Whether the cruise industry's fortunes improve on 1995, when the number of passengers probably fell slightly below the 4.6 million of 1994, this year should go a long way toward answering questions that bear on the industry's future.
Among them: Can the industry absorb the 13,000-plus new berths available from the seven new ships due in 1996? Did Regency Cruises' sudden shutdown last October, with half its fleet at sea, do lasting damage to consumer confidence? Will other financially shaky cruise lines fold, merge or form marketing alliances with bigger companies? Will discounting remain rampant?
While awaiting answers, much of the industry is treating 1995 as an aberration. It hopes to rekindle growth this spring and summer with those new ships, with more cruises to more places, and with the biggest advertising budgets in cruising history.
One hopeful is Canaveral Cruise Line, a newcomer that is offering two-day cruises from Port Canaveral, Fla., to Freeport, the Bahamas, starting at $179 a person.
"We're going to tap into the first-time cruiser market," said Michael Kosmas, a Canaveral vice president. "Because we're in central Florida, we're in a good position to attract people who visit Disney World who want to take a cruise but don't want to be at sea for long."
Owned by the Kosmas Group of New Smyrna, Fla., a family-owned company that also has 12 hotels in Florida and the Caribbean, Canaveral's ship is the 670-passenger Dolphin IV, formerly of Dolphin Cruise Line. The company's tentative mid-January start-up was delayed by record snows that closed the Baltimore shipyard where the Dolphin IV was being refurbished, but Mr. Kosmas vowed Canaveral would begin sailing this month.
A record number of cruise lines are looking to expand the third-biggest cruise market, Alaska, which with 8.4 percent of the market ranks far behind the Caribbean (50.5 percent) but within hailing distance of Europe and the Mediterranean (14.2 percent).
Five years ago, 19 cruise ships sailed to Alaska, and last year, 25. This year, despite the shutdown of Regency, 32 or 33 ships, a record, will sail there from mid-May to mid-September, according to Larry Pimentel, president of Seabourn Cruises in San Francisco.
Seabourn is one of several newcomers going to Alaska, with its 200-passenger Seabourn Pride sailing seven cruises, most of them for 10 days. Other first-timers include Carnival Cruise Line with its Tropicale (1,022 passengers), and Celebrity with the Horizon (1,350). And Cunard's Sea Goddess II (118 capacity) will join its Dynasty (800) and Sagafjord (589).
Last month Kloster Cruise decided to reposition Royal Cruise Line's 1,052-passenger Crown Odyssey to Alaska this spring and summer, renaming it the Norwegian Crown.
That repositioning is the result of Royal's dissolution as a separate entity. Three of the four Royal ships -- the Crown Odyssey, the Royal Odyssey and the Star Odyssey -- are being transferred into the struggling Norwegian Cruise Line, owned by Royal's parent company, Kloster. The fourth, the 212-passenger Queen Odyssey, was bought by Seabourn, which will rename it the Seabourn Legend in July. (Passengers booked on the ships should contact their travel agents or the cruise line to learn of any changes in itinerary or price.)
Big ships head north
Holland America and Princess Cruises will each have six ships in Alaska this season, offering a combined 220 cruises. The Princess fleet in Alaska will include the 1,950-passenger Sun Princess, the 77,000-ton behemoth that joined the fleet last November, which will increase Princess' capacity in Alaska 13 percent over last year. Royal Caribbean is increasing capacity 41 percent on its 10- and 11-day Alaska cruises, by substituting the 1,004-passenger Song of Norway for the Sun Viking, a 714-passenger ship that will be redeployed to the Far East.
Some environmentalists worry about the presence of so many ships in Alaska.
"We do not object to an increase in cruise ships going up the Inside Passage," said Dr. Edgar Wayburn, a retired San Francisco internist who is chairman of the Sierra Club's Alaska task force. (The Inside Passage is the traditional cruise route along the southeastern coastal strip that includes Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka.) "But we object to so many cruise ships in Glacier Bay National Park, because [they] threaten the habitat of the humpback whale. And all those ships in a relatively small area threaten general environmental degradation."
Charles B. West, who pioneered tourism to Alaska beginning in 1947 and whose Seattle-based Alaska Sightseeing operates eight cruise ships of no more than 100 passengers, does not consider the big ships an environmental threat.
"But you do get thousands of people swarming through small towns," he said, "so the quality of their Alaskan experience is being compromised."
The cruise lines deny that their ships pose a threat to the humpback whale and say that the steady increase in Alaska-bound passengers, including many repeat passengers, is proof of the quality of Alaska cruises.
The National Park Service allows 107 cruise ships -- a maximum of two a day -- into the 70-mile waters of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, at the northern end of the Inside Passage, from June through August during the whales' 92-day breeding season.
The cruise industry and Alaska tourism interests want to increase the number of entries by 72 percent, to 184. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit initially favored the 72 percent increase, which many park service officials oppose, but with a decision expected any day, the expectation is that he will settle for a 30 percent increase, or 139 visits.
"We think that's manageable and fair," said Jim Brady, the superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. He added that the money raised from additional entries -- ships are assessed a $5 "franchise fee" for each passenger -- would help finance the park service's "biological studies on vessel-whale interaction, and our concerns about the effects of smokestack emissions on air quality."
Fares should drop
While posted fares for a seven-day Inside Passage cruise range from about $1,000 to $2,750 a person, the increased capacity this year is almost sure to result in continued discounting.
But don't look for discounts in Alaska as deep as those in the Caribbean, where supply already exceeds demand and capacity continues to increase.