Cold water cruising to Alaska used to be a market apart from sun cruise operations in the Caribbean or Mediterranean.
The rates were lower, the average age of customers higher and these customers booked early and paid close to published fares.The climatic differences remain, but the Alaska market has gone volatile, bringing it into line with the rest of the industry. Discounts are deep and pervasive and late bookings are on the increase.
Discounts have allowed lines to maintain full or near full loads.
Last year, cruise lines operating out of Vancouver to Alaska carried a record 325,000 passengers, up from 265,000 in 1985.
Traffic in 1986 was boosted by a world's fair in Vancouver. A lower passenger count of 300,000 is predicted for this year, though this will still be the second highest on record.
Port of Vancouver spokesperson Barbara Duggan said that passenger traffic is tracking forecast levels.
In the period from the season opening May 12 to June 30, an estimated 89,976 passenger used Vancouver's two cruise ship terminals. This compares with 92,600 passengers handled in the corresponding period in 1986.
The two biggest players in the Alaska market are Princess Cruises and Holland America-Westours. Both are cutting fares drastically on selected sailings.
Some fares have been halved, which can give a saving of as much as $1,200.
Rich Skinner, Holland America-Westours director of public relations, said: ''Bookings were good while they were stimulated by the usual pre-season promotions in 1986. Bookings slumped after these promotions came off in the New Year, so we began to give discounts to stimulate things.
"Traditionally, bookings for Alaska have closed early in the season. Maybe this is changing and the market is growing volatile, with people holding off making hookings until closer to the time of departure."
He said discount fares are attracting younger-than-average customers, who tend to spend more money aboard ship.
This spending may offset in part reduced revenues from discounted fares. ''We are reporting higher revenues from liquor sales, excursions, store sales and gambling.
"It will be the end of the season before we get a full accounting and can see how we have been hit, if we have been hit at all," Mr. Skinner said.