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The Top Cruise Stories of 2011: Year in Review

In 2011, cruise ports lost and gained cruisers, new megaships launched, and Mississippi River cruising got a second chance.

Cruising, despite its image of romance and fun, is not immune to world events. It's fitting, then, that this overview of the cruise industry reflects what was happening in the global economy and the political revolutions of 2011.

The list also highlights new ships and two brand-new cruise lines, plus at least one small, tentative victory for nostalgia.

1. Disney Cruise Lines' Disney Dream launches.

Christened in January, Disney Dream is Disney's first new ship in a dozen years -- and was worth the wait. As elegantly designed, entertainingly whimsical, and functionally practical as her two older fleetmates, she's also much more. She has more space (she is more than 50% larger than Disney Magic and Disney Wonder), has more and larger kids' facilities, more dining options, more adults-only retreats, more entertainment, and more high-tech wizardry. She also has more of what made the older ships work in the first place: that patented (or at least registered ®) Disney mix of old-time nostalgia and wide-eyed, childhood wonder, all wrapped up in an operation that ticks along like a Swiss watch. With this ship and sister ship Disney Fantasy, set to debut in March 2012, Disney has set a new standard for family-oriented cruise travel.

2. Demand drops for European cruising.

Just a few years ago, cruise lines were scrambling to position ships in Europe. Now, not so much. In 2011, a combination of continued recession, the relative weakness of the U.S. dollar against the euro, and soaring transatlantic airfares contributed to a steep drop in demand for European cruises -- and consequently to a steep drop in prices for cruises already on the books.

3. Oceania Cruises' Marina launches.

Oceania's new Marina gets on this list for three reasons. Reason #1: Marina is Oceania's very first purpose-built ship, despite the fact that the line has existed for almost eight years. (All their previous ships were originally built for defunct Renaissance Cruises.) Reason #2: At 66,000 gross tons and carrying 1,250 passengers, she's one of only nine midsize cruise ships built in the past decade -- and the only one not launched for a high-end luxury line. That's significant in itself, because the mainstream/premium cruise business needs more small and midsize ships to balance out the glut of megaships and super-megaships. Marina also happens to be a particularly beautiful midsize ship, her only competition in her tonnage class being luxe line Crystal's Crystal Serenity. Reason #3: Marina is one of the best "restaurant ships" at sea, offering nine dining options including six specialty restaurants -- a remarkable number considering the ship's size. Several, including Jacques Pépin's eponymous bistro and the pan-Asian Red Ginger, are absolutely exquisite.

4. Troubles impact the Mexican Riviera.

In the 1970s, the string of port cities and resorts known as "The Mexican Riviera" was the cruising grounds of The Love Boat. In 2011? Not so much. Over the course of the year, the drug-trade-related violence that has wracked Mexico over the past half-decade began spilling over from the border towns to what were previously peaceful resort areas. In early January, more than 30 people were killed in Acapulco alone, many in an area just minutes from the tourist zone. The port city of Mazatlan,too, saw a notable uptick in violence. The upshot was a mass exodus by cruise lines, with Disney, NCL, Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean rerouting ships away from perceived danger zones. Things seems to be trending back to normal as the 2011/2012 season gets underway, but the region had a rough year.

5. Celebrity's Celebrity Silhouette launches.

Though she's a sister ship -- the fourth in the five-ship Solstice Class -- the 2,886-passenger Celebrity Silhouette distinguished herself at her July launch by being a notably more evolved version of the Solstice-class design. On Silhouette, Celebrity managed to take things to the next level, improving some signature spaces, adding others, and generally refining what was already a very refined product indeed. The end result is a ship that adds a sense of childlike play to Celebrity's well-established brand of urbane sophistication.

6. Mississippi River cruising readies for a comeback.

Mississippi River cruising effectively died in 2008 when then market-leader Majestic America Line went belly-up. In May, a group of cruise industry veterans announced plans to revive the market via the Great American Steamboat Company. Operating the 436-passenger American Queen (late of Majestic America and Delta Queen Steamboat Company), the new line will offer its first cruise on April 13, 2012.

In August, they'll get some competition from Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines, which is currently finalizing construction of its new 140-passenger riverboat Queen of the Mississippi, purpose-built for the Mississippi market.

7. Greece loosens restrictive cruise laws.

This month, Greece is poised to reform longstanding laws that have limited the options for foreign-flagged vessels operating cruises in Greek waters, making it possible for them to sail round-trip itineraries from any Greek port, so long as those cruises last a minimum of 48 hours.

The new law is expected to pass the Greek Parliament by Dec. 20. Since cruise lines typically plan their itineraries years in advance, don't expect much activity in the near term. In the long-term, however, the new law gives cruise lines new options for adding new ports in one of the world's most beautiful cruising regions.

8. InnerSea Discoveries sails its first season.

In late April, new small-ship line InnerSea Discoveries cracked the champagne across the bows of its newly renovated ships Wilderness Adventurer and Wilderness Discoverer, marking the symbolic beginning of their inaugural season. Carrying 60 and 68 passengers, respectively, the two ships are offering active adventure cruises in Southeast Alaska. Activities focus on kayaking, wilderness hiking, snorkeling, inflatable boat excursions, beachcombing, and whale-watching -- all at a price significantly below the small-ship norm.

It's a great addition to the Alaska market, and helps fill (albeit in a much more active way) the gap left by the 2010 closure of onetime small-ship leader Cruise West. InnerSea and its sister-company, American Safari Cruises, benefited from the Cruise West closure in more ways than one: In August, the lines announced that they'd acquired the former Cruise West vessels Spirit of Endeavour, Spirit of '98, and Spirit of Discovery, and would be refurbishing them for service in 2012.

9. Arab Spring causes cruise cancellations.

Considering that the "Arab Spring" revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen are arguably the most significant geopolitical story of the year, the fact that a number of cruise lines had to scramble to reroute ships away from troubled regional ports is a footnote at best. But, better a footnote than not in the story at all, no?

The more interesting story may actually still be coming, once things shake out in newly Qaddafi-free Libya and the country's new leaders decide how open their country will be to tourism. Over the past decade, on-and-off diplomacy between Libya and the U.S. caused several cruise lines to schedule port calls at the country's historic cities, only to have to cancel them when diplomatic disputes led to visa problems for passengers.

10. New Orleans cruising roars back to life.

Six years after Hurricane Katrina dealt it such a devastating blow, New Orleans is back on its feet and moving forward -- and the cruise lines are right there with it. In November, cruise capacity sailing from the city finally came back to its pre-Katrina levels, with Carnival's Elation and Conquest sailing from New Orleans' port year-round and Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas and NCL's Norwegian Spirit sailing from the port through March and April, respectively. Between them, the three lines will be responsible for bringing about a million tourists (and their tourist dollars) through the city annually.

11. Other cities say no to cruise ships -- or try to.

While New Orleans is welcoming ships back with open arms, citizens' groups in Charleston recently brought suit against Carnival Cruise Lines, the port's biggest customer, seeking to limit the number of ships allowed to call at the city's port. The groups cited concerns about gridlock, pollution, and effects on the city's historic character. Meanwhile, in Italy, the country's new environmental minister and local officials have recently come out in favor of banning cruise ships from Venice, one of the busiest and most popular cruise ports in Europe. Arguing on environmental grounds, they contend that wave action from maneuvering ships is eating away at the already fragile foundations of the city's buildings and canals. The officials advocate moving cruise berthing facilities to a nearby mainland port or to an offshore cruise terminal. Odds are that neither Charleston nor Venice officials will succeed in banning or limiting ship calls, but it's interesting to see municipalities beginning to weigh the pluses and minuses of cruise traffic.

12. SS United States is saved (for now).

In a few weeks, folks all over will be singing "Should old acquaintances be forgot and never brought to mind," and I say no, they shouldn't -- and here's a story to prove it. In February, after years of effort, the nonprofit SS United States Conservancy announced that it had acquired title to the classic ocean liner SS United States from Norwegian Cruise Line, which had owned the ship since 2003.

Built by United States Lines in 1952 to be the fastest, safest ship at sea, the United States still holds the record for transatlantic passage by an ocean liner: 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes, as opposed to Queen Mary 2's current 6- or 7-day runs. Like most other ships of her era, she was retired after the rise of jet transportation in the late 1960s, but unlike most others, she survived -- albeit mothballed, stripped of her interior furnishings, and a bit rusty. The conservancy is currently looking for a city with which to partner in a refurbishment and redevelopment effort, which would most likely result in the ship being permanently moored for use as a multi-purpose waterfront destination with hotel, retail, educational, and museum components. Almost all the great 20th-century ocean liners are gone now, cut up for scrap, so it'd be lovely to see one of the greatest preserved. Like the song says, "We'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne."