"We are keeping our prices low while we are in a growth mode," said Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises in the U.S. "We are pricing more attractively than the competition to draw people in our growth stage. It is a good strategy."

Meanwhile, MSC also made another perfect score on the U.S. Public Health inspection, which was conducted aboard the Lirica on Christmas Eve in St. Thomas, Sasso said. "We expected Public Health to show up on Dec. 4, then again on Dec. 14 and Dec. 21. Instead, they showed up at 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve after we had been sailing for a month.

"We take our housekeeping and cleanliness very seriously," Sasso added. The key is to have enough staff, as well as dedicated staff, he said, and systems in place.

From One to Two (Again)

Sailing only one ship out of Ft. Lauderdale this winter, MSC will return with two ships next winter, with the Orchestra joining the Lirica.

The Orchestra will be sailing seven-day cruises and the Lirica, 10 days.

Sasso described the two-ship deployment as a prelude to further expansion in North America. He has previously said that MSC will have a ship year-round. ''New York and Bermuda were on the radar screen," Sasso said, "but we were not able to secure berth spaces at either end.

"We are now looking at starting year-round service in North America in 2010. And work is progressing on plans for summer cruises out of New York." Meanwhile, the Orchestra will be calling in New York in May of 2009 on her way from the Caribbean back to Europe.

Big Four(?)

"MSC has gone from a marginal player to a worldwide operator," Sasso said. "It is not about the big three (cruise companies) any more, but the big four." MSC has its two newest ships in the Mediterranean this winter; three ships in South America; one in the Caribeban; one chartered to a South African tour company; and one laid up.

MSC is first of all looking to grow in Europe, Sasso said. The winter cruises in the Mediterranean offer good value, he said, and only one day of possible bad weather in either direction. The itineraries are out of Genoa to Egypt or to the Canaries.

These winter cruises are becoming an attractive alternative to the Caribbean, Sasso said. "There are two climates on the ship," he said, "outside and inside. And the new ships have so many inside facilities that the external climate becomes much less important.

"We put our assets in the best markets," Sasso added. "We can use more ships in the Mediterranean and in South America."

In Europe, 85 percent to 90 percent of the passengers are Europeans, with the balance mostly Americans. In the Caribbean, Americans make up 85 percent to 95 percent of the passengers.

Is Sasso concerned about a possible recession? The cruise market is protected with double insulation, he said. "First, our customer base is not affected so much by an economic tum-down; and secondly, these people want to treat themselves."

In addition, MSC carries a lot of corporate incentive groups and other groups.

New Ships

MSC will be introducing the 90,000-ton, 2,550- passenger Poesia, in the Orchestra class, this April and the first in a new class of ships, the 133,500-ton, 3,300- passenger Fantasia in December. Both will sail in the Mediterranean during the winter 2008-2009.

Two more ships are under construction, the Splendida, sister ship to the Fantasia, slated for delivery in 2009, and the Magnifica, in the Orchestra class, slated for delivery in 2010.

By 2010, MSC will have a fleet of 12 cruise ships and an estimated annual passenger capacity just short of one million. It will make MSC the fourth largest cruise company close to Norwegian Cruises Line in size, but far behind the brands of Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises, which will able to carry an estimated 8 million and 4 million passengers, respectively, in 2008.