The cruise industry appears to be sailing into Winter '87 with good advance bookings, indicating that this year will be significantly better than '86, according to several cruise line executives and travel agents.

However, while bookings are up, rates, for the most part, have been held at '86 levels. Some lines have increased their tariffs, but no one reported increases greater than five percent. Most lines offered early booking discounts, many of which have already expired, or will by November 1. Only a few cruise lines said that they intended to offer discounts on published rates.

Although the Caribbean remains the hot spot - particularly among first-time cruisers, a growing number of more adventurous consumers are seeking out new destinations, according to several travel agents interviewed. The South Pacific appears to be the area that is generating the most interest.

"We are seeing a lot more people asking for the South Pacific," said Sam Whitehorn of Bee Kalt Travel in Royal Oak, Michigan. "The cruise market is becoming more sophisticated and clients want to branch out."

"There are a lot more people now who have cruised before, and they are looking for new itineraries. We've had a 300 percent increase in the Far East, and we are doing a lot of business on the Explorer Starship," said Elaine Gembler of Travel Plus in West Bloomfield, Michigan. "And they are not old people, either. They are all couples in their late 30's."

"A lot of people are asking for something different," said Jeff Foreman of Federated Travel in Surfside, Florida. "Places like Cartagena are becoming more and more appealing." A survey of several cruise lines revealed how things are shaping up in the various markets:


Only Mexico received mixed reviews. Many lines have pulled out, leaving only Admiral (Eastern/Western/Sundance), Exploration, Princess and Sitmar as the main competitors.

Sitmar's Mexican sailings still have a long way to go, according to a spokesperson there. "We are marketing a smaller ship there this year, and that has helped, but we still have a lot of space left for the first quarter," he said. "The area never seemed to recover after last year's earthquake."

Sitmar is offering supersaver discounts of up to $300 per person to travellers booking before December 31.

The situation at Exploration Cruise Lines is different, according to a spokesperson there. "We are seeing a resurgence in this area, and our winter bookings are very strong," she said.

Hannan reported that Princess' Mexican Riviera cruises also are heavily booked. No one at Admiral was available for comment.

Sun Lines Tests Cruises From New Orleans

In an effort to broaden its market, Sun Lines has shortened its cruises and expanded into new regions, offering a variety of cruises in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America.

For the first time, the line will offer three cruises in and out of New Orleans aboard the Stella Solaris - two Mesoamerica sailings featuring the Mayan ruins and a double transit of the Panama Canal, and another to Fort Lauderdale with calls in the Antilles. All are booking well, with the January 14 cruise already closed to groups, according to a spokesperson for the line.

Also new to Sun Lines' menu this year are two 14-day cruises on the Surinam River, aboard the Stella Oceanis. The spokesperson did not have figures available on bookings for these cruises at press time at this time.

She also did not have figures available for the line's cruises to South America, but said they "traditionally do well." Bookings for the line's four Orinoco cruises are "very light," she said.

Sun Lines' per diem rates have remained the same, but this year, the line introduced free air from more than 50 gateways, "so fares have technically gone down," she added.

Travel Agents See Increased Interest in Cruising

The travel agents interviewed unanimously agreed that cruises were selling "above and beyond" last year, and that a growing number of their clients were interested in cruising. They attributed the increase to fears of travelling abroad, affordable cruise rates, and increased advertising on the part of the cruise lines.

Several agents also attributed the increase to the number of new passengers the industry was able to lure last year.

"It seems that once customers try a cruise, they are hooked for good," said Foreman of Federated Travel.