LUXURY CRUISE LINES WOO BOOMERS TO SEA: INDUSTRY SEES POTENTIAL MARKET AS EXPANDING WELL INTO NEXT CENTURY

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Stock market pundits may be worried about economic downturns, but marketers of luxury liners see nothing but smooth sailing ahead.

With new geographic and demographic markets to target, the cruise industry is convinced its 1990s building and buying boom will carry well into the next century.

"The industry still has a very small percentage of the overall vacation pie," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest cruise operator.

"There are lots of people who are potential cruise passengers, and offering programs that cater to a special market -- such as families and brides and grooms -- are ways for the cruise industry to get new customers," she said.

RUSH TO LAUNCH

By 2003, more than 28 new ships will set sail. Walt Disney Co., which gave emphasis to the cruise boom last year when it entered the market with its huge ship Magic, is expected to launch a second liner this summer.

In addition, Royal Caribbean Cruises has nine ships on order at a cost of some $3.6 billion, which will increase its fleet size by more than a third.

Perhaps leading the new and unusual is Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, for now the largest cruise ship ever built. The ocean liner, scheduled to set sail in November, will offer enough activities to rival an amusement park and dining choices to challenge a resort.

The 3,100-plus passenger ship is highlighted by a 20-foot-high rock climbing wall, an ice skating rink for guests and performers and an inline skating track.

The ship's interior contains two massive atriums with glass elevators connected by a Bourbon Street-style Royal Promenade with shops and restaurants.

The range of activities for passengers -- from outdoor sports to child day camps -- are part of the industry's effort to target the aging baby boomer population.

'I WANT IT AND I WANT IT NOW'

"We're trying to take full advantage of the maturing of the baby boomer group, the people who've grown up with instant gratification, an I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now kind of a group," said Bob Sharak, Cruise Line International Association director of marketing and product development. "They're a more adventurous, I'll-try-anything-kind of a group."

The industry also has its sights on new geographic markets, such as Europe, where some believe the economy is on the brink of an expansion similar to the one experienced by the U.S. in the mid-1990s.

Royal Caribbean's Celebrity line, for example, will sail to Europe for the first time this year.

"There is every indication that barring a major [U.S.] economic reversal . . . the next five years will prove equally fulfilling," said David Leibowitz, a managing director with Burnham Securities. "Major cruise lines are taking dead

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