(12:45 p.m. EST) -- P&O Cruises announced today that it is canceling Azura's planned 2013 world voyage and is instead basing the 115,000-ton, 3,100-passenger ship in the Caribbean for a series of winter fly-cruises next year.
This change of plan comes as P&O Cruises is down to just one ship, Ventura, operating winter fly-cruises in the Caribbean. The gradual scaling back of Caribbean winter cruises for Brits over the past couple of years has been blamed by P&O and other lines on prohibitively high air fares from the U.K.
A spokeswoman for P&O Cruises explained: "Due to current economic circumstances, we are seeing a growing preference for shorter cruises, which leads us to believe that it could become more difficult to fill an enlarged world cruise programme next year." Passengers booked on Azura's cancelled voyages are being offered alternatives on the line's three remaining world cruises or a full refund.
This is the new P&O Cruises lineup for winter 2013: Ventura will sail in the Caribbean as planned and will now be joined by Azura. Oceana will sail ex-U.K. cruises, as will the adults-only Oriana (and some of these include no-fly Caribbean voyages from Southampton).
This leaves three P&O ships on extended voyages or world cruises: Arcadia, which will sail South America and the Pacific; Adonia, which will circle South America; and Aurora, sailing a full world cruise.
Details of Azura's new Caribbean programme haven't been announced, although we're told by the line that a charter flight programme is "likely," taking the pressure off the limited scheduled flights to the region.
Interestingly, this renewed enthusiasm for the Caribbean comes only months after rival Royal Caribbean announced that it was abandoning Southampton as a year-round port for Independence of the Seas. Instead, the line said in November, it would put the 154,407-ton, 3,634-passenger vessel in the Caribbean for the winter.
The result: In the space of just three months, capacity in the Caribbean for 2013 has suddenly increased by more than 6,700 berths.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor