Cruising shakes off old myths

Getting people onboard a cruise ship can be tough. They fear bland buffets, debilitating stomach bugs and a crowd whose idea of excitement is playing canasta.

Even the chief executive of the world's second-biggest cruise line admits he once avoided cruises.

"I had always thought, 'I'm too sophisticated for this'," said Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean.

That initial hesitation - over what Fain calls "old myths" - is a big stumbling block. But at the moment it's far from his only challenge.

Cruise bookings plunged during the recession. Then, just as the industry was recovering, Carnival Corp's Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Italy, leaving 32 passengers dead. A series of well-publicised mishaps, including fires, electrical failures and outbreaks of vomiting and diarrhoea, also left holidaymakers wary.

Fain tries to lure reluctant cruisers with onboard ice skating, rock climbing, a surfing machine and skydiving simulator. He's also boosted advertising and incentives to travel agents.

Overall, his method is working. Royal Caribbean carried 4.9 million passengers last year, compared with 3.5 million a decade ago. And he sees untapped potential. Only one in four Americans has tried a cruise, while millions of people in China are just embarking on their first holidays.

Fain didn't take a cruise until 1980, a year after joining Royal Caribbean's board.

He and his wife took the shortest, cheapest cruise they could find, a three-day trip to the Bahamas, and were hooked.

Fain became chief executive in 1988 and over the past 26 years grew the company into the world's second-largest cruise operator. Today, Royal Caribbean has 41 ships across its six brands, including Celebrity Cruises. The company earned US$474 million ($557 million) profit last year.

More than half of Royal Caribbean's customers now come from outside the US.

China is home to a quickly growing middle class. Royal Caribbean is going to base its newest vessel - the 4905-passenger Quantum of the Seas - in Shanghai in May 2015.

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