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Cruise industry sees bigger numbers, better choice

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Cruise industry sees bigger numbers, better choices

By Beth J. Harpaz, Associated Press

NEW YORK - More people are taking cruises than ever before. And more options are available to cruise passengers than ever before _ more destinations, a bigger variety of activities on and off the ship, even more choices for dinner.

Niche cruises abound, from sailings for wine aficionados to trips that teach photography. And even though most cruisers use travel agents to book their trips, the Internet is playing an increasingly important role as a research tool.

Such are the trends in the cruise industry as travelers look ahead to holiday cruises, winter getaways to warm places and other 2005 vacations.

The number of people taking cruises continues to grow. Nearly 8 million people took cruises in 2003; this year's number is expected to hit 10.5 million, according to the Cruise Line Industry Association, which represents 19 cruise lines serving 95 percent of the North American market.

Noncruisers may understandably think of cruises as a refuge for sedentary passengers who spend their days filling up at buffets. But cruise lines are trying to shake that reputation.

Scuba diving, snorkeling and swimming with sting rays and dolphins are typical excursions on Caribbean cruises. Depending on the destination, Royal Caribbean cruises offer everything from glacier-climbing to cliff-rappelling to biking adventures, and its ships are known for amenities like rock-climbing walls and ice rinks. Royal Caribbean is also lengthening its Enchantment of the Seas ship to add a trampoline deck among other attractions.

A growing segment of the cruise market consists of passengers age 17 and under. One million children sailed on CLIA ships in 2003; figures for this year are expected to come in at 1.1 million kids.

Most ships offer far more than baby-sitting to keep their young charges happy, offering science programs, karaoke, kids' lounges and special excursions.

New on Disney's Wonder ship is an area specifically for teenagers called Aloft. It's filled with the kind of comfy chairs you might find in a coffee shop or student lounge. Teenagers meet here for activities like a scavenger hunt that sends them all over the ship. Disney also organizes excursions just for teens, such as snorkeling, canoeing and harbor tours aboard smaller party boats.

``Teens want unique things, and this way they get their freedom but they still have structured activities,'' said Disney Cruise spokeswoman Christi Erwin.

To entice repeat customers to come back, cruise lines are also adding new ports of call. ``We're constantly searching out unique destinations,'' said CLIA President Terry Dale. ``There are 1,800 ports now worldwide.''

Holland America Line even has a name for repeat cruisers for whom Mexico and the Caribbean are old news. They're called ``destination collectors.'' To keep them coming back, the cruise line is adding new ports of call like Komodo, Indonesia, and Halong Bay, Vietnam, this year; and Muara, Brunei, and Port Louis, Mauritius, next year.

``We try to go to places we haven't been before, just to see other cultures, other sights,'' said Patricia Noble, a Holland America fan from North Vancouver, British Columbia, who's taken 55 cruises to places ranging from Morocco and Tunisia to Australia and New Zealand.

Another trend is raising amenities to upscale standards. Cruises are showcasing fine wines, promoting menus from celebrity chefs, and making Internet cafes and spas as common as pools and casinos.

Also on the rise is the increased importance of the Internet. Although CLIA's market research finds that 80 percent of cruisers still use travel agents to book their trips, cruise Web sites are proliferating. At www.cruisecompete.com, you can pick a cruise you're interested in and travel agents will submit price quotes.

But it may be harder than in the past to find discounts from travel agents for certain trips. Traditionally, travel agencies that sell large numbers of cruise trips have given part of their commissions back to the customer in the form of reduced pricing. Royal Caribbean and Carnival recently instituted policies to discourage that.

One negative trend is the continued incidence of norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness, on ships. As the number of people taking cruises rises, so do reports of onboard illness, with 32 outbreaks reported this year to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 30 last year and 24 in 2002.

Some 23 million Americans get norovirus each year without ever stepping on a ship, according to the CDC; for most people, it's a day or two home with ``stomach flu.'' But because ships must notify the CDC when 2 percent or more of those on board get sick, outbreaks on ships _ unlike outbreaks at your office _ become public information.

The CDC makes surprise inspections of cruise ships to examine hygiene and sanitation protocols; you can see inspection scores for every ship at www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp, where you'll also find advice on avoiding the disease with simple steps like washing hands vigorously and often.

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