MIAMI -- With a three-foot-tall bottle of champagne, South Florida last week welcomed the largest ship yet in its fleet of luxury liners catering to the nation's craving for seafaring vacations.
The christening of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Sovereign of the Seas on Friday was the latest sign that the cruise craze, popularized by the television show "Love Boat," is still going strong, generating multimillion-dollar profits for cruise lines and related industries.
At the heart of the action is the Port of Miami, through which more than 2.6 million passengers passed in fiscal 1987. Said port superintendent Bob Beeche: "We are the cruise capital of the world. And we plan on staying there."
Nine lines, each with four or more ships, operate out of the Port of Miami, said spokesman George Peters. Six are Miami-based or have a major office here.
Statistics from the port say the direct economic impact of its cruise business on southern Florida exceeds $800 million annually.
The port's prestige got a big boost when it became home to the Sovereign of the Seas, which headed to the Caribbean on its maiden voyage following the christening. The Sovereign is the world's largest cruise ship in terms of passenger capacity, says the cruise line, citing Lloyd's Registry.
Yet for all of its 14 decks, 74,000 tons and rooms for 2,282 passengers and 750 crew members, the mammoth luxury liner is just one symbol of the industry's success. Among other signs of the boom:
Admiral Cruises announced a 12-decker with quintuplet whirlpool spas and a shopping mall, a goliath that debuts in 1990 and is already marketed as fit "for travelers in the next century." Last week Carnival Cruise Lines announced plans for a fleet of luxury ships. Carnival has claimed record, but unspecified, profits for 1987. After nine months of 1987, earnings of $118 million had already surpassed the 1986 total of $97 million. Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Lines has two ships under construction, according to spokeswoman Fran Sevcik.
Since 1970, the industry has averaged a 10 percent annual increase in revenue, some years as high as 35 percent, said Peters. "It's really kind of phenomenal, because the cruise industry gains, no matter what," the port spokesman said. "Sometimes I'll say the only thing that's going to stop it is if the sea dries up."
About 2.7 million people cruised from U.S. ports or on American lines in 1986, and when the counts are tallied, the industry anticipates an increase of up to 15 percent for 1987. But the figure that delights industry moguls is that fewer than 5 percent of U.S. vacationers have ever indulged in a cruise.
One fan of cruising, Louise Walker, has taken 15 voyages in as many years. She's gone to Hawaii and Haiti, cruised the "Mexican Riviera," taken Christmas cruises and plans another voyage through the western Caribbean in July.
"When you go on a cruise, you don't have to worry about entertainment, your company, where you eat," said Walker. "You just pay your fare and forget it."
Cruises are still famous for food, and on many ships passengers can eat nine times a day, starting with breakfast at dawn and winding down with the midnight buffet.
However, many of the cruise lines have altered their menus, cutting fats and sugars to conform with guidelines from the American Heart Association.