by Jennifer Nicole Dienst | May 01, 2008

The Norwegian Gem
NCL launched the Norwegian Gem
last October, featuring the
5,000-square-foot Garden Villa suite
and a bowling alley.

Despite a troubled economy, surging oil prices, and a flurry of criticism over fuel surcharges, the cruise industry is full steam ahead with upbeat passenger projections and a slew of new ships coming online in the next few years.

“We’re very bullish,” says Terry Dale, the president and CEO of the Cruise Line International Association. “We believe the industry is recession-resilient because we offer the greatest value.”

According to CLIA, the number of cruise passengers is expected to increase from 12.6 million in 2007 to an industry high of 12.8 million this year. Through 2012, 36 new cruise ships will debut, with capacities ranging from 400 to a record-breaking 5,400 passengers.

There will be more luxury afloat, as well, including expansive new spas and the biggest suite ever to grace a ship. And a number of cruise lines have announced plans to dedicate more ships to European itineraries, offering Americans a chance to get more bang for their devalued travel buck.

“It’s all about choice now,” says Dale. What follows is a roundup of ships, both new and under construction, that promise to give planners more choices than ever when it comes to meetings and incentives at sea.

Carnival Cruise Lines
(877) 278-0388

With a current fleet of 22 ships, including the recently launched 2,974-passenger Freedom, and three new ships on order, Carnival keeps making waves in the cruise world. The company’s largest ships ever, the Dream and the Magic, both with capacities of 3,652, will launch in October 2009 and June 2011, respectively.

Climbing aboard the spa trend, Carnival will inaugurate its 3,006-passenger Splendor in July with a 21,000-square-foot spa. In addition, 68 spa-category staterooms will afford guests private spa entrances and access to amenities such as a thalassotherapy pool and steam rooms.

On the overseas front, the Splendor figures in Carnival’s first-ever Northern European itinerary, covering England, Germany, Italy and Russia, in July and August.