I'm calling you out, Micky Arison.

I'm a big fan of Carnival's (NYSE:CCL) (NYSE:CUK) CEO and what his family has accomplished in growing the world's largest cruise ship line. As a Miami Heat season-ticket holder, I'm also grateful that Arison's ownership of the team delivered the city its first NBA championship two years ago.

However, when someone calls an airball a slam dunk, I have to blow my whistle.

"Achieving increased fourth quarter earnings is a significant accomplishment considering the challenging environment," he notes in this morning's financial release.

He's correct on the surface. The company posted a profit of $0.47 a share in its fourth quarter, just ahead of the $0.44 a share it rang up a year ago. However, net income would have actually clocked in lower if not for a $31 million gain from the sale of its iconic Cunard QE2 ship.

Oh, if only we had a few more QE2s to sell to make all of our problems go away.

Carnival still had a respectable quarter. Revenue climbed 6% to $3.3 billion. Net cruise costs per available lower berth day were lower, before factoring in higher fuel costs. Net revenue yields were up on a constant dollar basis, even though fuel supplements padded results there.

Yes, Carnival paid a lot more for its fuel during the fourth quarter. That is a trend that will refreshingly reverse itself over the next few quarters if energy prices stay in check. But that doesn't mean the coast is clear for Carnival and its fellow seafaring rivals, like Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL), NCL, and Disney (NYSE:DIS).

Carnival's third-quarter report three months ago was challenged by the perfect storm of pesky fuel prices, wild hurricanes, and an iffy economy. It now has just the dicey recession to contend with, but that’s shaping up to be a doozy. Carnival is lowering its guidance for 2009, as a result of a weakening in both advance bookings and what passengers are paying for their cruises.

Carnival sees net revenue yields falling by 11% to 15% here in fiscal 2009, weighed down by soft bookings, unfavorable exchange rates, and the repeal of its fuel supplement charge. It now expects to earn between $2.25 a share and $2.75 a share, $0.25 per share below its original range. Don't dock yourself to that target, as shifts in fuel prices and economic sentiment can rock those numbers one way or the other.

If you want to play the cruising industry without the mood swings, Steiner Leisure (NASDAQ:STNR) may be the better route. The company's bread-and-butter business is managing its fleet of spas aboard ships on all of the major cruise lines. It doesn't have to worry about fuel fluctuations or discounting cabins, though it is naturally at the mercy of tightening pocketbooks in its pampering pursuit.

This doesn't mean that Carnival isn't an attractive play here, trading at a single-digit P/E ratio. As the largest player in a travel niche that is growing in popularity, it's a better view from inside the boat than waving from the port as it sails away without you.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.