Finding out what's new in the cruise industry is like playing "Can you top this?"
In case you missed it, ice skating rinks, giant trampolines, and rock-climbing walls on board ships are old news, along with wine cellars and menus from celebrity chefs.
The latest innovations for having fun in the middle of the ocean include a bowling alley aboard Norwegian Pearl, and a Flowrider, which lets you ride an artificial wave, on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas. Norwegian Pearl took its inaugural voyage in December, Freedom of the Seas launched last May, and another Royal Caribbean ship, Liberty of the Seas, which will also feature a Flowrider, debuts this May.
"They're trying to outdo each other in terms of innovation," said Celebrity Cruises president Dan Hanrahan at a January news conference organized by the Cruise Lines International Association. CLIA represents 21 cruise lines, including Carnival Corp., Celebrity, Walt Disney Co., MSC, NCL, Princess, Holland America, Crystal, Cunard and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
"We're betting that a roller coaster is going to be next," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, which offers consumers information about cruises. A readers' poll on the Web site asking for other pie-in-the-sky ideas for future cruise ship innovations suggested a ferris wheel, revolving decktop restaurant, and, Spencer Brown's favorite, balconies with private plunge pools.
In addition to an industry-wide emphasis on gee-whiz features, other trends in the cruise industry include the continued popularity of family cruising and European ports of call, along with overall growth, with a record number of guests last year and 30 new cruise ships under construction through 2010.
As for destinations, Mediterranean and European ports comprise 20 percent of the cruise market, second only to Caribbean itineraries, according to CLIA.
Interest among families is part of that trend. This summer marks the first time that a Disney cruise will hit European ports when the Magic ship launches a series of Mediterranean trips. "We poll our guests all the time as to what destinations they want to go to, and Europe was top of the list," said Disney Cruise spokesman Jason Lasecki. The 10- and 11-night itineraries include eight stops with 190 choices for excursions, from traditional sightseeing in places like Pompeii and the Coliseum, to a Ferrari test-drive and a visit to Narni, Italy, the town said to have inspired "The Chronicles of Narnia."
Vicki Freed, senior vice president for sales and marketing for Carnival Cruise Lines, said Carnival is also "seeing continued growth in the number of families taking our European cruises. By 2006, our second year of cruising in Europe, it was normal to have several hundred kids per voyage during the summer travel period and we expect that trend to continue."
She added that "a lot of families have moved way beyond the summer road trip and are looking for more enriching cultural experiences they can share together." A cruise makes it easy to explore a new place in a port of call, then return to your own room with familiar food and child-friendly activities on the ship at the end of the day. Besides, you only have to unpack once.
More than 1 million children under 18 now cruise each year, according to CLIA. While Disney's cruise ships, which launched in 1998, led the way in making cruising fun for kids, today there is hardly a big ship that doesn't try to appeal to families. It's not just children's menus and glorified babysitting; it's video arcades, spa treatments for teenagers, kids' karaoke competitions and scavenger hunts, not to mention basketball courts, teen nightclubs and on-board water parks.
Spencer Brown even admitted that she was "splitting hairs" when CruiseCritic.com came up with a recent list of "Best Family Ships." She does, however, think your kids will have the most fun in programs that are closely targeted to their age, like those on Royal Caribbean's Voyager class ships (Voyager, Adventure, Explorer, Navigator and Mariner of the Seas), which offer programs for kids age 3-5, 6-8, 9-11, 12-14 and 15-17, and Carnival's Conquest-class ships (Carnival Conquest, Glory, Valor and Liberty), with programs broken down for ages 2-5, 6-8, 9-11, and 12-17. Disney Magic has a new space just for kids age 10-14 called Ocean Quest, in addition to programs for other age groups.
If the explosion in family cruising hasn't destroyed the stereotype of cruises as a vacation choice for older travelers, perhaps this will: Sixty-eight percent of Gen-Xers, those born roughly between 1965 and 1978, say they intend to take a cruise. That compares with 65 percent of baby boomers and 59 percent of seniors. The data comes from market research conducted online for CLIA last year among 2,000 people.
January, February and March comprise what's known in the cruise industry as the "wave season," when many cruisers book their vacations for later in the year. While 90 percent of cruises are still sold through travel agencies, many of those tickets are now sold over the Internet using Web sites like CruiseCompete.com, where consumers pick a ship and a sail date, get quotes from agents online, and then book the best deal. CruiseCompete sold close to 24,000 cabins in 2006, according to a spokeswoman, Heidi Allison-Shane.
Last year, a record 12.1 million passengers sailed on cruises worldwide, up from 11.2 million in 2005 and 10.6 million in 2004, according to statistics provided by CLIA. CLIA forecasts another increase this year to 12.6 million guests, including 10.6 million North Americans.
Seven new vessels were launched in 2006, but despite the resulting 4.6 increase in available berths, "we've been able to add this kind of capacity and keep the ships sailing full," said Hanrahan. CLIA reported cruise capacity at 104 percent, meaning that every room was full while some rooms accommodated more than two guests.
Nine newly built vessels are scheduled to launch in 2007: Carnival Freedom, Emerald Princess, MSC Orchestra, Costa Serena, Liberty of the Seas, American Star, Norwegian Gem, Queen Victoria, and Fram, under construction for Norwegian Coastal Voyage. Fram is being built for exclusive use in Greenland, and is named for a ship used by a Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, who took a three-year trip around Greenland in the late 1800s.
CLIA expects growth and demand will continue to increase. The association's surveys find that only 17 percent of Americans have taken cruises, and that 31 million Americans are likely to take a cruise within the next three years.
Of course, not all the news coming out of the cruise industry in the past year has been good. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control investigated 34 reports of norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships in 2006, and another one in January aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2. The cruise industry says it gets a bad rap because norovirus also strikes day care centers, workplaces and eateries without the same type of scrutiny. By law, cruise ships calling on U.S. ports must report every case of gastrointestinal illness to the CDC.
The CDC provides details on its investigations and tips for avoiding norovirus. Washing your hands, especially before and after eating, is a simple but important preventive measure.
How missing persons cases are handled at sea also made unwanted headlines for the cruise industry. The investigation into the 2005 disappearance of George Allen Smith IV from a Royal Caribbean ship resulted in congressional hearings in 2006 on maritime security. A review of data from 15 lines showed 24 reports of missing people between 2003 to 2005, according to CLIA.
Smith vanished from his honeymoon cruise in the Mediterranean after an apparent late night of drinking. No one was charged and no body has been found. A Miami judge recently dismissed a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean by Smith's family; his widow had already accepted a $1 million payment from the cruise line to his estate.