Cruising’s ‘New Center of Gravity’

Experts chime in on European cruise trends

By: Ralph Grizzle

Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik, Croatia, is a popular stop
for cruisers in Europe.
At the European Cruise Industry 2008 Conference in Brussels, David Dingle proclaimed Europe to be “cruising’s new center of gravity.”

Indeed, the CEO of Carnival UK and chairman of the European Cruise Council has good reason to make such a claim. Cruising in Europe is experiencing a tidal surge: 2006, the last year for which final figures were available, saw 15.2 million passenger visits in European ports (a 21 percent increase over the previous year); and the number of Europeans taking cruises increased by 9 percent, for a total of 3.4 million cruisers.

Moreover, North American-based cruise lines are placing 23 percent more capacity in Europe this year than last. It’s questionable, however, whether bookings on this side of the Big Pond are keeping pace with the capacity increase.

“Our European bookings for the first quarter of 2008 are running slightly ahead of first quarter 2007,” said Greg Nacco, director of Seattle’s Cruise Specialists. “We would like to think it’s because the public understands the great value that a European cruise represents when compared to paying for a land vacation in euros.”

But, Nacco added, the increased capacity has resulted in a multitude of cruise line offers, particularly for the Med, and that may be what’s driving consumers.

One of the bigger obstacles that U.S. travel agents are facing this year is not the declining dollar against the euro, but the cost of getting their clients to Europe, said Eric Maryanov of Los Angeles-based All-Travel.com. Tapping sources closer to ports of departure, cruise lines are marshaling marketing resources within Europe. And so are ports. In a September press release titled, “The Cruise Tourist of the Future Comes From Southern Europe,” Cruise Baltic, a European Union-subsidized entity, comprised of 26 port destinations in 10 countries, speculated that an increasing number of its cruise passengers would come from Italy and Spain. The Baltic Sea region is already “the first cruise experience for four out of 10 Italians,” said Bo Nylandsted Larsen, director of Cruise Baltic.

European travel agents are ebullient about the interest in cruising on their home turf. Jean Alen of Cruise Travel in Antwerp, Belgium, said his company has seen a steady increase in cruise sales ranging from 15 percent to 20 percent annually.

“Cruising is the fastest-growing segment in tourism over here,” Alen said. “We expect to triple or at least double the number of cruisers in Belgium during the next few years.”

Still, North Americans represent the dominant source market for cruise passengers in Europe and organizations like Cruise Baltic are gearing up to gain even more market share from North America. Cruise Baltic’s efforts, aimed at travel agents, were unveiled during CLIA’s Cruise3Sixty when officials announced the Cruise Baltic Travel Agent Academy (www.travelagentacademy.com/cruisebaltic) and a Cruise Baltic Virtual Travel Seminar (www.virtualtravelseminars.com/cruisebaltic/seminar).

“Last year, travel agents attending CLIA’s conference told us they wanted a tool to assist them in getting to know more about the region,” Larsen said. “A year later, we have an excellent training program to offer them.”

In a reversal of sorts, some U.S.-based cruise sellers see opportunities within Europe.

“We are looking at how we might want to move into Europe and are still examining the different offers and alternatives that we have had,” said Brad Anderson, America’s Vacation Center.

The timing could not be better for American companies thinking of setting up shop in Europe. In Brussels, Dingle likened cruising in Europe to the U.S. 10 to 15 years ago. Since cruising is more mature in the U.S. than in Europe, American cruise sellers could potentially export their expertise. Agents wanting to do business in Europe, however, should come prepared. Despite the European Union, Europe remains largely fragmented. Traveling only a few hours from Norway to Sweden to Denmark to Germany, for example, requires that you have four different currencies in your pocket. Of those countries, only Germany uses the euro. Also be prepared to produce collateral in several different languages.

For those watching the ships come and go in ports like Copenhagen, Venice, Barcelona, Southampton and Civitavecchia, it surely must seem as though cruising has found a new “center of gravity.” Observers on this side of the Atlantic, however, may be inclined to see it another way: Gravity requires mass, and the mass of ships and cruisers still reside on this side of the Big Pond.

It’s not cruising that has found its new center of gravity in age-old Europe but the continent’s vacation industry. Cruising, which Europeans once perceived as an exclusive pleasure for only the rich, is finally making waves. It’s about time.

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