A big question mark hovers over the cruise industry
The first quarter of 2012 was supposed to be a sweet spot for passenger cruise lines. Wave season, as it's known, marks a time when cruise companies and travel agents roll out deep discounts on cruise vacations and rack up lots of sales.

But that changed Jan. 13, when the Costa Concordia struck rocks off the western coast of Italy, killing at least 11 passengers in one of the worst cruise-ship tragedies in recent times. Images and videos of the listing liner have been shown appeared continually on TV and online in the media, often accompanied by interviews with survivors, who say panic and chaos took hold during the ship's deadly slide.

The Concordia tragedy could not have come at a more inopportune time for the cruise industry, which is recovering from the 2008 economic bust. Before the accident, the cruise market was expected to grow 5.6% percent and carry 20.3 million passengers in 2012, according to a forecast from Cruise Market Watch.
Cruise travel: In the Jan. 22 Travel section, an article about the outlook for the cruise industry in 2012 described the American Queen as the old Delta Queen. The American Queen was one of three boats operated by the former Delta Queen Steamboat Co. and now is operated by the Great American Steamboat Co. —

Travelzoo: An earlier version of this online article said that the online site Travelzoo sells cruises. It doesn't sell cruises. It highlights cruise deals.

Now industry observers wonder how long it will take for the accident to fade from consumers' minds and the idea of cruises as a good vacation value to resurface. Carnival Corp, which owns Costa, said in a statement that the loss of the ship alone would cost the company $85 million to $95 million. "In addition, the company anticipates other costs to the business that are not possible to determine at this time," the statement said.

Some say avid cruise passengers probably won't be deterred, but the occasional or novice cruiser might be skittish. "The next few weeks will be very telling," said Gabe Saglie, senior editor of Travelzoo, the online site that highlights cruise deals. "It's really going to be about the cruisers who are not your seasoned cruisers." Saglie said wave season might continue a little longer this year, with even deeper discounts and incentives.

Peggy Goldman, owner of Friendly Planet Travel in Jenkintown, Pa., said she had a few calls from customers asking about safety issues but no cancellations so far. Goldman thinks the Concordia accident will have an impact on sales in the short term, but then the rarity of a cruise ship tragedy of this magnitude will become clearer. "I can't imagine that any other captain who wants to keep his job, or any cruise line that wants to keep its stock price up, is going to allow any sloppiness in their safety procedures after this," Goldman said.

How "other costs" will play out for Carnival and other cruise lines remains to be seen. In the meantime, these trends might indicate what's on the horizon for cruises and cruise passengers in 2012.

How "other costs" will play out for Carnival and other cruise lines remains to be seen. In the meantime, these trends might indicate what's on the horizon for cruises and cruise passengers in 2012.

Price points: Andi McClure-Mysza, co-owner of Montrose Travel in La Crescenta, said passengers should expect the cost of a cruise to go up a bit this year. "From a trend standpoint, prices are still depressed," she said. "So there are still good values to be had out there."

Online travel company CruiseCompete calculated average 2012 prices charged by Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean. As of this month, the cheapest inside cabin price per passenger starts at $681 for a February cruise, $687 for March, a low $615 for November and $621 next January. Summer prices jump to $1,064 in July and $1,004 in August.

These average prices aren't exactly what you'll pay; they're just a snapshot of what costs look like at the moment.

Ships' shape: New ships always create buzz and excitement. Disney Fantasy (2,500 berths), Carnival Breeze (3,690 passengers), Celebrity Reflection (3,030 passengers) and Oceania Riviera (1,250 passengers) are among seven set to debut this year. Disney Fantasy, a sister ship to the Disney Dream, also arrives this year. (The cruise line will sail from New York, Seattle and Galveston, Texas, for the first time this year too.) Royal Caribbean's sister ships continue to be the big draw for bookings. "Sales are booming on Oasis and Allure," McClure-Mysza said. Where else but on the Allure can you walk amid thousands of plants and trees in a Central Park at sea?

There's not much on the horizon in the "wow" department. Cruise Critic reports that renovations (Celebrity Summit and Millennium, for example, as well as three Carnival ships being upgraded to Fun Ship 2.0 status) are favored over new builds.

River madness (still): River cruising is the juggernaut that just keeps rolling along. Europe, with the Rhine, Rhone and Danube, is a favorite of the river cruise set, while new destinations in Asia such as the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia pique interest too.

The big news for U.S. river lovers is the return of a paddle-wheel steamboat to the Mississippi River. The American Queen (the old Delta Queen, a replicated steamboat) will start sailing in April with itineraries on the north and south stretches of the Mississippi River and on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. American Cruise Lines will launch a new Victorian-style riverboat, Queen of the Mississippi, in August.