All aboard, and they mean all

Special to The Times

IF you've never taken a cruise, Bob Dickinson has his sights set on you.

"In 10 years, there should be an additional 40 million people who have taken cruises," says the president and chief executive of Carnival Cruise Lines and director of Carnival Corp. "Today, that total in the U.S. is about 51 million. Now about 17% of the American public has taken cruises. In 10 years, it will be about 30%."

According to the industry group, Cruise Lines International Assn., 4.72 million people cruised worldwide in 1995. That number more than doubled by 2005, when 11.18 million cruised.

So, how does the cruise industry plan to lure even more cruisers? By offering them variety -- in itineraries, ship sizes and cuisine, among other things.

"Some lines have gone way out of the box with untraditional bells and whistles on their ships," Dickinson says, "and some lines have gone more straightforward. Some lines are building larger ships, and some lines are building smaller ships. Vive la difference."

The next three years will bring a bigger crop of new ships than in the past couple of years. Eight are due in 2007 and nine in 2008 and 2009. And 2010 promises to bring 31 new ships with 86,362 berths.

In March, Carnival Freedom will debut and embark on the line's first-ever Greek isles itinerary. In May, Royal Caribbean International brings online its second record 160,000-ton ship, the Liberty of the Seas. In December 2007, Cunard Line introduces the 2,014-passenger Queen Victoria, smaller than the 3,056-passenger Queen Mary 2, which arrived in 2004.

The super-sizing trend continues: Norwegian Cruise Line is taking a quantum leap, building three 4,200-passenger, 150,000-ton ships, with the first due in 2009. Its new Norwegian Pearl, which arrives in the U.S. next month, is considerably smaller, at 93,500 gross registered tons and carrying about 2,400 passengers.

Carnival is planning its largest, a 130,000-ton ship for 3,600 passengers in 2009. Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line and MSC Cruises are building larger ships than they now have, and Royal Caribbean is trumping itself with 220,000-ton ships that will carry up to 6,400 passengers.

But there's also growth in small ships, especially in the luxury market. Seabourn Cruises plans two new ships, its first since the late 1980s. The new ships each will be 32,000 tons and carry 450 passengers in suites. The line's current three 10,000-ton ships carry only 208 passengers each.

As more passengers cruise, the demand will grow for new itineraries and sailings of varying lengths: five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 days and up, rather than the standard three, four, seven or 14 days.

Experienced cruisers seeking different itineraries are finding them in South America and points south, Dickinson says, because of its varied attractions -- Antarctica, the Amazon, world capitals, beautiful beaches and ancient cultural sites. The region also has gained ground because of "more political stabilization in some countries" there, he says.

This winter, at least 16 lines have ships sailing from three days to 72 days. Royal Caribbean, a mainstream line, has six- and eight-night itineraries to South America.

As the Caribbean gets more crowded, particularly in winter, some lines are developing new ports for their ships. Grand Turk, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, south of the Bahamas, is the newest cruise port, developed by Carnival.

Other new possibilities in Caribbean cruising are on the horizon with the planned expansion of the Panama Canal, approved recently by Panamanian voters. A third set of locks that can accommodate wider, longer ships will be built, with a 2015 projected opening.

With the new locks, many of the world's largest cruise ships will be able to use the canal, transiting between the Caribbean and the Pacific or doing a partial transit. "That will give us more itinerary flexibility," Dickinson says.

In the last five years, more Central American ports have been added to cruise-line itineraries, and probably even more will be developed with the expansion of the canal.

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