"We need to let more people know that MSC cruises is a solid alternative," said Pierfrancesco Vaga, CEO of MSC CRUISES. "We have played a minor role in the cruise market and have been a niche player. Our name has not been widely known. We intend to change all that," he added.

With an aggressive building program, MSC will not only expand, but will also have newer ships than its competition, with more outside cabins and more balconies, according to Vaga. He explained that the same scenario played out for MSC in the cargo sector 10 to 15 years ago. The company grew as fast in tonnage then as it plans to do in the cruise sector now. Today, the MSC cargo fleet counts 250 ships.

Vaga is talking planned growth, however, because MSC already has the infrastructure in place to support a larger fleet with its own sales offices in the main European markets as well as sales representatives in other European countries, while also building a larger organization in the North American market.

Adding the 1,500-passenger MSC Armonia, formerly the European Vision, with only a month's lead time is not a problem, according to Vaga. The ship is deployed out of Venice, sailing alongside the 1,600-passenger MSC Lirica, offering the same itinerary and sailing dates as Festival Cruises had. Thus, Vaga is counting on Festival's passengers who had originally booked the European Vision, as well as the overflow from the fully-booked Lirica to fill the ship.

In addition to the Armonia, MSC will introduce its second newbuilding, the 1,760-passenger MSC Opera in June (a larger sister ship to the Lirica), boosting its passenger capacity by approximately 30 pecent in 2004.

The MSC fleet also includes the 1952-built, 639-passenger Monterey: the 1982-built, 1,180 passenger Melody (ex-Starship Atlantic); and the 1977-built, 940-passenger Rhapsody (ex-Cunard Princess). According to Vaga, the Monterey is sailing a limited summer season and may soon be sold or scrapped.

According to estimates by Cruise Industry News, MSC's passenger capacity in 2004 is approximately 275,000.