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Feature:Cruise business in ship-shape form

By
CLAUDE SALHANI

MIAMI, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- In the post-9-11 economy, especially in the hard-hit tourism industry that has seen several major airlines go into bankruptcy, one branch is faring quite well -- the seafaring industry.

Royal Caribbean International, one of the numerous cruise lines offering dreams and relaxation voyages to exotic islands, just launched The Navigator of the Seas, the largest ship in the world and the size of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at the cost of $630 million. And two similar mega-cruise liners are on order for next year.

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This anomaly is a reassuring contrast to the preferred mode of transportation in today's fast-moving world where the airline industry is suffering major setbacks. Coming right on the heels of US Airways declaring Chapter 11, United Airlines announced Monday that it, too, was seeking the protection of the bankruptcy court as it prepares to deal with ways to reduce union costs and enter into negotiations to impose new labor rates. Meanwhile, American Airlines, the country's largest airline, has also started to ready for battle with its unions, according to the Miami Herald.

In contrast, business on the high seas is a far friendlier place than in the skies, with the cruise line commerce showing all indications that it's in ship-shape condition.

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Case in point: Royal Caribbean, a Miami-based corporation operating Bahamian-flagged vessels, introduced this week the newest of its Voyager class mega-cruise liner, the Navigator. This is truly a BIG ship, "the biggest in the world," claims Jack Williams, the company's chief operating officer.

At 139,200 tons, with a length of 1,020 feet and a width of 126 feet, it comes close in size to a Nimitz class nuclear-powered carrier, which measures 1,092 feet in length. The big difference of course is in the price tag, with a carrier costing the U.S. taxpayer around $4.5 billion.

The Navigator boasts 15 decks. It has 1,557 staterooms, of which 689 come equipped with balconies, and can receive more than 3,000 guests. It is a huge floating hotel. Running and maintaining such a vessel requires a full-time crew of 1,240, including 150 cooks (of 40 different nationalities) "who have to serve 3,000 meals in about a half-hour," according to the ship's master chef, Rudi Sodamin, who hails from Austria.

Some of the fancier staterooms come equipped with a separate bedroom with a king-size bed, a private balcony with a whirlpool, a living room with queen-size sofa bed, a baby grand piano, a wet bar with refrigerator, a dining room table and an entertainment area.

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On the top deck, or floor, for those unacquainted with the ways of the sea, is a wedding chapel capable of accommodating 60 guests. On "turn around trips," when the ship returns to port the same day, they can hold as many as three or four weddings a day. Below that, on Deck 14 is a rock climbing wall, which if you succeed in reaching the top, puts you some 200 feet above sea level. It's quite a view.

The Navigator of the Seas is the fourth of its class acquired by Royal Caribbean since 1997, giving the company a combined 25 ships in two fleets. Current events and economic constraints do not seem to affect the company, who has two more similar ships on order that are to be delivered from the Norwegian shipyards in 2003: they are a Voyager class ship to be christened Mariner of the Seas and a Radiance class, that will be named Serenade of the Seas. Yet another Radiance class craft, the Jewel of the Seas is expected in 2004.

These new vintage ships include about nine fine dining restaurants, cafes, bistros, a champagne bar (my favorite), a vintage wine bar, pubs, video arcades for the young (and the young at heart), a Vegas-styles gambling casino, a theatre, an ice rink where a fantastic show is performed several times a day, as well as night clubs, (a separate one for teenagers) a fitness center, a miniature golf course and a shopping mall offering duty-free perfumes, liquor, tobacco, clothes and gadgets.

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The idea, obviously, is to have something that will appeal to everyone's taste, no matter their age or socio-economic status.

"We are introducing cruising to a whole lot of people who would not normally take to the seas," said Williams, the company's COO.

Besides the idyllic Caribbean voyages, the company offers cruises to Alaska, Europe and other parts of the world. Their latest marketing ploy is a "Magical Tour of England," to allow families to explore and follow in the footsteps of the Harry Potter books and films. The trip includes inland visits to the London Zoo where J.K. Rowling's famous boy wizard came face-to-face with the talking reptile and a chance to explore Alnwick Castle in Northumberland where the broomstick lesson scenes where shot.

"We are not selling broomstick voyages, yet," said Adam Goldstein, executive vice president of Brand Operations for Royal Caribbean.

But business on the high seas is flourishing, and even the most recent scare of gastrointestinal illness known as the Norwalk virus, has not kept crowds away from this booming $20 billion a year business.

Goldstein brushes off the spate of illnesses that some of the other cruise lines have suffered as "so much publicity over what can be described as a seasonal virus that should begin to wind down."

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Still, said Goldstein to United Press International, "we are taking it deadly serious. We are in constant contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (in Atlanta) almost daily.

Diseases or not, more than 1 million first-time vacationers have tried their sea legs aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ships this year, according to Goldstein. Yet, some of these trips are far from cheap. The average 7-night roundtrip from Miami to the Western Caribbean runs between $700 and $6,950, excluding airfare. But just as with the airlines, prices vary greatly and you may find that your travel agent can offer you a far more interesting rate and throw in a round-trip flight to Miami to boot.

Sea travel offers a chance to escape the daily grind and the maddening din of the city. There is nothing like the vastness of the deep blue sea to get your mind away from daily hassles, even if it is only for a few short days.

However, if you are one of those who insist that the world will not survive without you, and you absolutely must remain in constant communication with the real world, the ship allows you the use of their on-board communication system. E-mail messages can be sent and received (at 50 cents a minute) and seeing your regular cell phone is useless, you are welcome to use the ship's satellite telephone for a mere $9.50 a minute. Otherwise, relax, enjoy the breeze, the salt air, the sun and the sea. Bon voyage.

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