The forecast for this winter's cruise season is bright, and advance bookings indicate that Spring and Summer will also be good for the industry, according to several cruise line executives.

However, the late booking trend continues to characterize the industry, and many executives believe that patterns are even later for 1987. As a result, early booking discounts are on the rise, they said.

Many also said that, due to additional tonnage, they have had to work harder to fill their ships.

Caribbean Still Number 1

Region Caribbean cruises continue to be the winter's best-sellers although there is still good availability on several' winter sailings. The Mexican Riviera continues to be the industry's soft spot.

Most of Carnival's cruises are "just about sold out," according to a spokesperson for the line. However, she said there is still "plenty of space available on the Tropicale, which offers seven-day cruises from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta.

Costa's cruises from San Juan are "selling very well, with the exception of one or two soft departures," Richard Sasso, senior  vice president of sales said. He added that bookings have picked up substantially in the past few weeks.

At Holland America, the Noordam's first three January cruises in the Eastern Caribbean are sold out, and there is limited availability on the rest of the cruises through March," a spokesperson there reported. However, there is "good availability" on the Nieuw Amsterdam's Western Caribbean cruises from Tampa.

Dan Pedelaborde, vice president of sales for Sitmar said that the line's Eastern Caribbean cruises are selling well, but "Mexico needs more promotion."

A spokesperson for American Canadian Line reported that both ships were about 70 percent booked through the winter. At American Cruise Line, a spokesperson said the two-day cruises on Lake Okechobee "should be sold out soon, but the Savannah's Florida Keys cruises are just a little over 50 percent booked.

At Clipper, "January is fairly open, but February is almost sold out," a spokesperson reported. "There is also some availability in March," she said.

At Commodore and Dolphin, there is "good availability'' on all sailings through March, according to spokespeople at both lines.

Outlook Good For South Pacific

In the South Pacific, Princess has "very limited space" on its cruises to Sydney and Tahiti," Mike Hannan, vice president of marketing reported.

Royal Viking Line's early South Pacific cruises are also near capacity, according to a spokesperson for the line. "There is some softness on the later dates, but the bookings will catch up." The World Cruise is sold out, except for limited availability towards the end, he said.

Royal Cruise Line's South Pacific cruises are not 100 percent sold out, but they are close to capacity, Richard Revnes, president of the line reported. "We have had to push hard with our Australia/New Zealand cruises because they are new destinations for us, and we had a short lead time to promote them."

In South America, Sun Line's Amazon and Yucatan cruises are doing extremely well, according to Mercedes Miranda, vice president of sales. The line's cruises to Surinam are selling more slowly, but "it takes time for a new destination to catch on," she said.

At Epirotiki, a spokesperson reported that both the World Renaissance's cruises between Guadeloupe and Brazil and the Pegasus' cruises between Bahia and Buenos Aires are "selling quite well, after the end of January."

Bullish On Summer

Although it is still too early to make accurate predictions, those interviewed agreed that advance bookings indicate that it will be a good summer for the industry. Everyone is watching Europe, and those who are returning to the region said they are seeing some resurgence.

Costa will have three ships in the Mediterranean, including one in Egypt and Israel, and according to Sasso, "bookings are near 1985 levels."

Princess also will be offering a variety of Mediterranean cruises this summer, including some from Athens, and Mike Hannan, vice president of marketing said he is "encouraged" by what he has seen so far.

Miranda said Sun Line has seen "some increase in demand, but it is too early to tell."

In Northern Europe, Royal Viking, Princess, and Ocean all are extremely optimistic about the upcoming season.

"We are ahead of 1986, and that was a great year for us," said Rick Williams, president of Ocean. "We believe there is a lot of strength in Northern Europe," he added, noting that the line is offering two alternating seven-day roundtrip itineraries from Copenhagen: to the fjords, and in the Baltic.

At Royal, bookings are "a bit behind last year," Revnes said, "but we do not foresee any problems. I think that people are less concerned about travelling to Europe this year."

In Alaska, Costa, Sitmar and Holland America reported that bookings are ahead of last year. Revnes said that RCL's bookings are at the 40 percent level, and Hannan said Princess "is slightly behind last year."

"Everyone Has To Work Harder"

Despite the optimism, however, several executives said that individual bookings have been later than usual, and this trend, combined with overtonage, is forcing them to make greater price concessions.

To counteract the late booking trend, almost everyone is offering some type of early discount bonus, although there is some discrepancy about how effective these promotions are. Many lines are also relying more on special group promotions to fill the ships, according to several executives.

Revnes said, "We have all had to work harder than in the past - and we have had to be more creative than before."

"We have had to step up our advertising in Los Angeles and traditionally good Midwest markets like Chicago to keep the business coming in," Pedelaborde said. "The early booking discounts are having some impact, but not as much as they have in the past."

"Don't let anyone tell you it is easy," said Steve Wellmeier, director of marketing for Clipper. "'We are managing to go out full each week but that is with a lot of promotional dollars spent - especially in the Virgin Islands where the competition is most intense," he added.

Early booking discounts on winter cruises offered to past passengers this summer helped "a lot," Wellmeier said, but he noted that they were only effective because early booking bonuses are the only discount tool Clipper uses. "You cannot offer discounts all year, and then expect passengers to believe that an early booking bonus is a good value," he said.

The increased importance of marketing and publicity has led to turnovers in outside advertising/pr agencies. Ocean and NCL recently retained new public relations firms, and RCCL, a new advertising agency. Sitmar is in the process of hiring a new public relations firm.