updated 3/11/2008 9:58:36 AM ET 2008-03-11T13:58:36

One of the world’s top cruise operators has agreed to reimburse passengers for fuel surcharges that were not adequately disclosed, the Florida attorney general announced Monday.

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The settlement with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. affects 300,000 bookings — the number of customers involved was not immediately available — and will return $21 million to people nationwide who made trip deposits as of Nov. 15.

“There’s gonna be a lot of happy cruisers,” said Sandi Copes, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp., another industry leader, announced in November they would start billing passengers to offset rising fuel prices — $5 per person, per day — for voyages beginning Feb. 1.

Attorney General Bill McCollum received more than 300 complaints about the fuel surcharge, which other cruise operators also added, and launched an investigation into whether customers were made aware of the new fee when they made their bookings.

The settlement involves three Royal Caribbean brands: Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises.

In a statement released late Monday, McCollum praised the company for being proactive and taking steps in the best interest of its customers.

“This resolution will serve as a model for the rest of the cruise line industry and I expect the other companies to take this example and follow suit,” McCollum said.

Miami-based Royal Caribbean will directly contact customers eligible for the reimbursement, Copes said. Those who have not yet sailed will receive their refund as an on-board credit; those who have sailed will receive the money back. The cruise line also agreed to clearly disclose the charges in advertisements.

The settlement amends a 1997 agreement that cruise lines were not to put extra charges on their bills unless they were for taxes or government fees. The companies now may add surcharges as long as those costs are properly disclosed to customers, Copes said.

Royal Caribbean spokesman Michael Sheehan said the company concluded that “taking this action would be the best thing to do.”

The agreement will not affect Royal Caribbean’s revenue projections, Sheehan said. The possibility of refunds was considered when the company provided guidance in late January, he said.

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