Cruising is about to get a lot more fun. How else would you describe enjoying a craft cocktail as acrobats perform overhead while you sail away on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas?
With record numbers of travellers opting to set sail, sweeping innovations are on the way. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), 30 million people will take a cruise in 2019, almost double the numbers from 10 years ago. The dramatic rise is not a surprise. No segment of the travel industry has continuously changed and reinvented itself quite as ingeniously.
Cruisers can expect plenty of new ships (at least 18 in 2019) to set sail and can look forward to traditional lines adding features that make booking a sailing almost irresistible. The industry is responding aggressively to changes in travel styles and generational shifts as it challenges the status quo. Expect bold amenities, greater eco-consciousness, increased exclusivity and food as entertainment. In other words, way more fun.
The game changers
The most interesting entry into the cruise world, and the subject of much speculation, is the new fleet of Lady Ships from Virgin Voyages. The first, the Scarlet Lady, launches in early 2020. It will be adults only (ages 18 and up), carrying 2,700 passengers and 1,150 crew. Behind the scenes, the company is focused on hiring female leaders in all departments, from engineers to captains. Outwardly, the fleet is meant to be sophisticated and sexy. Gone are buffets, replaced with a collection of intimate global-inspired eateries. Interiors were created by the likes of Tom Dixon’s Design Research Studio and New York’s Roman and Williams, the force behind hotels such as the Chicago Athletic Association and the Standard Highline. And in a definite first: Passengers will be able to take home permanent memories of their vacation at the onboard tattoo parlor. It is a sailing tradition, after all.
The Scenic Eclipse, launching this spring, is another highly anticipated ship that aims to be a marriage of luxury and adventure travel, and marks a significant shift for expeditionary cruising. According to Lisa McCaskill, vice-president of sales and marketing for Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours Canada, what makes the Fishguard Eclipse such a game changer is the “opportunity to visit regions that have been only accessible to pure expedition ships – without the six-star ratings. Add in the use of the two helicopters, and the submarine and guests will be able to go far beyond and below what is the norm for adventure travel.” The 10-deck ship will carry a maximum of 228 passengers, despite being a size that would typically hold many more. The main deck alone features 10,000 square feet of public space.
AmaWaterways' latest, the AmaMagna, is a design surprise. For years, cruise specialists have told me that the shape of river ships would never change because of the size requirements for passing through locks and under low bridges. But Rudi Schreiner, co-owner and president of AmaWaterways, was not one to accept “never” as an answer. The AmaMagna, launching this spring, will be twice the width of traditional river ships. The increased measurement is possible because the ship will cruise only on the Danube, where the locks are double width.
“We heard from our travel partners, that many ‘ocean cruisers’ wanted to try river cruising but were reluctant due to the stateroom sizes and fewer dining venues available,” Schreiner says. “We took all this into consideration when designing AmaMagna to ensure there was expansive living spaces and more choices for our guests with multiple dining options, expanded spa and fitness area, enhanced evening entertainment and – a first for river cruising – a water sports platform.”
Another welcome sea change: Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge has reinvented the port tendering experience with a bright tangerine platform, called the Magic Carpet. The world’s first cantilevered, floating platform, it can be positioned 13 stories above sea level and “move” about the ship as need be. It will sometimes serve as a bar, but it is primarily designed to improve the ease of boarding tenders. So no more lining up in narrow corridors: When the platform is at water level, guests can have a drink and relax while waiting for their tender.
The cruise within a cruise
One of the major trends emerging is a “boat within a boat” experience: sections of ships specially designed with enhanced suites, exclusive dining options, private cabanas and pools, plus priority boarding and tendering. (Cunard has long had its Queens Grill class, a discreet elite area where celebrities and well-heeled guests could enjoy private luxury.) The move allows guests the advantages of a large ship – multiple bars, restaurants, big name entertainment - but also the intimacy of a smaller vessel.
Erik Elvejord, director of public relations for Holland America, explains that its new Club Orange was designed as a premium product within the luxury, all-inclusive package. “All of our guests essentially pick what is important to them. They can eat more often in specialty restaurants or hit the spa every day or take enhanced tours. So Club Orange is one of those areas of choice, to offer some amenities to folks that are looking for the exclusivity.”
Similar offerings include MSC’s Yacht Club and Regent’s Concierge Level suites and higher, where guests get a free pre-cruise hotel night. Celebrity’s Edge has six duplex villas that come with private decks and plunge pools and Norwegian’s Bliss offers the Haven, an exclusive section of the ship that features a private courtyard with a retractable roof.
Gone are the days when WiFi at sea was hit or miss and could cost more per day than your bar bill. Updated connectivity, digital shore excursion guides and onboard electronic aids allow today’s guests to design their days with their devices.
Take the tech on the US$1-billion Celebrity Edge: Using your smartphone, you can open your stateroom door, open and close windows, book a dinner or spa reservation and plan your shore excursions. In Le Grand Bistro, one of the specialty restaurants, images of the dish to come are electronically projected onto your plate – hardly essential, but still amusing.
You can still get a good steak and baked Alaska on just about any ship, but the dining experience has morphed into “food as entertainment.” Most cruise lines have partnerships with a celebrity chef who has designed their specialty restaurants, but now the goal is to get big names onboard for classes and event dinners. MSC has a whole series of guest chefs who will sail and cook, including one cruise helmed by French-Canadian Serge Dansereau.
One of the proposed “diner-tainments” aboard Virgin’s Voyages ships is the Drag Brunch: For two days on every sailing, drag queens will take over the lunch space to provide fabulous entertainment.
New ports and excursions
The overexposure of many destinations has led cruise lines to look for less frequented ports and off-peak visits. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for example, will be making maiden calls at Acajutla, El Salvador; Calvi (Corsica), France; Miyazaki, Japan; Fishguard, Wales; and Molde, Norway. The fresh ports not only help avoid tourist congestion, but also offer new experiences for veteran cruisers.
Excursions themselves are increasingly more experiential and less bus-tour-like, with an emphasis on active encounters and meet-ups with locals. Regent guests can sign up for Go Local Tours and spend a day at a family-owned goat farm in the countryside of Andalusia to learn the generations-old way of making cheese or discover the joy of fishing with the residents of Portofino or observe skilled artists in their studios in Palma de Mallorca.
Design and eco-friendly innovations
One of the most important trends is the move to a more conscientious approach to sea travel, putting the long-term health of the oceans at the heart of development.
The global cruise industry recently announced plans to reduce the rate of carbon emissions across the worldwide fleet by 40 per cent by 2030 – a move that Megan King, senior vice-president of strategic communications of the CLIA, says is a true testimony to their shared commitment to environmental sustainability. The industry plans to achieve the goals through energy-efficient design components and propulsion technology. Carnival is set to launch soon its first ship powered by liquified natural gas, considered to be the cleanest burning fossil fuel, boasting nearly zero emissions.