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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Full steam ahead
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

Shipboard life conjures up images of tuxedos and champagne, quoits and high tea. But things have changed, and with more Britons taking cruises than ever before, it's high times on the high seas.

Down the telephone line from Dubrovnik's tourist office, one can almost see Maja Milovicic shaking her head.

She's not interested in any suggestion that the cruise ships - and their perishable cargo of tourists - are an irritant to citizens of her picturesque Croatian town.

Dubrovnik, after all, has had its fair share of trouble. "During the war period, there was shelling, attacking the city. That annoyed us. she says. "Tourism is the most important industry in Dubrovnik. We have to decide: Are we going to do something, or are we going to sleep?"

With more Britons than ever exploring the world by sea - more than a million set sail for foreign parts in 2003, spending more than 1 billion - the cruise industry is going full steam ahead.

'Fuddy-duddy'?

That's thanks in part to a new batch of ships, packages aimed at younger, hipper, less "fuddy-duddy" travellers, affordable fares, and holidaymakers looking for a different sort of adventure.

CRUISE CONTROL
1,053,727 UK passengers
963,580 ocean voyages
90,147 river cruises
Source: PSA
In 2003, 1,053,727 Britons chose a cruise as their annual holiday. That's a culmination of a trend that over the past decade has seen the number of Britons cruising quadruple, according to the Passenger Shipping Association.

"The image of cruising has changed," says Martin Tanner, a marketing manager with Cruise Control, a UK travel agency. "Everybody thinks cruising is for old people, there's nothing to do, and it's really expensive - that all people do is swan around, in dinner suits, at cocktail parties, or sit in deck chairs with blankets over their legs watching the scenery go by when they're not playing bridge or shuffleboard.

"What's happened is that people are waking up to the new age of cruising - a floating resort with far more facilities than you can ever imagine in a land-based hotel," he added. "You've got some ships with an ice skating rink, five swimming pools, 12 bars, nine restaurants, a shopping mall, Jacuzzi, golf course. And this is all on a ship."

The Mediterranean and Caribbean are among the most popular destinations, says William Gibbons, director of the Passenger Shipping Association, but the organisation found that the number of travellers headed to far-flung places like Antarctica and South America increased by a third.

Environmental impact

That sounds as if it would sound an alarm with conservationists. But Denise Landau, the executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, said that continent tends to attract a special kind of tourist.

"There's a different spirit among people that go to Antarctica," Landau says, noting that 2,562 Britons landed there during the 2003-04 travel season. "They appreciate nature and they're interested and they tend not to be the kind of people that would throw a Coke can overboard."

The big cruise lines that visit Antarctica - large ships belonging to Holland America lines, Princess cruises and Crystal cruises - have all voluntarily set environmental standards for themselves, Landau notes.

That's not the case everywhere. Environmental group Oceans Blue has a large website devoted to issues of pollution generated by ships and the effects of the huge liners on the sea's ecosystems.

Carnival cruise line ships docking in Miami
Floating hotels have cut quite a wake in the tourism industry

It has suggested a vessel certification process to "guarantee on behalf of the public and stakeholders that cruise ships are meeting rigorous environmental and social standards".

Mr Gibbons says environmental awareness is a key part of the industry.

"I think we are very environmentally conscious," he says. "Really, cruise ships are entirely dependent on clean oceans for retaining our passengers. I think if we were seen as polluters, we wouldn't have many passengers."

Like Ms Milovicic, Debbie Summers is happy to see the ships steam into the harbour of Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. As a port agent there, she's understandably enthusiastic over the ships' using Stanley as a port of call.

Population growth

When a large ship docks, with about 1,500 passengers, it instantly doubles Stanley's population, Ms Summers says.

"But it's only for a few hours. And all in all, everyone gets on well with our cruise ship passengers," she said. "We have a very short season. So it's not like we have time to get fed up."

And any ruffled feathers in places like Dubrovnik and Stanley can be soothed by the fact that the tourists often come bearing cash, and give their ports of call a welcome shot in the economic arm.

"People realise that cruise ship passengers bring a lot of instant cash into the economy, to independent people in the private sector, not just to the Falkland Islands government in the form of taxes," Ms Summers says.


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