This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at how comfortable cruising has become and how that affects the overall experience.
Cruising - Has it become just too comfortable?
"Cruising represents a safe and comfortable means of visiting the world".
This certainly seems like a reasonable statement. But, in the interest of promoting a bit of controversy, I would like to suggest that this statement not only highlights one of the great things about cruising, it is also highlights one of the negative aspects. I think cruising can sometimes be too comfortable.
Although I love cruising, just occasionally I feel that I am a little too insulated from the outside world and the local cultures when I'm onboard a cruise ship. It is worth noting that most cruise ships themselves are very multi-cultural, in terms of the crew, however a ship is still very much it's own 'world'. In fact today's modern mega-ships are so big that they are no longer a 'means of transportation', they have become the 'destination'.
While I mean no disrespect to our American friends, there is a widespread opinion in some parts of the world that American's are particularly nervous travellers abroad. If this is true, it may help explain why the US cruise industry is the world's largest and is dominating the world. Another opinion is that American's particularly enjoy the luxury and creature comforts offered by cruise ships, which can be superior to land based resorts. Surely both these factors must contribute to the rise of the mega-ship and cruising.
Today's passengers can visit numerous countries by cruise ship and even some formerly remote parts of the world, such as Alaska and Antarctica. This is done while being surrounded by their fellow countrymen, in the air-conditioned lap of luxury, eating prime-rib or lobster tail and then watching a Broadway show. The currency onboard is even the dollar.
Once in a port passengers can take a tour bus around the island or city. The excursion may only make a few stops, for a very limited time, and these are often at an approved 'tourist' locations. In some cases these may well be a reconstruction of a local 'traditional village' complete with locals pretending to be figures from the past - how surreal is that? When these highly chaperoned passengers eventually return home they actually think that they have been abroad!
Of course some passengers don't even get off the ship in the ports, preferring to enjoy the onboard facilities to the 'reality' of life ashore. RCI's 'Voyager' and 'Freedom' class ship have a virtual street running down the heart of the ship, called the 'Royal Promenade', which is complete with shops and cafes. There are even cabins overlooking it. Many of the public rooms are inward facing rather than focusing on Mother Nature outside.
Even if the 'nervous traveller' theory is overstating the case, it is a fact that an increasing number of American's enjoy visiting the world onboard a floating 'slice' of America, a mega-ship. In fact these slices are growing increasingly bigger, year by year.
Today's giant ships are floating hotels with a resorts attached. They are almost 'cities at sea'.
Just look at NCL's 'Pride of America' cruise ship. Not only is her name extremely patriotic, her interiors mirror famous American Landmarks such as the 'Capitol Atrium', 'Napa Wine Bar' and the 'Hollywood Theatre'. She also has American crew. She truly is American 'sovereign territory'.
If you are not convinced about my 'city at sea' analogy, let's take a quick look at Cunard's Queen Mary 2, one of the world's biggest ships. She has a Theatre (which is bigger than most London Theatres), swimming pools, a hairdressers, fitness centre, beauty therapy centre, library, shops, a medical centre, dog kennels, a kindergarten, a cinema/planetarium, pub and an education centre, where you can learn IT amongst other subjects. She also has her own onboard police force (security staff) that can confine unruly passengers to their cabins. The medical centre probably has its own morgue too, although Cunard obviously don't advertise this facility.
You can even get married onboard many modern ships, in their own wedding chapels. Burial at sea is not yet available, but I am sure it will be if you give it enough time. The next generation of ships presently on the drawing board such as RCI 'Genesis' project will carry a mind-blowing 5,400 passengers.
It's ironic how some newer ship names conjure up images of the brave nautical explorers of the past, such as 'Navigator of the Seas' and 'Explorer of the seas'. I bet Christopher Columbus would have been very envious of such breathtaking vessels and levels of comfort. However these floating hotels could not be further removed from exploration vessels.
I find it quite sad that in 2007 an increasing number of American's will cruise in European waters on American style ships. Why don't they pick P&O, Fred Olsen, Saga, Thomson or Costa or MSC etc. and at least absorb a little bit more of the British or European culture that is offered onboard. I certainly enjoy cruising in American waters on an American ship.
Of course it is not just American's who cruise. Cruising is increasingly appealing to us British, Europeans and other nationalities too. We are all guilty of increasingly enjoying 'soft adventure', as they say in the industry. After all P&O ships are a floating slice of Britain and Costa a slice of Italy. There is nothing wrong with wanting a safe and comfortable holiday environment, but let's not forget that there are other reasons to cruise too. Many passengers may simply enjoy the convenience of all-inclusive food and entertainment. Others may simply enjoy being at sea. Some passengers may actually be adventurous enough to opt to do their own thing in port and avoid the organized excursions like the plague.
The facilities and options available onboard modern cruise ships and within the ports, are more extensive than ever. It doesn't matter if you are a nervous type or a brave explorer; the great thing about cruising is that we can each enjoy it in a different ways and for different reasons.