Cautious optimism best describes the outlook of cruise line executives and tour operators in the Mediterranean this summer.

The spokespeople interviewed said that interest is picking up slowly but steadily, and many expect business to improve significantly toward the latter part of the season. They also reported that booking patterns are much later than usual for this part of the world because many people are waiting to see if all remains peaceful.

Slow Awakening

"It's like Rumpelstilskin waking up," said Lori Mayers of Exprinter "All of a sudden, everyone wants to go back to the Med."

"Interest is returning slowly, but it is not great," said S. Mourgos, director of the Greek National tourist Organization (GNTO). To regain American confidence, the tourist organization is conducting a series of receptions for agents throughout the United States.

Greek lines Suffered Most

Last year's incidents took their greatest toll on the Greek cruise lines, who reportedly depend on Americans for 60 to 80 percent of their business. Many were forced to significantly reduce their sailings or lay up their ships completely. Hellenic Mediterranean Line, operators of the Aquarius, have closed their doors to the general public this year, according to a spokesperson there, and although K-Lines is accepting bookings for cruises aboard the Orion and Constellation, several industry spokespeople have said that their plans appear tentative.

The terrorism has left a skeleton cruise fleet in the region. Prior to the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, there were more than 40 ships operating in the Mediterranean, including those of Chandris, Costa, Cunard, Epirotiki, Hellenic Mediterranean, Holland America, K­ Lines, Ocean, Princess, Royal Cruise Line, Royal Viking Line, Salen Lindblad, Sea Goddess, and Sun Line. The only major operators remaining in the region in 1987 are Chandris, Costa, Cunard/Sea Goddess, Epirotiki, Princess and Sun Line. A few smaller companies, including Astor, Exprinter and Venice Simpleton Express, along with the Soviet fleet also are sailing in the Mediterranean, providing a total of about 25 ships.

According to Harry Haralombopoulos, president of Chandris, the cruise business from Athens will be "very bad this year. All of these people are going to suffer for another year," he said. "Epirotiki will be the only survivor out of Piraeus."

Chandris will operate the Romanza from Venice this summer.

Epirotiki Positions 10 Ships in Med

Epirotiki is positive about the upcoming Mediterranean season, and has placed all 10 of its ships in the region. However, the line does not expect things to be as they once were, according to John Lane, spokesman for the line.

Lane said Epirotiki has seen a large increase in bookings and interest among travel agents over last year, when cancellations and poor bookings caused the line to pull some ships out of service and consolidate its sailings. A new 14-day cruise from Venice to Nice is generating a good number of inquiries, and a positioning cruise from Guadeloupe to Tel Aviv is a virtual sell-out, he reported.

Lane attributes much of the renewed interest to the GNTO agent seminars. "A lot of pessimism is being dispelled," he said. Costa is offering Mediterranean cruises from Venice and Genoa this summer aboard the Danae, Enrico and Eugenia, all of which are selling very well, according to Howard Fine, president of the line. Costa was one of the only lines that remained in the region last summer, and reported a profitable season, mostly because it was able to pick up passengers from lines that had pulled out, Fine said.

Although Costa is offering cruises in both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, Fine said the sailings to Turkey and Greece are the most popular. "The stigma is more around the Athens airport than the islands themselves," he said. He added that Egypt and Israel also are big sellers.

A spokesperson for Cunard reported that bookings for Mediterranean cruises aboard the Vistafjord are much higher than last year, and cruises aboard Sea Goddess II also are doing well.

Cunard did not pull the Vistafjord out of the Mediterranean last summer, and was able to do well despite the terrorism because the majority of passengers were European, the spokesperson reported. However, "it was not a fabulous year," she said.

Princess has delayed its Mediterranean season until August, when it will offer a series of 14-day cruises aboard the Pacific Princess through October. According to Mike Hannan, vice president of marketing, most of the sailings are heavily booked, except for the last two.

"We are attracting a lot of passengers from Europe, but at this point, a little more than half of the bookings are from the United States and Canada."

Venice-Simpleton Express Sees More Americans

The M.V. Orient Express, the 683-berth ship introduced last year by Venice-Simpleton Express, is doing "much better than last year," according to Anne Onishi, spokesperson for the line. "We already have about 180 bookings from the U.S. market and several sailings in June are sold out."

"Last year we basically depended on the European market."

Exprinter is operating its 17-day Swan­ Hellenic cruise program in the Red Sea, Black Sea and Mediterranean, and reports a 40 percent increase over last year. The company recently introduced a new Mediterranean/Black Sea Cruise aboard the World Renaissance and so far, is getting a good response, Mayers reported. She added that Egypt is selling "like wildflower."

A spokesperson from the Egyptian Tourist Board confirmed that interest has increased greatly over last year, when the region saw American tourism drop about 65 percent.

Despite the renewed interest, however, no one expects to see a significant recovery in the Mediterranean in 1987.