Silja Line Pioneers Cruise ferry Market

There is a lot of money to be made in luxury ferry travel, according to Hans Christner, president of Johnson Line A/B, the Swedish company that operates cruise ferries between Stockholm and Helsinki and Stockholm and Turku under the name Silja Line.

Last year, Silja Line carried a total of 1,855,541 passengers between Sweden and Finland - up from 1,601,507 in 1984 - and 182,692 cars - compared to 104,584 in 1984. Fares for a one-way crossing with a mid-priced cabin average about $130 per person.

According to Christner, ferry travel is no longer just a means of transportation, but a mini-vacation in itself. Silja Line, he said, spearheaded the development of this new market when it introduced the first luxury cruise ferry in 1981.

"The ship is every bit as important as the destination - and our ships can match the cruise vessels in Northern Europe," Christner said.

Silja operates four cruise ferries - Finlandia, Silvia Regina, Sveas and Wellamos - with the capacity to carry up to 400 passenger cars. Each features six categories of cabins - all with a shower and toilet, three restaurants, a casino, live entertainment, saunas, an indoor swimming pool, a beauty salon, a children's disco, and extensive conference facilities. At least 50 percent of the passengers are leisure travellers, Christner said. And well over 50 percent of them are repeat guests. After the Swedes and Finns, the Norwegians and Danes are the biggest customers.

"For most Scandinavians this is the only way they can experience a luxury cruise ship without going to the Caribbean ," Christner said. Silja stresses the cruise experience in its marketing to Scandinavians, and to other Western European travellers as well.

To tourists travelling between the cities, Silja stresses the destination.

"The important thing is to combine the travelling public with the cruising public, and to the travelling public we say, 'travel this way'' Christner explained.

North Americans also are good customers, and last year, a record 15,000 travelled with Silja. Bookings for 1986 had already surpassed that number until the Chernobyl incident. Now they have dropped to about 13,000, Christner said.

The Japanese represent another growing market, accounting for 5,000 of the line's passengers in 1985. However, their presence also has dropped since Chernobyl.

During the off-season, Silja concentrates its efforts on the business and incentive market, and according to another company spokesman, is booked for these purposes every day. Each Silja ship has an entire deck devoted to the business market, featuring from four to six conference rooms, up to 12 group study rooms, and auditoriums for up to 360 people. Audio/visual equipment is also available and there are kitchens adjacent to the conference rooms.

The Johnson Line has expanded the luxury cruise ferry service into the North American market with the advent of Sundance Cruises - which operates in Alaska in the summer and in Mexico during the winter.

The concept has been very successful in Alaska, Christner said, adding that "our experience in Alaska has proven that there is a market in North America for the car ferry concept."

In Mexico, the venture has been less successful. "Utilization of the car deck has been low because people are more hesitant to drive on the roads there. However, there is a lot of drive traffic to Mexico so it is just a question of reaching the right people. We just haven't concentrated on pushing the car concept yet," Christner said.

"The car/cruise concept may still be a bit ahead of its time in North America, but "we hope to see it grow," Christner added.

The line plans to add at least one more cruise ferry in the region, but is waiting to "find the right ship."

The Johnson Line also plans to expand its activities in Europe, but is not ready to release any details Christner said.

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