsendam. The former will depart on January 4 for 114 days to 40 ports in 26 countries, while the MS Prinsendam will make a 68-day cruise to South America and the Antarctic starting January 3, followed by a 73-day journey to Africa, for a combined 141-day world cruise. Norwegian Coastal Voyage, the MS Fram, will make the first “longitudinal” world cruise from Reykjavik. It will be a 67-day trip from the Arctic to the Antarctic, with visits to 44 ports in 17 countries on four continents. Pacific Princess is departing on January 10 for 102 days to 42 destinations. Regent Seven Sea Cruises is doing a 115-night cruise to 51 ports in 26 countries. Silversea Cruises departs January 16 to 50 ports in 25 countries over 110 days.

If these big-ship, whirlwind trips aren’t your thing, don’t be dismayed. While the large, mostly U.S.-based, cruise ships are growing increasingly popular, they aren’t your only option. There are dozens of smaller cruise lines, vessels that carry 500 passengers or less, and can include riverboats, yachtlike vessels and barges.

Most of these small ships aren’t American-owned and follow itineraries that big ships don’t — or can’t — offer. These smaller cruise lines may provide a much more intimate, even a more authentic, experience than the cruise lines you may be familiar with, since they can traverse more remote destinations through rivers, canals and inlets, which larger ships can’t handle. For instance, you can travel along the Danube and sample four cities in one trip, visit the backcountry of Russia as you travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow via waterways, or explore the canals of Northern Holland.

Small-ship cruising is a trend that has been holding its own over the past few years. According to the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance (www.nichecruise.com), small ships carry about 625,000 passengers a year, almost half of which is through river cruising. While this is still a tiny segment of the cruising business, the small-ship business has actually doubled in the past five years.

With this steady growth in passengers, be it on small or large cruise ships, does this mean prices will be going up? Not necessarily. For inaugural cruises and the inaugural season of a new ship, the answer is yes, since these ships are almost always full during their first year. But at the same time, there is still excess capacity on cruise ships as a whole. Thanks to this, cruise ship consolidators, companies that specialize in selling last-minute unsold inventory, are doing great business. The price difference can be dramatic, so definitely look into this option.

One final word of caution: Even with a discount cruise price, be aware that “onboard revenue” and shore excursions are what really drive cruise ship profits. À la carte pricing can really hit your wallet, so budget accordingly. My budgeting rule of thumb: Double what you’ve paid for your cabin, as that’s what you'll likely end up spending on your cruise, once you factor in the upscale onboard restaurant surcharges, liquor, onboard purchases, Internet charges and shore excursions. And let's not forget the spa, which can take up almost an entire deck of some ships! So watch what you spend as you set sail for your next vacation.

  

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com. 

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