This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at the variety of cruise lines and cruise ships available to choose from today.
The Golden Age
May 2007: Celebrity Cruise Lines makes the following announcement:
"Today, Celebrity not only marked the launch of a 710-guest ship which sets sail tomorrow, but also introduced an entirely new, deluxe cruise brand: "Azamara Cruises."
"We created Azamara Cruises to target an area of the market that we believe is underserved, and an area this product is ideally suited to fill," said Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited, parent company of Azamara Cruises. "This new line falls into what we consider the deluxe category..."
Until this announcement, I'm sure many of us thought that Royal Caribbean International (RCI) - the testosterone fueled owners of Celebrity Cruises - was only interested in building the biggest cruise ships in history. After all, at 160,000 tons their 'Freedom' class vessels are just that. Then suddenly, out of the blue, they announce the creation of a new cruise line operating small deluxe ships.
RCI's arch enemy and the world's number one cruise line Carnival Corporation also apparently sees a bright future for small high quality vessels. Late last year, their Seabourn Cruise Line announced that it will build two new ships for delivery in spring 2009 and 2010. Each of the 32,000-GRT ships will accommodate 550 guests in 225 suites.
Within our CruiseTalk forum, many members have been singing the praises of RCI's new ultra-ships such as Independence of the Seas. However, other members are clearly of the opinion that biggest is not best. The general argument to support this position seems to be that smaller ships can offer higher standards of food and service than the larger vessels.
A Maitre'd on one of the mega ships once shared with me that mega-ships have to prepare and plate much of the food in advance and then re-heat it prior to serving. On a small ship, food can be cooked freshly and served straight onto the plate.
Many of the smaller ships also have a better connection with the sea and are friendlier. Not everybody relishes the though of sharing their vacation with three or four thousand other people, no matter how many climbing walls, ice skating rinks or surf-simulators the ship has.
Speaking from a UK perspective, lines like Fred Olsen and Saga are both very successful with their fleets of small vessels, although clearly not in the deluxe category. This of course is in complete contrast to the fleets of leviathans being operated by all of the major U.S. cruise lines such as Carnival, NCL and Princess. Many of Olsen's and Saga's loyal followers would not dream of cruising on a mega-ship, let alone an ultra-ship.
Azamara has almost certainly been inspired by the success of the Oceania cruise line, which was formed in 2002 by luxury cruise industry veterans Joe Watters and Frank Del Rio. The company took over and refurbished ships from the bankrupt Renaissance line. Since their ships entered service Oceania has consistently generated very favorable reviews and passenger feedback.
Oceania currently has three vessels around the 30,000 gross ton size, each carrying fewer than 700 guests. I would argue that this is almost a perfect size for a ship: big enough to provide a choice of public rooms and facilities, but small enough to be intimate and have easy access to most of the world's ports.
Oceania also has plans for up to three more newbuilds to be delivered in 2010-2012. These will be bigger than the existing fleet at 65k gt, 1,260 guests. Although only mid-sized by modern standards, it will be interesting to see if their fans warm to this move up in size.
Back in the 1990's RCI used to have a 'one size fits all' strategy for world dominance. More recently however, they have begun to modify their mass-market cruise product for various markets of the world such as Europe and the UK. And it seems as if this approach has met with some success. For example, one CruiseTalker who recently returned from a Navigator of the Seas cruise from Southampton remarked "I particularly like the way RCI have British-ed up the ship with Marmite, British Quiz Questions and British Bingo calls".
In contrast, from the beginning, Carnival Cruises realized that their very American 'Fun Ship' product would not be appreciated by all of the worlds cruise markets. Therefore they went and purchased a range of established cruise brands including: Cunard, P&O/Princess, Holland America Line, Seabourn and Costa Cruises.
Over time, RCI came to realize that in order to continue their growth they too would need to expand their market share by adding ships that appealed to different groups. In 1997, RCI acquired premium cruise line, Celebrity Cruises. In 2000, they took a stake in the newly formed Island cruises which is aimed at the younger, less formal, cruise passenger. In 2006, they acquired Spanish cruise operator Pullmantur Cruises. And just last month, they announced the creation of the Azamara brand.
The good news for cruise passengers is that we now have even more choice than ever. There is now a wide range of cruise brands that offer a variety of vessels ranging from the ultra- and mega-ships, to the mid- and small-sized ships. There are many newbuilds scheduled over the next few years and a wide range of 'classic ships', can still be found, especially in European waters. There are ships for seniors and ships for the young. There is formal-dining, informal dining, and alternative dining. There is fantasy décor, modern decor, country house décor and traditional décor.
Once again it seems, this is truly the Golden Age of cruising.