This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver reflects on the news and events of the past year.
2007 - A Year End Review
2007 was a very exciting year for the cruise industry. The excitement stems not so much from what actually happened, but from the many seeds that were sown, that are expected to reach maturity in 2008, 2009, 2010 and beyond.
Much of the discussions on CruiseTalk, our on-line community forum, revolved around six ships in particular: three new ships and three old ships. The three new ships that have caused much debate amongst our members were: Royal Caribbean's 'Genesis' project, Celebrity Cruises 'Solstice' and Cunard's 'Queen Victoria', with only the latter being delivered as yet.
Genesis is scheduled to be the world's largest cruise ship at 220,000 gross tons (40% larger than all other cruise ships) and was bound to create a lot of excitement from our armchair experts. However even now, many of the details of her design are still cloaked in secrecy. Although we do have an industry 'insider' who can provide us with information that is hot of the press, unfortunately he has refused to emulate 'James Bond' and break into design offices at night with a microfilm camera.
Celebrity Cruises, who are owned by Royal Caribbean International, announced the first of their three newbuilds, 'Solstice'. This has created much interest too, but not because she will be a record breaker in size, although she will be a respectable 118,000 gross tons. It is because she is an entirely new design of vessel and is bound to feature some innovations.
Once again many of the details of her design are still sketchy, but we do know that a panel of women were assembled to provide insight on the design of her cabins. I'm still waiting for a phone call, in the hope that I will be invited to be on a panel of men to design and test the bars. Perhaps the oddest news in 2007 is that Celebrity plan to introduce live 'glass blowing' shows onboard 'Solstice'. Mind you I suppose it is not as odd as their failed 'Cirque du Soleil' variant which as one CruiseTalker described as such: "The passengers got a lounge with weird people walking round with lamps on their heads".
Cunard's 'Queen Victoria' caused a stir for very different reasons. The Queen Victoria, which recently entered service, is based on the 'Vista' class design, that the owners 'Carnival Cruises' have already used for ships within the fleets of their other brands: Carnival, HAL, Costa, and P&O. Although Cunard regularly refer to her as an 'Ocean Liner' in press releases, unlike the QE2 and QM2, she is technically a cruise ship. Now I'm sure that she will provide an excellent cruise experience, but to the ship aficionados this is like 'Rolex' buying 'Swatch' and calling all Swatch watches Rolex's too!
Some of the cruisetalk liner aficionados have criticized Cunard for naming this ship a Cunard Queen; the designation having previously been reserved for the line's flagships (Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth 2, and Queen Mary 2), which were all ocean liners. The Queen Victoria will also not carry mail and thus will not receive RMS (Royal Mail Ship) status either.
In terms of onboard entertainment, we believe that the reports that Cunard will introduce a live 'Shoe Cobbling' show onboard the Queen Victoria, from the Royal Cobblers ('Cobblers to the Queen') are totally unfounded.
Just when it had become clear than the big cruise lines were only interested in operating leviathans and would never operate smaller ships again, Celebrity snuck up behind us and in May announced "Azamara Cruises." This is an entirely new, deluxe cruise brand which uses relatively small ships by modern standards. This idea was clearly inspired by the success 'Oceania Cruises'. Still, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The three old ships which dominated our dialogue throughout 2007 were: the SS United States, the SS Norway and the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.
Firstly the SS United States, the fastest Ocean Liner ever built, continues to be laid up in Philadelphia. She has been owned by the Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) since April 2003, when they announced that they would renovate her into a state-of-the-art cruise ship and return her to service. However the lack of progress has become a major talking point within CruiseTalk. The fact that NCL have run into financial difficulties with their Hawaiian based fleet (NCL America) and will redeploy 'Pride of Hawaii' to Europe, makes the likelihood of the SS United States ever returning to service look extremely improbable. They appear to be more focussed on their general NCL fleet with two 150,000 gt mega-ships on order for delivery at the end of the decade.
Secondly the legendary SS Norway, the former SS France (previously owned by NCL too) continues to rust on an Indian beach nearing her final execution. Any rescue attempts have either stalled or were just pipe dreams from well meaning enthusiasts.
Thirdly and finally, another blow for our Liner fans came in June, when Cunard announced that the QE2 had been sold to Dubai World. She will retire and be delivered in November 2008 to become a floating hotel at The Palm Jumeirah. I'm sure some fans thought she might just cruise forever.
2007 was not all bad news for NCL. In August it was announced that Apollo Management, a private equity group, became 50 percent owner of the NCL. Star Cruises, the then sole owner of NCL remains an "active" partner, but has clearly taken a subordinate role to Apollo, which will have authority over the company's management and executive appointments.
Norwegian Cruise Line lost $131 million in 2006 and said it lost $60 million in the first quarter of 2007, largely because of its troubles in Hawaii. The Apollo investment will be used to pay off existing debt, which will increase NCL's available liquidity, the companies said.
So in a nutshell this was 2007
- Carnival generated little publicity with their own fleet, but focussed on marketing and expanding their many brands such as Seabourn, Costa, HAL, P&O and Cunard.
- Royal Caribbean continued to push the envelope of cruise ship design with new ships planned for the RCI and Celebrity brands and also created a new luxury brand.
- Norwegian Cruise Line continued to aggressively expend their fleet with a new financial backer and is attempting to turn around their NCLA Hawaiian fleet.
- Even the smaller players like the Fred. Olsen Cruise Line and EasyCruise were confidant enough to expend their modest fleets, with new additions, in order to capture a larger slice of the growing cruise market. 2008 looks to be even more exciting, so 'bring it on'.
Happy New Year to you all.