Are the European cruise lines coming to America?

Two days after New York City celebrated Columbus Day, it may seem that way with First European Cruises' establishment in the United States, following Mediterranean Shipping Cruises, which established itself here last year. Both join Costa Crociere and Royal Olympic Cruises, which have been in the North American market for a long time.

In addition, a variety of European cruise products are also marketed here by Eurocruises, including Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, as well as by Peter Deilmann, and by sales agents for other European ocean-going and river-boat cruise companies.

Thus, to some extent the tables may be turning.

The North American-based lines have increasingly been tapping the European markets (some say 20 percent of their passengers are now from Europe), and have been deploying more ships in European waters, including their big, new ships. Now, the Europeans are coming to North America offering smaller, older ships, often ships retired from the American market, and promising better service, better food, unique itineraries and value for money.

However, the European ships may not be competing as much with the big, new ships as with the older American fleet, such as the so-called classic ships operated by Premier Cruises.

The European ships also tend to be classic in the sense that they tend to be older, well-maintained ships, and often offer more of a traditional nautical flavor than do the new mega-ships.

Thus, suddenly what was a niche left vacant in the North American market is rapidly becoming filled with American and European ships.

While no one seems to have any statistics on how many Americans cruise abroad on foreign ships, at EuroCruises, Vice President Maria Conte said the company sends thousands of Americans to Europe every year.

The tables may also be turning in another sense. Does the arrival of the European companies here signal that the European market growth is slowing down?