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The Cruise Industry Keeps On Sailing


When something bad happens on a cruise ship you tend to hear about it. But bad press hasn’t done a thing to stall the growth of the cruise ship business.

— When something bad happens on a cruise ship you tend to hear about it. It might be a nasty virus that makes half the passengers sick. Or… it may be the fire in the engine room that stranded the Carnival Splendor off the coast of Mexico. The crippled ship will be towed into the port of San Diego sometime today.

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity and maybe that’s true. Because so far, bad press hasn’t done a thing to stall the growth of the cruise ship business.

Bob Sharak, executive vice president for the Cruise Lines International Association, said for 30 years, cruise lines have done nothing but grow. "Since 1980, we've grown on average about 7.5 percent per year, in the number of guests we would sail on our cruise lines," said Sharak.

He said his association expects this year to be no exception. In 2009, companies that were members of Sharak’s association carried 13.4 million guests.

"And we project that this year we'll be carrying 14.3 million guests," he said.

That's a 6.3 percent increase. It’s a little less than average but not bad in a still-lagging economy. Everyone who tracks the tourism industry remarks on the dramatic growth of the cruise lines.

Alison DaRosa, a veteran travel writer who lives in San Diego, said a vacation at sea has a lot going for it. You only having to unpack your suitcase once, and you're staying in a controlled, protective environment.

"It is so easy,” said DaRosa. “It's so safe. And it's such a tremendous value.”

For example, DaRosa just saw a cruise offer from Holland America for a week-long Mexico cruise for as little as $399. If you can fill a ship with 5,000 passengers, it's easy to understand how the cruise lines can make money. And Sharak says they do fill the ships.

Sadly, one exception to the rule is San Diego, where the number of passengers sailing out of the port is expected to fall by about a third this year, compared to last year. Next year, the passenger count is expected to drop by another 50 percent, compared to this year.

DaRosa said the shortage of customers in San Diego is related to the port's reliance on cruises to Mexico. She said people have become uncomfortable with the level of violence in Mexico. And some of them have grown tired of the same old trip.

"I mean I've done three or four Mexico cruises. Am I going to do another one? They're going to the same ports,” said DaRosa. “So... I think we should try to go to some place different."

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, business is good. Cruise lines are ordering more and bigger ships, and Sharak says they expect to increase the number of guests they can accommodate by 22 percent between this year and 2014.

Environmentalist Gershon Cohen is program director of the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters, and he keeps a close eye on the cruise ship industry.

"They are still bringing on bigger and bigger ships every year and frankly, I just can't imagine where they're going to find the passengers to fill these ships within a few years,” he said. “If the world economy continues on the path it's on, these ships are going to have to be dry-docked and turned into hotels."

But Bob Sharak said he's heard that before.

"Every time we've had a year when we build five ships, seven ships, 10 ships, 12 ships, there's always that question about this. Are you building too much? Are you over capacity?” said Sharak, adding that the answer to those questions has always been "no."

The Panamanian government will oversee an investigation into the stranding of the Carnival Splendor. Cohen said the cruise ship industry likes to flag its ships in countries that will be friendly to the company in terms of regulation and taxation.

Sharak didn't want to comment on the mishap involving the Splendor, even though Carnival Cruise Lines is a member of Cruise Lines International, Sharak’s association. All he said is when things go bad, cruise line go "out of their way" to win back the confidence of their customers.

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