Med Cruises Take Another Hit as Norwegian Jade Cancels Winter Season

May 13, 2011

(2:45 p.m. EDT) -- Is there more trouble for Mediterranean cruises? NCL revealed today that Norwegian Jade's winter Eastern Mediterranean season has been canceled, suggesting that passenger concerns over the Arab uprisings have bitten into bookings.

Norwegian Jade, NCL's year-round Europe stalwart, will instead head into dry dock in November before redeploying to Barcelona for a season of nine-night Canary Island cruises. A total of 15 "Holy Land" cruises, scheduled to visit ports in Turkey, Greece, Israel and Egypt, were nixed. Impacted passengers are being contacted by the line and offered the chance to rebook on other sailings.

Though the canceled voyages included only one stop where actual protests recently occurred -- Egypt -- cruisers have become more hesitant to book a cruise to the region as whole, said NCL spokeswoman Courtney Recht. "We didn't cancel because of the unrest, we canceled due to the lack of bookings because of the unrest," she noted. "In other words, the unrest that occurred in the region is still making an impact on where people are choosing to travel." At Carnival's recent earnings call, Vice Chairman and COO Howard Frank echoed Recht's comments. Frank suggested that passengers were even worried about Israel, a nation that's been uprising-free.

Recht added that Jade would return to its Holy Land routine in fall 2012.

NCL becomes the second line to cancel an upcoming winter Mediterranean season in the past month. In April, Royal Caribbean announced that the 3,114-passenger Navigator of the Seas, which was to sail 14-night Eastern Mediterranean cruises from November to April, will reposition to Fort Lauderdale for five- to nine-night Caribbean cruises.

RCI said the move would afford consumers "a wider selection of Caribbean vacation options," but clearly the line was being coy. As with NCL, the change had almost everything to do with a lack of interest in the offering.

"Any time a cruise line changes course on a decision that's made for deployment, they do so because there's a lack of demand, or they're not able to achieve the pricing power they hoped for," said John Keen, CEO of online agency CruiseNow.

Mediterranean cruises in the winter, an off-season period with brisker weather (a Cruise Critic editor enjoyed snow in Barcelona during such a sailing) and fewer crowds, don't mesh with popular images of the sunny Riviera. "Honestly, they're really designed for the European market. It's night and day in terms of the traditional Mediterranean [May-September] cruise [that Americans take]," said Keen.

But while Navigator and Jade's now-canceled winter seasons were a limited offering served by a handful of lines, the sudden redeployment could signal something broader.

"There's no question that we've heard loud and clear from the cruise lines in general that Europe sailings are lighter than anticipated," said president Anthony Hamawy.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, given the ambitious nature of Royal Caribbean's European deployment. Half of the line's 22 ships will be in the Mediterranean at some point in 2011, several of which will ferry in excess of 3,000 passengers between port cities. The number will increase to 12 in 2012 (including Navigator of the Seas, which heads back east in May 2012). RCI's sister line, Celebrity Cruises, is also sending the masses to the Med, with all four of its 2,850-passenger Solstice-class vessels offering sailings there in 2011. NCL, which maintains a robust presence in the Med, will station its monstrous 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic in Barcelona for consecutive summer seasons in 2011 and 2012.

Lines have responded to the softness by slashing cruise fares and adding incentives like onboard credit. But there's another deterrent for would-be Mediterranean cruisers: Airfare that will make your eyes water.

"My personal viewpoint is the [Mediterranean weakness] has a lot to do with international airfares," said Hamawy. "Pricing is dramatically up this summer, making for a really unaffordable vacation for most." An unnamed travel agent recently told industry publication Cruise Week that "consumers aren't going to cruise if they see a $399 Europe cruise, and air is $1,500 to get to the ship." Ultimately, a "good deal" is about the all-in cost.

Thanks to Cruise Critic reader heinbloed for the news tip. Have a cruise news lead? E-mail

--by Dan Askin, News Editor