23/01/2008 - 22:00

Cruise sector hits high water mark

23/01/2008 - 22:00

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Regarded as one of the most romantic and luxurious ways to travel, cruising is enjoying a global renaissance...

Regarded as one of the most romantic and luxurious ways to travel, cruising is enjoying a global renaissance with younger holiday makers, after years of being associated predominantly with the blue rinse set.

Driven by demand from the North American market, major cruise lines are rushing to increase capacity, placing orders for multiple vessels with shipbuilders around the world.

In Western Australia, interest in cruise holidays has followed the trend, with travel agents reporting increased sales of between 25 and 50 per cent each season over the past few years. 

Lisa Humphries, owner of Leederville-based specialist travel agency Best Cruises, says bookings for the 2008 season have doubled compared with last year, particularly at the top end of the market.

“The demand for premium cruise lines such as Cunard, Oceania, Celebrity and Silversea is probably the strongest in WA, per capita, of any state in the country,” she told Business Class.

According to Professor Ross Dowling, head of tourism at Edith Cowan University, Western Australians have become more interested in cruising since about 2005.

He said this followed a global trend dating back to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the US, after which people were less willing to travel by air.

“In WA, it’s directly related to the boom, but travel patterns have changed as well. Since the Bali bombings, people have wanted to travel closer to home,” Professor Dowling said.

Bicton Travel owner Carole Smethurst, for whom cruise travel accounts for 80 per cent of total business, believes people concern about terrorism has dissipated, and this has contributed to growth.

“Our dollar is very strong so pricing is good, which is another big factor,” she said.

While destinations such as Alaska and Europe are attracting a lot of interest this season, cruise operators are catering to the local market with more WA tours.

The effect of this is being felt at Fremantle Ports, which is gearing up for its biggest season since the 1970s, having scheduled 25 calls for this financial year. 

One of its biggest customers, Princess Cruises, will base the Sun Princess at the port from May to June, having introduced the ship to the Australian market for the first time, along with its sister ship, Dawn Princess.

Carnival Australia, which manages the Princess brand, said this season was already close to being sold out.

“We’ve had to increase our season by another two months because the demand is huge out of Perth,” the company’s public affairs manager, Anthony Fisk, said.

In a first for WA, the Sun Princess will return next year between April and August to use Fremantle as its home port for a series of round-trip cruises to Asia.

The ship, which has 14 decks and can carry 1,950 passengers, is expected to generate about $1 million each time it docks in Fremantle, through port fees, shopping, and tourism.

In addition, all the ship’s provisions, including food and wine, will be procured locally.

About 16,000 passengers are expected to board from Fremantle during the five-month season.

“Fremantle is in a unique position to reach Asia, as none of the other centres can really do it so easily,” Mr Fisk said.

“We expect people to fly in from other states to join the cruise here.”

Star Cruises, which operates the SuperStar Gemini, has also had a sell-out season for its two seven-night cruises in WA.

“Both our Broome and Exmouth cruises were full and both were sold out within a week of going on sale,” the company’s WA sales executive, Peter French, said.

The company has returned to WA following seasons in 2002 and 2003, and is considering a repeat season for the Gemini later in 2008.

However, Mr French said a lack of infrastructure in WA was an issue for cruise operators, with few ports relative to the size of the coastline and long distances between them.

Catering for passengers in regional areas was also difficult.

“We had to hire a bus for three days to get (to Exmouth), only to use it for half a day. It becomes an expensive exercise – no ground operators are going to make money,” Mr French said.

He said while there was unmet demand in WA, cruise lines were finding it difficult to meet demand across the board and were more likely to increase capacity elsewhere in bigger markets.

“Having a spare ship (to cater for the WA market) is the main issue,” Mr French said.

“All the other markets, across Australia and in Asia, are booming as well. It’s a question of juggling all of them.”

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