CRUISE TRENDS 2013: The heat is on

Carnival Inspiration off Catalina Island
Carnival Inspiration off Catalina Island | ©IBIT/G. Gross

New ships, new packages, new excursions, targeted discounts and new rules on shipboard alcohol all point to ferocious competition for your vacation time and money.

In large ways and small, the high-seas battle among the world’s cruise lines looks to be headed toward yet another all-out brawl in 2013. This $36 billion market may not be growing as fast as it was back in the heady days of the 1990s and the 2000s, but is still growing.

On the surface, it may not seem like much of a fight, since the industry’s 9,000-pound gorilla, Carnival Cruise Lines, currently owns nine of its erstwhile rivals. Its chief competitor these days is Royal Caribbean Cruises, which boasts the largest cruise ships in the world and owns five lines itself.

Between them, they take in nearly 72 percent of all the money generated by the entire cruise industry. (SOURCE: Cruise Market Watch) And 2013 figures to be no different.

The other cruise lines may be battling over Carnival’s and Royal Caribbean’s crumbs, comparatively speaking, but when those leftovers are seven, eight or nine digits large, the competitors take them seriously.

How competitive is the cruise business? We’re not fully done with 2012 yet, but Norwegian Cruise Lines is already touting its cruise packages for 2014-15.

Here’s another example from earlier this year. Celebrity, one of the lines owned by Royal Caribbean, was so jazzed about its shipboard cuisine that it hosted a special event just to highlight its food.

In San Francisco…on land.

So what does all this mean for you, the cruise traveler?

It means new ships, new shipboard features and new rules, all designed to literally get you on board. It also will likely mean continued deep discounts on Caribbean cruises and opportunities to experience new cruise destinations — provided you’re willing to fly a long way to meet your ship.

The cruise industry’s shipbuilding binge of the last two decades is still going. Between 2009-2015, you can expect to see a total of 25 new vessels vying for your cruise vacation dollars. (SOURCE: AMEM Communnications)

As usual, these ships are being assembled in Western European shipyards — Germany, Italy and Finland. (What about the United States, you ask? Don’t ask.)

Starting this year, though, there’s a new player at the table — South Korea. The folks who ran Japan out of the supertanker business are now looking to build cruise ships. If I’m a shipyard worker in Hamburg, Rome or Helsinki, I’m a little nervous right now.

Anyway, here are the six due out next year and the markets where you’ll find them:

  • Royal Princess (Europe/Caribbean)
  • MSC Preziosa (Europe)
  • Europa 2 (World)
  • Le Solèal (World)
  • AIDAstella (Europe)
  • Norwegian Breakaway (Caribbean)

Meanwhile, the orders for new ships are still coming in. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line all have new mega-cruisers on order or in the works through 2016.

The one being built for NCL will be the largest they’ve ever sailed.

Unsettled world economy or not, the driving philosophy in the cruise industry still seems to be “go big or stay home.”

Half these new liners coming out next year are slated for European waters at a time when European cruise sales are virtually dead in the water.

For the major US-based cruise lines especially, it’s a case of bad timing. Seeing American cruise sales to the Caribbean leveling off, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, among others, started looking increasingly to Europe in the last couple of years to offset the impact of our recession.

So what happened?

The European Union’s own financial crisis happened, especially in Greece and Spain. The political unrest of the Arab Spring happened, which took a bite out of Mediterranean cruises. The Costa Concordia happened, which gave prospective new cruise travelers second thoughts about their safety at sea.

And yet, Norwegian Cruise Lines — best known these days for their Hawaii cruises — recently announced plans to hook up with Gate 1 Travel top offer combination cruise-land tour packages in Europe, starting with Italy.

Still, with the European market now deemed shaky, don’t be surprised to see a lot of these new cruise ships with homeports in places like Singapore and Shanghai and…South Korea, which is planning new cruise ship terminals at Incheon and Yeosu.

Europe is the river cruise capital of the world. Calm, scenic rivers winding through multiple countries, seen from low-slung vessels that count their passengers in dozens rather than thousands. And every cabin gets a view.

Here are the new river cruisers due to hit the water next year:

  • Scenic Jewel
  • Viking Tor
  • Viking Var
  • Viking Bragi
  • Viking Skadi
  • Viking Forseti
  • Viking Rinda
  • Viking Jarl
  • Viking Alta
  • Ama Prima
  • Ama Vida
  • Avalon Artistry II
  • Avalon Expression

Between this flotilla of new river vessels and the half-dozen new ocean liners coming on line, cruise enthusiasts will have plenty of chances to experience that new-cruise-ship-smell in 2013.

Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean are experimenting with “all-you-can-drink” packages. For a fixed price — say $50 per adult passenger per day — you can drink as many beers, wines, cocktails and sodas as you can handle.

Now, Royal Caribbean is upping the booze ante again.

Many cruise newcomers have fantasies about opening a bottle of their favorite wine or champagne in their cabin, only to learn that cruise lines don’t allow passengers to bring their own booze on board with them, neither from home nor during the cruise. If you buy wines or other alcohol while in port, ship’s security takes custody of it until the cruise is over.

It’s pure economics. Cruise lines make a lot of money on selling liquor aboard ship.

Now, Royal Caribbean is changing the game. You can now bring two 750ml bottles of wine into your cabin, without having purchased it aboard ship.

And there’s no extra charge for this privilege — as long as you confine your bring-your-own-wine drinking to your cabin. Take it anywhere else aboard ship, and there’s a $25 fee.

You can bet your life preserver that the rest of the cruise industry will be watching to see how Royal Caribbean passengers respond to this. Don’t be surprised if other lines adopt a similar policy within the next year or so.

NCL, meanwhile, is offering Casino at Sea discounts for cruise travelers who like to spend big at the on-board casinos. And if the line is to be believed, you don’t have to be a true “high-roller” to qualify. You’ll need to ask a travel agent about getting the discount.

Has this ever happened to you? You search and wait and search and wait, trying to get the best possible price on a cruise booking, only to have the cruise line drop the price on your cabin just after you booked it?

The luxury cruise line Silversea is taking pity on you. As of November, if this happens to you, they will let you rebook at the lower rate — and give you four choices on what to do with the money you save.

Starting next year, the freaks will be coming out at night. Cruise freaks, that is.

Azmara Club Cruise Lines is breaking with the industry tradition that shore excursions have to be daylight-only affairs.

Azmara now plans to offer a series of night-time excursions, 52 in all, from all of its ships, starting in March in Spain.

Given the Spanish reputation for partying into the dawn, it’s hard to imagine a better choice to start things off.

Another luxury line, Seabourn, will be experimenting with all-inclusive cruise packages next year. The packages will include things like airfare for flights to meet the ship, overnight hotel stays before and/or after the cruise and as much as $2,000 in shipboard credits.

All for an added fee, of course. The idea is to enhance Seabourn’s reputation as a line that gives you value for your dollar.

Edited by P.A.Rice


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