Cruise bookings sailing to recovery

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

After a sharp decline following the terrorism of Sept. 11, cruise ship bookings are on the rise - and some records are even being set.

Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland-America and Celebrity all have strong bookings for Alaska for 2002 "because deals that existed in December and January no longer exist," said Tom Baker, president of Cruise Center.Com in Houston, a large cruise-selling agency.

"Fares on NCL's Norwegian Sky sailing from Seattle on seven-day cruises to the Inside Passage have just increased $200 to $400 per person in the last week, which means bookings are up," he said.

Holland-America has pulled some of the group block space on cruises because some of their departures are full, said Baker, who worked for that line for 10 years and books about 2,500 passengers a year from Texas to Alaska.

"Some cruises in May and early June are sold out," he said. "This is good news."

"We think Alaska is the destination for 2002, because it's not Europe," he added.

The Alaska Tourism Industry Association conducted a poll in early February which showed Alaska cruise bookings down 24 percent. If the figure played out through the summer, it could cost Juneau's economy several million dollars.

Tourism contributes $130 million and nearly 2,000 jobs to the capital city's economy, according to figures from the Juneau Economic Development Council. Sixty-one percent of that, or $80 million, comes in the form of cruise ships and the 600,000 visitors they carry.

Several lines have issued positive reports in the past two weeks. Princess Cruises, the biggest player in the Alaska cruise business, carried 26 percent of Alaska's cruise customers last year. Dean Brown, executive vice president of Princess, was cautious in his forecast for 2002.

"We fell well behind our booking curve during the time frame of September through November," Brown said Thursday. "We have had a strong January and first two weeks of February, but the outlook for 2002 still leaves us with some concerns."

Brown said Princess was using promotions and discounts and "really working 12-hour days to try to create interest and excitement in our summer excursions, particularly in Alaska."

"We focus not just on selling cruises but on extended tour programs that go through Fairbanks, Denali and Copper River, where we have a new lodge," Brown said. "We have a very aggressive program promoting those programs."

Royal Caribbean and Holland-America follow Princess as volume players in the Alaska cruise market. During a conference call with analysts on Jan. 29, Holland-America president and CEO Jack Williams said that Alaska bookings with that line were "very strong."

Asked to define that strength last week, Paul Allen, Holland-America's vice president for Alaska sales and marketing, said, "I expect to be full this summer. We have six ships with 154,000 cruise beds coming to Alaska. I expect to fill them all. The booking situation has improved greatly since just after Christmas. The market is still price-sensitive, but we are seeing demand levels similar to this time last year."

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., owner of Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity, the second largest cruise organization in the world, ferried 17 percent of cruise passengers to Alaska in 2001.

"In January and February, which are referred to in the industry as the wave' period, our company has broken several booking records for both our lines," said Michael Sheehan, manager of corporate communications for RCCL.

"RCI, during the week ending Jan. 18 took in 147,819 bookings, a record. For the week ending Jan. 25, booking volume for first-quarter sailings was running 78 percent ahead of the same time in 2001 with discount levels only about 5 percent higher," he said.

Sheehan declined to say how those company-wide numbers applied to Alaska bookings.

Maureen Camandona, a spokeswoman for Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, said the company has not recovered from the effects of Sept. 11 despite having enjoyed "a really terrific January and February."

Cruise West carries about 2 percent of Alaska's cruise passengers.

"We are really pleased that starting Jan. 1 and through today (Feb. 20), we are going gang-busters," she said. "But bookings are not at a level that makes up for what happened in September."

"It's slow and steady," said Steve Gray, vice president of marketing and sales for Glacier Bay Cruiseline, a wholly owned subsidiary of Goldbelt, the for-profit Native corporation for Juneau.

"The good news that we have is that we had a record-setting November as far as bookings and money through the door," Gray said Wednesday. "We had an early final payment incentive. It wasn't as substantial as a discount, but it worked, because people are really shopping."

Glacier Bay's lodge is "doing better than last year" in advance bookings, Gray said, and its largest ship, Wilderness Discoverer, is "doing very well," with six charters to date. Gray announced Thursday that Glacier Bay was extending its early booking discount of $300 per couple until March 31.

"This year especially, consumers are looking to save money," Gray said. "And with the trend of last-minute bookings ... we wanted to make sure our consumers had the opportunity to take advantage of our savings programs." The discount applies to all 2002 Alaska Adventure Cruises of six nights or longer.

"Our Alaska bookings are strong, and we have even added departures for 2002," said Meredith Bussen, spokeswoman for INTRAV/Clipper Cruise Line, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. The additions are all on the Clipper Odyssey, which holds 128 passengers; the departures are June 9, June 20, July 1 and Aug. 5.

Companies that operated cruises that docked in Juneau in 2001 included those mentioned above as well as Ausuka Cruises-Japan, Hapag-Lloyd, Carnival, Crystal Cruise Lines, Mitsui OSK and Special Expeditions.

World Explorer is another of the small lines serving Alaska, with nine sailings scheduled for 2002 all on one vessel, the Universe Explorer, which holds 737 passengers.

"Bookings are going fairly well and are on a late curve," said spokesman Todd McCormack. "But they are on the rise now."

Crystal has nine cruises docking in Juneau this summer, said Kristin Turner, assistant manager/public relations.

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