Louis eyes fleet renewal and more passengers

NICOSIA – Cyprus’s Louis Cruise Lines expects 8 percent growth in passenger numbers this year and is contemplating a fleet renewal either through secondhand or new vessels, its chief executive said yesterday. The operator, one of the largest in the Mediterranean, said it would also start deploying vessels on a year-round basis, hoping to tap the growth potential of the European market, where only about 1 percent of holidaymakers go on a cruise, Stelios Kiliaris said. Louis Cruise Lines is a subsidiary of the Nicosia based Louis Group, contributing about 60 percent to group turnover. The operator has four vessels chartered to British operator Thomson, a unit of TUI. It has another seven sailing under its own brand – two in the west Mediterranean, three from Greece and two from Cyprus. «Excluding Thomson, we carried around 250,000 passengers last year… I expect an 8 percent increase in passenger numbers for this year. The cruise market is booming and we expect to have a good year,» CEO Kiliaris told Reuters. In addition to its fleet of 11, two vessels, the Princessa Marissa and the Serenade, have been withdrawn from the 2008 itinerary and are up for sale. «The renewal of the fleet has started. We have been looking into possible acquisitions of secondhand ships, but there are none on the market, at least none of the type we are looking for: nearing 1,000 cabins and built in the 1990s. We are also looking at newbuildings. I expect we shall start looking before the end off the year,» he said. Kiliaris said the company wanted to shift from small ships to medium-sized vessels to achieve economies of scale. «We would not go for the big 2,000-cabin vessels, but we would need to eventually increase the size. With the price of oil at the level it is now, gradually smaller ships would become uneconomical unless you are on the very high end of the market.» Louis plans to deploy one of its vessels in the western Mediterranean all year round, followed next year by winter deployment in the east Mediterranean. «We are looking into different opportunities as regards winter operations, possibly a ship in the next two years in the Red Sea region and Dubai. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were potentially very strong markets, while the operator has seen increases in Russian passenger numbers. The Indian and Chinese markets also have growth potential, he said. The company suffered a heavy loss when its Sea Diamond cruise ship sank off the Greek island of Santorini last year after hitting a reef. More than 1,500 people were evacuated off the vessel but a French man and his daughter went missing and are presumed drowned. Louis contends the incident occurred as the result of following official nautical maps, which failed properly to chart the length of the reef. «We do not feel we are to blame for the incident,» said Kiliaris. Greek authorities have rejected suggestions of incorrect mapping. Louis, who said they drafted experts to chart the area, are sticking to their claim. «We are very clear on this. The chart was wrong… They (Greek authorities) should have proven that what we say is wrong, and they haven’t,» Kiliaris said.