By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 4/14/2008 12:50:29 PM ET 2008-04-14T16:50:29

Luxury cruising is booming. With nine new ships on order, the luxury lines are looking at 32 ships and 11,790 berths by 2012 — the largest capacity in the sector’s history. American Express Travel attributes the upswing to pent-up demand and to a wide range of new offerings aimed at upscale baby boomers, including new and exotic ports of call, butler service, gourmet meals, private shore excursions, golf and scuba outings, and customized cruise planning. Luxury cruise operators are betting that the enthusiasm for such offerings will be long-lived.

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“We see the outlook for the luxury segment as continued demand that will easily exceed the capacity increases on order,” says Seabourn president and CEO Pamela Conover, whose line is adding three new ships in the next three years. “Baby boomers want to collect authentic, memorable experiences and are willing to forego other luxury purchases to maintain their travel.”

The challenge is to attract those affluent baby boomers who have been cruising on the lower-scale, so-called “premium” cruise lines like Princess, Holland America and Celebrity, and persuade them to upgrade to the luxury lines.

“A lot of people still don’t understand or haven’t experienced life on board a luxury cruise ship,” says Brad Ball, director for corporate communications at Silversea. “Once people see there is an alternative to big- ship, mass-market cruising, people will become hooked on luxury vessels.”

Silversea is going for gold
The name may be Silversea, but the company is going for gold in the race for the expanded luxury cruise market. Silversea’s four ships currently account for 17 percent of the luxury segment’s capacity. With the introduction of two new vessels within the next two years, Silversea will increase its share to 28 percent, surpassing the current leader, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which now commands 25 percent of the market.

The grab for the lead comes with a big price tag. “With the order of the new Silver Spirit, the introduction of the luxury expedition ship Prince Albert II, and major refurbishments of Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, Silversea will invest half a billion dollars during the next two years,” says Silversea’s president and CEO, Amerigo Perasso. The investment may well pay off, even in today’s shaky financial and economic market, because unlike competitors Seabourn and Crystal Cruises, which depend heavily on the U.S. market, Silversea gets almost 40 percent its business from international travelers.

Perasso says the refurbishments planned for the two 296-passenger ships, Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, will bring the two ships — the company’s original vessels — in line with the new 540-passenger Silver Spirit and the two other ships in the current fleet, Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper. With the addition of the expedition vessel, Prince Albert II, Silversea becomes one of the few cruise lines in the world sailing to all seven continents. The ship will set sail June 12 on summer journeys to the Arctic Circle, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, then reposition to South America and Antarctica for fall and winter voyages.

Luxury values
All this growth in the luxury market means more competition, more choices and better pricing for consumers, so if you think you can’t afford a luxury cruise, think again.

In fact, cruise-savvy consumers can already find some well-priced offerings on the luxury ships. For example, Crystal Cruises is offering 10 percent savings on new bookings of all veranda and non-veranda staterooms and 5 percent savings for penthouse accommodations on most of Crystal Serenity’s Mediterranean cruises this summer. Regent is offering shipboard credits of up to $500 per suite in addition to the usual offers for new passengers; this offer applies to sailings in Europe, the Mediterranean, Alaska and Tahiti. Seabourn is offering two-for-one business class airfare from 38 North American gateways, plus savings of up to 40 percent for cruises of nine to 15 days in Europe aboard the Pride, Spirit and Legend. And Silversea is offering 40 percent savings on cruise-only fares for a host of voyages worldwide as part of the line’s “Silver Sailings” program.

Another advantage to luxury cruising is that you aren’t nickel-and-dimed for expenses. Tips and most beverages are included in the cruise fare, for example, though passengers will pay extra for shore excursions, spa treatments and premium wines on most ships. With all the extraordinary growth in luxury cruising, there has never been a better time to experience the best service and amenities at sea.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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