Pearl Cruises, which pioneered cruises to the Far East more than a decade ago, will cease operating in September. The 480-passenger Pearl will be renamed the CostaPiaya and will sail under the Costa Cruise Lines banner starting in late fall.

The new Caribbean program, departing Santo Domingo for ports in Cuba and Jamaica, will be exclusively marketed to Europeans by Costa Crociere. The company, which recently marketed the 800-passenger CostaAllegra sailing from Pointe-a­ Pitre, Guadeloupe on this basis, is selling the larger 1,300-passenger CostaClassica's 1995/96 programs to Europeans.

However, this latest ship withdrawal raises doubts as to whether the Far East can sustain year-round cruising. Orient Lines announced earlier this year that it would position the 800-passenger Marco Polo in Europe from May through October, starting in 1996.

According to Orient's Executive Vice President Deborah Natansohn, "The Far East may not be strong enough for year-round cruising."

Among others who have also cut back their deployment in the Far East is Windstar Cruises, although the line maintains one ship year-round in the Pacific region, and Seven Seas Cruises, which originally focused on the Far East.

The smaller niche lines recently applauded, at least publicly, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's entry into the Far East. industry executives said that RCCL 's marketing muscle would generate broad interest in cruising in the Far East which would benefit all the operators. Clearly, that has not been the case so far.

However, other lines have maintained a strong seasonal presence in the Far East including Princess Cruises.

According to Jay Silberman, President, Cruise Consultants Company, San Antonio, TX, "Asia is a fantastic cruise market - sophisticated travelers want to go there and it's not a troubled area like the Middle East - but it doesn't work year-round as a cruising region," primarily because of weather conditions. At his agency, however, Silberman has seen an escalation in the number of Far East bookings in recent years.

Unfamiliar Region

Also in question is the readiness of North Americans to travel to an unfamiliar area which is costlier and requires commitment of more vacation time.

Ron Bitting, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Leaders in Travel/Personal Touch Cruise Consultants, Great Neck, NY, concurs. "North Americans look at the higher price tags of Far East cruises, but don't look at the inherent value of such vacations. Additionally, they regard the air segment as too lengthy."

Market Capacity

In 1994, the Far East/South Pacific cruise capacity was 128,000 passengers up sharply from 65,000 in 1993. The strong increase was due to two new year­ round deployments by the Crown Monarch and the Wind Spirit. Both ships were subsequently withdrawn.

The market capacity forecast for 1995, adjusted for the withdrawal of Pearl Cruises, is 99,000 passengers; and the capacity fo recast for 1996, adjusted for the seasonal deployment of Orient Lines and full year operations by RCCL, is 96,000.

However, there are skeptics in the North American-based cruise industry who expect RCCL to cancel its program.

In 1995, ships sailing in the Far East represent approximately two percent of the North American cruise capacity. In the meantime, regional cruising for Far Eastern markets is on the upswing.