A widened Panama Canal will accommodate bigger cruise ships

A widened Panama Canal will accommodate bigger cruise ships

By Donna Tunney
There will be fewer post-Panamax cruise ships after the Panama Canal Authority completes its ambitious expansion of the canal in 2014.

The Panama Canal Authority recently passed the halfway point in its ambitious plan to expand the 100-year-old canal and double the amount of cargo that transits the waterway.

Opened in 1914, the 48-mile-long channel enables ships to avoid the 8,000-mile navigation of Cape Horn, the sometimes perilous passage around the tip of South America.

The cruise industry will benefit because the wider canal will allow for easy repositioning of additional, larger ships between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Moreover, the canal itself is an attraction for a niche market of passengers eager to see the engineering feat up close.

The canal today has two lanes of traffic, each with a set of locks accommodating ships up to 950 feet long and 106 feet wide, dimensions that have come to be known as “Panamax.” When cruise ships began to exceed those dimensions, the industry started to speak of “post-Panamax” vessels.

Once completed, a third, wider lane of traffic and a set of longer locks at either end of the canal will accommodate ships about 1,200 feet long and 160.7 feet wide.

Some of the industry’s largest ships, such as Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-, Freedom- and Voyager-class vessels and Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Magic and Carnival Dream, will still be too wide or tall to transit the canal (ship height is limited by the Bridge of the Americas, which passes over the canal).

PanamaCanalMapBut many others will, including Cunard’s flagship, the Queen Mary 2.

Nine Princess Cruises ships will be able to transit the canal following the expansion, the line said: the Grand Princess, Golden Princess, Star Princess, Crown Princess, Ruby Princess, Emerald Princess, Caribbean Princess, Sapphire Princess and Diamond Princess.

Retailer Richard Bravo, product manager of cruise vacations for Automobile Club of Southern California, said the club sells a lot of group space into repositioning cruises through the canal.

Itineraries transiting the canal are very popular among West Coast clients, more so than a typical Caribbean cruise, he said.

But Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, predicted that Panama Canal cruises are not likely to expand beyond a niche market even after the expansion.

“Although it is a fantastic cruise to transit the canal, the transit from Fort Lauderdale to the U.S. West Coast via the canal is a long cruise, up to 16 days,” she said.

“The partial transit cruises into the canal and [back out] are popular but also are a niche product,” said Duffy, who added that the canal expansion primarily will benefit the cargo industry, particularly container traffic from Asia to the U.S. East Coast.

Jack Anderson, senior vice president, sales and marketing at Crystal Cruises, said there’s a downside to not offering Panama Canal cruises.

“If a brand does not have Panama Canal cruises it means there’s a subset of clients who want that itinerary and are forced onto another brand. In my experience, there is demand in all markets for the Panama Canal,” said Anderson.

Anderson said the partial cruises are a good option.

“Cruise lines can still offer a Panama Canal locks experience from Miami,” he said.

Anderson added that canal cruises help to broaden overall interest in cruising.

“The luxury market draws from the premium market. The premium draws from the mass market,” he said.

Crystal offers a series of Panama Canal cruises each year, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Miami and New York, and between Costa Rica and Miami.

Some cruise lines with ships that could transit the canal today choose not to do so. MSC Cruises is one of them.

“We have only two ships that are too big to transit the canal today: the MSC Fantasia and the MSC Splendida. But we have no ships going to California,” said Richard Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA.

“Two analyses have to be done: commercial and operational,” he said. “We have nine ships that can fit, but we choose not to offer Panama Canal cruises. We have no desire for it.”

CORRECTION: A story in Travel Weekly’s July 25 print edition incorrectly said that the canal expansion would accommodate all current cruise ships, rendering the term “post-Panamax” obsolete. Even after the expansion, several cruise ships will be too large to transit the canal. 

Canadian operator offers Afghanistan tours

Canadian operator offers Afghanistan tours

By Michelle Baran
As President Obama lays out plans for troop withdrawals and a drawdown of military operations in Afghanistan, Canadian operator Bestway Tours & Safaris is introducing a program to bring travelers to the war-torn country starting this fall.

“Most travel agents have lost out on this growing segment of the traveling public and are not even aware that tours are being offered to such countries,” said Mahmood Poonja, chief explorer at Bestway, which started guiding travelers along the Silk Road in 1974.

“The demand for these countries is not in numbers but definitely in people who are highly educated, well traveled and ones who believe in the pluralism of cultures,” he said. “The number of travelers is growing as more and more people become interested in knowing of other countries and cultures through their own experiences.”

He said that for off-the-beaten-path travelers, Afghanistan was a popular destination prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979. “During the Taliban, tourist traffic totally closed,” he said.

Tourists were further dissuaded by the American military invasion in 2001, a program that Obama last month said he wanted to draw to a close by 2014, with significant troop withdrawals slated to start later this year.

BamiyanIn part because of the ongoing military operation in Afghanistan, “the numbers that we have at the moment are not very high numbers going to Afghanistan, but you’d be surprised,” Poonja said.

Poonja said that Bestway decided to offer Afghanistan because the demand was there. The demographic, he said, is primarily people age 45 and up, highly educated and often solo or independent travelers.

They are people who are aware of the risks and are ready and willing to take on the challenges the destination presents. He also said a surprisingly high number of solo female travelers are interested in visiting Afghanistan.

With a destination like Afghanistan where the tourism product isn’t very developed, Poonja said, travelers need to be flexible about the level of accommodation and creature comforts.

But he added that in the larger cities such as Kabul, there are hotels that meet Western standards in order to serve the high number of delegations and members from international organizations who visit and work in the country.

Bestway set up an outbound office in Canada in 1979, which sends travelers from North America to what Poonja calls “challenging destinations,” such as Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Kurdistan, North Korea and Tajikistan.

“We avoid any military installations or any military sites,” Poonja said. “Our interest is on the history and culture. There are lots of areas in Afghanistan that are historically important, like Herat, but they are not safe at the moment. We have done tours to Iraq, but we don’t right now.”

The nine-day Afghanistan tour begins and ends in Kabul. It includes traveling through Bamiyan, known for two huge Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban government in March 2001; the Band-e Amir lakes region in the Koh-i-Baba mountain range; Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, known for its Blue Mosque, a historically significant site for Muslims; and the historical city of Balkh.

Bestway, based in Burnaby, Canada, offers two departures for the Afghanistan tour: Oct. 15 and April 15. The price ranges from $2,990 for the October departure to $3,190 for the April departure. Both prices are based on double occupancy.

Bestway pays 10% commission to travel agents.

Mississippi cruising to return in 2012

Mississippi cruising to return in 2012

By Michelle Baran

Where are they now?

The return of a former Majestic America Line vessel, the American Queen, next year brings to bear the question of where the remaining six ships that once rounded out the fleet have landed.

• Delta Queen: The 174-passenger flagship vessel of the Majestic fleet, built in 1926, has remained with Ambassadors International, Majestic’s parent company. It was included in the recently approved sale of Ambassadors’ remaining assets to Xanterra Holding Corp. It is currently in operation as the Delta Queen Hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn.

• Columbia Queen: The 161-passenger vessel was built in 2000 and previously sailed in the Northwest; it was also included in the Ambassadors sale. The ship is currently not in service.

• Mississippi Queen: The 412-passenger vessel was sold for scrap last year.

• Contessa: The 42-passenger catamaran was acquired last year by Sitka, Alaska-based Alaskan Dream Cruises and renamed the Alaskan Dream. It is the company’s flagship vessel and sails nine-day itineraries roundtrip from Sitka to Glacier Bay, Juneau and Red Bluff Bay.

• Queen of the West: American Cruise Lines acquired the Queen of the West from Ambassadors in 2009 and invested millions to enhance the cabins, public areas and galley. The ship was transformed from a 150-passenger to a 120-passenger ship and is currently sailing the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

• Empress of the North: The 235-passenger Empress of the North, which once plied Alaska’s waters, was turned over to the U.S. Maritime Administration in November 2008 and remains for sale. — M.B.

Two companies next year will attempt to revive the Mississippi River cruising market, which has been dormant since Majestic America Line ceased operations under Ambassadors International at the end of 2008.

Operating contemporary river ships up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries has proven to be a business challenge that has eluded several cruise companies in recent years.

When their operations launch next year, Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines and the newly formed, Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co. will approach the challenge in very different ways.

American Cruise Lines is building a new 140-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, from the ground up, while Great American Steamboat is in the process of resuscitating the 436-passenger American Queen.

“I don’t think it’s possible to take one of the older vessels, like the American Queen … and construct it into what people want today,” Charles Robertson, CEO of American Cruise Lines, told Travel Weekly earlier this year when explaining why his company had decided to build a new paddlewheeler rather than buy one of the existing Mississippi vessels.

“The older boats are not at all efficient,” Robertson said. “They’re not fuel-efficient [or] maintenance-efficient.”

The freshly assembled executive team at the Great American Steamboat Co. would politely disagree. News leaked last week that the company had purchased the former Majestic ship the American Queen and was preparing to relaunch it in April 2012, four months before ACL’s Queen of the Mississippi will set sail.

“I think not only is the American Queen hugely appealing, it’s what people doing a Victorian-era riverboat want,” said Christopher Kyte, president of the Great American Steamboat Co., which was formed in November. “But the market will tell.”

Great American Steamboat is being led by CEO Jeff Krida, who was president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. “in its heyday in the ’90s,” said Kyte, who is also chairman of Oakland, Calif.-based Uncommon Journeys, which sold into the American river cruising market.

Great American Steamboat’s parent company is New Albany, Ind.-based HMS Global Maritime, an operator of U.S. ferries and passenger vessels headed by President and CEO John Wagonner.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. launched the American Queen in June 1995. The vessel ultimately ended up under the ownership of Ambassadors International’s river cruise brand, Majestic America Line. It was turned over to the U.S. Maritime Administration in August 2008 after Majestic defaulted on a guaranteed loan.

American QueenWhen the American Queen was put up for sale by Marad in 2009, it was valued at between $25 million and $30 million.

Kyte would not disclose how much Great American Steamboat paid for the vessel or how much it is investing in upgrades. But he asserted that “if you built it today — if you could find a shipyard to build it — it would cost $100 million to build.”

Likewise, ACL’s Robertson did not divulge how much his company would be spending to build its Mississippi vessel, but he said that he felt that the cost of renovating one of the existing paddlewheelers “would be a little bit more” than the cost of building a ship from the ground up.

Great American Steamboat does not plan on making many changes to the American Queen, Kyte said.

“The boat was carefully laid up by the federal government and literally could run in a few weeks if you wanted it to,” Kyte said.

Nevertheless, the company will make some changes and upgrades to the product, including converting some of the public spaces to alternative dining venues, among them an open-air venue on the upper deck and possibly a more casual, New Orleans-influenced eatery. There will also be additional entertainment venues, such as a jazz lounge.

To accommodate active boomers, there will be a fitness program that could include exercise classes, plus shore excursions that will feature biking and hiking.

To instill confidence among consumers and travel agents concerned about the health of the U.S. river cruising market following the demise of Majestic, Kyte said that all deposits and commissions for American Queen bookings would be deposited in an escrow account.

The American Queen will sail three-, four-, nine- and seven-night cruises along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The Queen of the Mississippi will sail seven-night cruises along the same rivers, though itineraries have not yet been finalized.

Robertson said the Queen of the Mississippi would be faster than a ship like the American Queen by about 3 or 4 mph, which makes a “huge difference in itinerary,” enabling the ship to make longer stops at ports.

While the differences are many between the Queen of the Mississippi and the American Queen, Kyte said that the more overnight passenger vessels sailing the Mississippi again, the better.

“Even with the ACL operation, there will be one half the number of beds that there were five years ago on the Mississippi River,” Kyte said.