Image: Lindblad cruise ship
Courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions
Lindblad is offering up to 25 percent off select voyages, including those in the Arctic, Europe and Baja. Like many luxury cruises, Lindblad is offering discounts to keep business afloat in a down economy.
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updated 2/4/2009 12:25:10 PM ET 2009-02-04T17:25:10

Cruises are no longer simply about buffet lines and Barry Manilow imitators. Increasingly, they've become a luxurious, all-inclusive way to see the world, with routes ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Galapagos Islands.

And now, just about any route or destination one can dream of, even on the top luxury lines, is available for a bargain price.

It's not that cruises are losing their popularity; it's quite the contrary. The cruise industry, particularly the luxury cruise industry, is a booming business, one that served 13.2 million passengers in 2008, according to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). That's a 79 percent increase from 2000, when 7.2 million passengers boarded the big ships.

However, like other areas of luxury travel, top-notch cruise lines have been forced to discount some of their most coveted itineraries to ensure their ships stay full.

All passengers now welcome
Travel Dynamics International, a cruise line that focuses on cultural travel, particularly in Europe, recently began waiving the extra fee for single travelers, which has always been a major deterrent — a $1,000-plus deterrent — to solo vacationers setting foot on cruise ships. Now the line will take every passenger it can get.

The New York-based company is also offering couples a 50 percent discount on several itineraries, a savings of $3,000 to $6,000. Other offers include a free night in a five-star hotel at your port of departure.

"The incentives that we're offering have strictly to do with the state of the economy," says Vasos Papagapitos, co-president of Travel Dynamics. "People are reluctant to travel at this time, and we should be flexible and understanding of the situation."

Papagapitos is certainly not the only one looking for ways to keep his clients coming back in 2009. In an industry reliant on repeat customers, satisfaction, and this year's travel industry buzz phrase, "added value," are more important than ever.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based luxury cruise line Silversea, for example, is not only offering 50 percent off its seven-day Mediterranean cruise this summer (departing Barcelona, Spain, May 14 with stops in Valencia, Spain; Corsica; Livorno, Italy; Antibes, France; and Nice, France), it's also including a $1,000 on-board spending credit per suite, which can be used for anything not included in the base package, like spa treatments and guided tours at ports of call.

Beyond buffets
And contrary to the stereotype, these cruises offer more in the culinary department than a midnight buffet. Silversea's Silver Wind boat includes three restaurants — Italian, international and French — as well as 24-hour room service. Instead of iodine-soaked shrimp, you'll find spicy salmon ceviche and fresh grilled fish.

Even boutique cruise boats — the sea's equivalent to small, hip and very expensive hotels — are getting in on the incentive game. The 120-guest, all-suite Spirit of Oceanus, operated by Seattle-based Cruise West, is currently promoting two Asian adventures that each save guests up to $800 on an 11-night trip.

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The Hidden Treasures of Japan package takes guests from Kobe to Kurashiki, Hiroshima to Yakushima, and Nagasaki to Hagi for $6,349 per person. While the $800 savings isn't 50 percent, it's still significant — and might be just enough to make some travelers change their minds about staying home this year.

At least that's what Bob Sharak, a vice president and spokesperson for CLIA, believes.

"A vacation is probably more necessary and coveted than ever before," says Sharak. He hopes people will defer other purchases — such as replacing aging household appliances — before giving up their cruise vacations. "We've always believed that the cruise vacation experience, with its inclusive nature, represented an excellent value."

But are there enough die-hard cruisers to keep the industry's passenger numbers from sinking? Only 2009 will tell.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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