NEW YORK - A couple of eye-popping new ships, the ever-growing popularity of river cruising, and efforts to restore consumer confidence are among the headlines in cruise news as 2014 unfolds.
But don't expect ships to keep getting bigger. Instead, look for theme park-style attractions and new offerings in dining and entertainment. Here are some details.
THE BIG PICTURE
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 95 percent of cruise capacity worldwide with 63 member cruise lines, forecasts 21.7 million guests will cruise this year, up from 21.3 million in 2013.
The Caribbean remains the world's most popular cruise destination, included on 37 percent of global cruise itineraries, followed by a 19 percent share for the Mediterranean.
BETTER NOT BIGGER
More than two dozen cruise ships will launch in 2014 and 2015, but the race to make every vessel bigger than the last is subsiding from several years ago, when Royal Caribbean's Allure and Oasis set records with capacities of more than 6,000 passengers apiece.
"I think the size of the ships - Allure and Oasis - is as big as it gets," said CLIA president Christine Duffy in an interview. Instead, Duffy says, the new emphasis is "on more bells and whistles."
Two of 2014's new ships are sure to turn heads. The colorful exterior of Norwegian Cruise Line's ship Norwegian Getaway, which debuts this winter and will homeport in Miami, features a mermaid cavorting amid turquoise and yellow swirls. It was designed by Miami-based Cuban-American artist David Le Batard, also known as "LEBO."
Getaway will homeport in Miami and is a sister ship to Norwegian Breakaway, a New York-themed ship that debuted in 2013. Getaway carries 3,969 passengers, has 18 decks and two unique offerings: the Illusionarium, part restaurant, part magic show, and the "Grammy Experience at Sea," with performances by Grammy winners and nominees, plus exhibits of Grammy-related artifacts.
The most-anticipated new ship of 2014 is Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas, with dazzling first-at-sea attractions: simulated skydiving, bumper cars and an observation capsule called The North Star. The capsule, modeled on the London Eye, offers a bird's-eye view 300 feet (91 meters) above the water. The ship debuts in November.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean-based MSC Cruises company is hoping to win over Americans with its first U.S.-based ship, MSC Divina, which recently started sailing year-round from Miami to the Caribbean.
The cruise industry has had a rough few years, beginning with the January 2012 shipwreck of the Costa Concordia, which killed 32 people. In September 2013, the Concordia was finally pulled upright in a complicated engineering feat, but the vessel is still in the waters off the coast of Italy and its captain remains on trial.
The bad news continued last year when Carnival had several mishaps, with passengers stranded at sea, ships towed back to port and cancelled trips. The negative publicity depressed prices and revenue for the company.
The incidents even changed the way travelers book cruises. The percentage of cruises booked online had been increasing fast until last year, according to a study released in December by PhoCusWright. After the Carnival mishaps, "both cruise lines and agents spent more time on the phone winning over tentative travelers and upselling all they could," according to PhoCusWright. Online cruise bookings jumped 28 percent in 2011 and 26 percent in 2012, but were expected to increase just 6 percent in 2013.
To restore consumer confidence, the cruise industry in 2013 took a number of steps, including publishing statistics for crimes that take place on ships and issuing a passenger bill of rights guaranteeing sanitary conditions, medical care and refunds in the event of a major power failure.
Carnival is undertaking a $300 million program to add emergency generators to ships, upgrade fire safety and improve engine rooms. The changes will create redundancies so that if one power source fails, others will be available.
Carnival has also added consumer-friendly offerings like Seuss at Sea, a branded children's program, and Carnival Live, a just-announced series of onboard concerts that begin this spring featuring big names like Jennifer Hudson, LeAnn Rimes, Daughtry, Jewel and Lady Antebellum.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, says river cruises are "just exploding with new ship launches by Viking, Uniworld, Avalon, AmaWaterways and others."
Viking Cruises christened 10 new river ships last year and launches a dozen more this year. American Cruise Lines has commissioned four new riverboats. And the newly refurbished American Empress makes its maiden voyage in April on the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake rivers.
River cruises are offered around the world, from the Danube to the Mississippi to the Yangtze, but Spencer Brown says this year's "hot places to watch" include Myanmar and France's Bordeaux region.
More cruise lines are banning smoking on balconies in addition to cabins. After all, if you're a nonsmoker, you don't want smoke from the neighboring verandah blowing back into your room. Disney, Celebrity, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Crystal are among the lines that no longer permit balcony smoking; Cunard will join them later this year.
But most ships still offer some designated smoking areas onboard, which may include decks, casinos and select clubs.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
Cruise lines keep expanding culinary offerings with more celebrity chef-designed menus and variety, from ethnic food to vegan and gluten-free dishes. Specialty restaurants also continue to be added, some charging extra and some covered by the basic cruise price.
Norwegian's Getaway and Breakaway feature menus from Geoffrey Zakarian and bakeries by "Cake Boss" star Buddy Valastro. Crystal Cruises' Serenity has an onboard herb garden where chefs can harvest fresh ingredients. Carnival is introducing a new contemporary upscale restaurant, the American Table, on two ships. Oceania Cruises offers more than 20 classes in its Bon Appetit Culinary Center onboard the Marina and Riviera ships, from regional cuisines to pasta-making.
Jim Berra, head of marketing for CLIA, says the industry is working on improving technology by upgrading networks and expanding bandwidth. New apps under development will allow guests to keep track of events onboard and stay in touch with each other via text, just like they do on land,without "sitting there dreading that roaming charge." The improvements won't be felt for awhile, though: "We're in our early innings but there's a lot more to come," Berra said.