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Tue 14 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Sell, sail, sale

With more than 200 ships operating in the Mediterranean and cruise lines wooing customers with special deals, there has never been a better time to promote holidays afloat.

Sell, sail, sale
Silversea’s Silver Shadow.
Sell, sail, sale
Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas.
Sell, sail, sale
Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas boasts a range of activities.
Sell, sail, sale
The swimming pool and Jacuzzis on MSC Fantasia.

With more than 200 ships operating in the Mediterranean and cruise lines wooing customers with special deals, there has never been a better time to promote holidays afloat.

It's been a year of good news, bad news for the cruise sector - the global downturn sent shivers through the industry, with expectations of a less than buoyant summer season at just the time that more than 18,000 berths were due for launch with 14 new vessels setting sail in 2009.

A flood of special offers, ranging from two-for-one to free flights and onboard credits, has served to excite interest in vacations at sea, however, and while margins may be down, according to the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA), the number of people cruising with its member lines was expected to rise around 2%, to 13.5 million in 2009.

We feel the value adding proposition has greater resonance in the luxury market.

For the Gulf traveller, it may be too late to catch the spectacular deals generated earlier this year, but the good news here is that there is still capacity in the Mediterranean as the move towards late booking has risen elsewhere in the world and now approaches regional levels.

The CLIA Cruise Market Profile 2009 confirmed shorter booking times, with clients now waiting until much nearer departure date than the five to seven months' lead time that had been the norm - but the good news for the trade was that nearly 90% of cruises continue to be sold through travel agents, rising to 97% for some lines.

Royal Caribbean, pioneer of outbound cruising from the Gulf, confirmed the slowdown of enquiries and confirmed reservations, with Middle East executive director, Lakshmi Durai emphasising the last minute nature of the market: "But, while it has not been like previous years (when we were up 30 per cent annually), we are on a par or a few percentage points above 2008," she said.

While there are eight Royal Caribbean ships offering 70 sailings in the Mediterranean with a year-round operation for the first time, as well as five Celebrity vessels including the new Celebrity Solstice and Celebrity Equinox and the two Azamara ‘boutique' ships visiting 91 ports in 36 countries, Durai stipulated that the market was not wide open for last minute bookings.

"Those waiting for bargains will not necessarily get best price as yields have held up for 2009 and many of our sailings in the Mediterranean are full, including the majority of those on our latest ship, Independence of the Seas," she said.

GSA for Princess and Cunard in the region, Cruise Master Middle East suggested that looking for sailings during Ramadan or Eid holidays might pay dividends, with many lines now prolonging their Mediterranean seasons through in to the autumn months.

According to sales and marketing manager, Ashok Kumar, summer has segued in to early winter, and many lines have also introduced year-round sailings with the Eastern Med showcased in the winter months.

"During the peak summer months, schedules out of Barcelona, Rome and Venice continue to be in demand and there is reasonable inventory available, particularly for sailing dates that coincide with the Eid period," he said.

He said that earlier offers such as free upgrades on Princess and Cunard, two-for-one pricing and free shore excursions on Regent Seven Seas and cash credits on Carnival did stimulate interest, and as a result, many of these offers ended on May 31: "However, there are still very good bargains to be had, especially for year-end sailings."

One feature of this year's eccentric trends is that the weak dollar is persuading many US travellers to opt for a cruise - paid for in dollars rather than Euros - rather than a land based holiday in Europe, and hence, those lines that cater more for the US market are tending to fill quicker.

Sample packagesThe MSC Fantasia, 3959-pax flagship of the line launched last year, is sailing seven-day roundtrips out of Genoa, Italy, calling Palermo, Sicily; Tunis; Palma, Mallorca; Barcelona, and Marseille. Prices from £670pp (US $1110) in July and £720pp ($1193) in August. Facilities include six restaurants, 18 bars/lounges, 4D cinema, F1 simulator, five pools including one with sliding sun roof, Aurea spa and the first premium MSC Yacht Club with 99 suites and 24-hour butler service.

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 sails September 14 from Dover on a 12-night Mediterranean voyage stopping at Lisbon, Gibraltar, Rome, Florence, Monte Carlo and Barcelona, with prices from US$1999 inclusive of an upgrade to a balcony cabin. Facilities on the 2592-pax ship include 20,000ft² Canyon Ranch SpaClub, five pools, planetarium, ballroom and disco, Royal Court Theatre, virtual reality golf and basketball court.

Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas has late availability in the Mediterranean for seven-night cruises from August through to November, departing Barcelona and calling Naples, Rome, Florence, Villefranche and Marseilles. Prices are from $614pp, rising to $1153 for suite accommodation. Onboard, there is an ice rink, rock climbing wall, Royal Promenade deck with shops and restaurants, Adventure Ocean youth club, spa, golf simulator and mini golf course.

Costa deals include a seven-night cruise from either Barcelona or Rome, visiting Italy, Spain, Tunis and Malta with a choice of four ships, staying in a Samsara Spa cabin where benefits include two treatments, two fitness meditation sessions, entrance to the tanning centre, unlimited access to the thermal bath and thalassotherapy pool. Price from $1900pp. Hot deal in the autumn is a seven-night ex-Barcelona cruise on Costa Pacifica or Costa Concordia for $459pp.

Holland America, for instance, claims a ‘stellar year' for sailing in the Med, with overall value judged as exceptional, and on its ships, space is limited with ex-Rome sailings on the ms Noordam among the few bargains to be had.

MSC confirmed ‘some availability' for the peak summer months while ongoing promotions include onboard credits and free spa treatments for bookings in premium Yacht Club cabins aboard MSC Splendida and MSC Fantasia until August 30, and Costa Cruises has added Costa Pacifica and Costa Luminosa to its Mediterranean itineraries and still has space for last minute bookings from the Gulf.

Now is the time to emphasise the value proposition of cruising.

Regional sales manager, Francesca Mugnari said the line had eight of its 14 ships plying Med waters this summer: "The new Costa Pacifica's top seller is a seven night itinerary in the Western Med with weekly departures from Rome, Savona and Barcelona to Majorca, Tunis and Palermo, Sicily - while a similar cruise is operated by the Costa Concordia calling at ports in Spain, Tunisia, Malta, Italy and France.

"We also have four ships in the Eastern Med, and top seller from the region is the Costa Serena sailing every Sunday from Venice to Greece, Turkey and Croatia, while Costa Fortuna does the best of Greece from Venice."

At the luxury end, most premium lines have attempted to stave off deep price cuts by offering onboard credits of up to a whopping US$2,000 as well as free shore excursions, but these lines too have unusual availability for late bookings, according to Silversea's Trudy Redfern.

"We have found guests are booking later in the current market and therefore we do have availability for voyages from late summer onwards ... for hot destinations such as Rome, Venice, Monaco and Barcelona, which are very popular with the Middle East market," she said.

""We have reduced pricing on some sailings but we feel the value adding proposition has greater resonance in the luxury market, and on more than 60 cruises this year we are offering $1,000 onboard credit, together with savings off the published fare."

In another development resulting from the turmoil in financial and travel markets this year, many lines are moving to guarantee ‘best price' and rate protection for early bookers, traditionally the mainstay of the sector.

"Our company policy is to reward early bookers, and this means that for 2010, we are developing a pricing strategy whereby those guests who book early will be rewarded with the best prices," said Redfern.

Meanwhile, with the extension of the Med cruise season, even more bargains are on offer during the early autumn, and, coinciding with Eid this year, offers agents an opportunity to extend the last-minute season for cruise ever farther.

Costa's Mugnari said: "Eid is this year a perfect time to cruise and enjoy reduced rates ... all our seven-night Med cruises are still available and we will still be operating weekly from Rome, Barcelona, Venice, Savona and Marseille - while we are also offering special rates for groups of 10 or more."

MSC said there were cabins on the MSC Armonia out of Venice, visiting Athens, Greek islands and Croatia priced from £590 ($978) for the week, while Silversea reported availability on two ships in the Med in September, and Cruise Master is also recommending a Greek itinerary.

"For the Eid holidays, we are selling the Grand Princess which has a 12-night sailing around the Greek islands with prices starting from $2199 per person," said Kumar.

With prices in to the autumn set to remain in the bargain basement, and expectations that 2010 will be a ‘challenging' year for the cruise sector, industry official predict unprecedented opportunities to expand cruise sales.

"Now is the time to emphasise the value proposition of cruising," said Michael Bayley, svp international for Royal Caribbean, while Trudy Redfern from Silversea said people who had never cruised before were seeing the exceptional value of luxury cruising, in comparison to a similar land-based resort.

Kumar endorsed this view: "With such fantastic offers, this has certainly been the year to attract new cruisers, and for 2010, while it is difficult to predict on pricing, most cruise lines will continue to offer ‘added value'."

2010 sound bites• New for 2010, Star Clipper will offer 40 new ports, with three tall ships in the Med in the summer and a new itinerary out of Costa Rica; Silversea will have a new ship, 175 itineraries, year-round deployment in the Med, roundtrips from Cape Town and more Asian sailings; P&O also has a new ship, Azura with an outdoor cinema, spa retreat and Indian fine dining from Michelin starred Atul Kochhar, and offers free child places, two new round Britain cruises, while NCL has three ships in Europe homeporting in Venice, Barcelona and Dover, the latter offering Baltic cruises.

• Princess has 39 itineraries in Europe in 2010 with ‘New Interlude' voyages, seven-day cruises out of London and Rome, while Cunard will debut the Queen Elizabeth late in the year as well as offering trans-Atlantic crossings and ex-LA short trips on Queen Mary 2 and northern Europe and Med itineraries on the Queen Victoria, including ‘open jaw' sailings between Venice and Rome or Barcelona.

• Costa will increase capacity by 16% in 2010 and feature new incentives for families (children sharing a cabin with parents travel free), groups and singles as well as ‘Pronto Price' discounts for advance bookings. New destinations include Greenland, Canada and the US, plus 240 eco-tourism excursions.

• Royal Caribbean will have eight ships in the Med in 2010, including three of its largest and newest, but the fanfare will be with the record-busting Oasis of the Seas, launching late this year and sailing off to the Caribbean with a host of innovations promised, while MSC will have its two largest ships in the Med, launch the MSC Magnifica featuring a retractable roof over the pool, debut North American cruises and add more in South America.

• Disney Cruise Line has just announced it will reposition Disney Magic to Europe for a five-month season in 2010. From Barcelona, it will sail 10- and 11-night Med cruises during April, May, August and September, while in June and July, the ship will homeport in Dover.

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