In 2008? Just about everything is new. Cruise travel in the U.K., which is already experiencing record growth, is also entering a revolutionary new era. As such, there's not a whole lot going on that isn't fresh and innovative -- whether the line in question is or isn't part of the Carnival UK group.
For instance, among non-Carnival UK lines, Fred. Olsen is aiming to introduce Balmoral, its most innovative addition to the fleet, very soon (the ship, the former Norwegian Crown, has undergone a massive refurbishment, which included stretching to add a new midsection). Hebridean, which has long appealed to an older, more posh and more traditional cruise traveler, is expanding its new program of onshore walking tours in hopes of attracting younger-spirited passengers. And Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines' brand-new Splendor, debuting this summer, will offer ex-U.K. cruises to the Baltic.
But it's to learn about the Carnival UK lines that we've joined the mad throng at London's Soho Hotel. And as David Dingle, the group's chief executive officer tells us, "the center of [cruise] gravity has shifted away from North America to this side of the globe."
Indeed it seems as if it has. North America, which has for over a decade enjoyed preeminent status as cruising's growth market, is slowing down a bit. Growth in the 1 to 2 percent range is expected this year, according to Cruise Lines International Association. Meanwhile, the U.K., which boasted a 12 percent increase in 2007, is on a pace to expand 15 percent more this year, according to the Passenger Shipping Association here.
But more to the point, what the growth really tells us is that innovation, whether in ships, onboard programs, itineraries or all of the above, is driving the development of cruise travel as the next hot, hip trend. Seriously.
For instance, according to Carnival UK's report last night:
New Ships: P&O's 115,000-ton, 3,100-passenger Ventura, which debuts in April as the line's biggest ever, will offer other firsts such as digital living enrichment programs, interactive television, Cirque Ventura, a circus school, and a Marco Pierre White-inspired restaurant. Noddy, by the way, will be a full-time resident.
Other members of the Carnival UK group have added ships to their fleets, too, including Ocean Villages Ocean Village Two, Cunard's Queen Victoria and Princess' Emerald Princess.
Weddings at sea, especially on P&O's ships, which because they're registered in Bermuda can have captains perform ceremonies, are on the rise -- it's cheaper to marry onboard, if you're comparing to a traditional event and lots less stressful (a cruise wedding is an ideal way to pare down that guest list to your most important people). As well, the honeymoon comes with....
Think all cruise-offered shore tours involve a stuffy ride on a motorcoach with passengers looking at historic monuments? Think again. Adventure tours are increasingly in demand; in Jamaica, for instance, you can go river tubing through cave systems, take a colourful Zion bus tour to visit Bob Marley's Jamaican haunts and go dogsledding (dry land of course).
Another new twist on shore tours are teens-only options; among them are Ocean Village's "rock 'n ruins." The tour, offered while in port at Piraeus, visits both Athens' Acropolis and its Hard Rock Cafe. Family tours have become a common amenity; kids get activity packs, and tour leaders at destinations like Pompeii and Pisa offer way more colorful historic info than the norm.
Interested in custom-designed activities whatever the price? P&O's "Once in a Lifetime" program offers 20 different opportunities. Depending on itinerary you can drive a Ferrari for a day in Italy, see Machu Picchu via fly-tour or visit Zulu villages and sheep farms in New Zealand.
The most fascinating part about The Cruise Report 2008, a brochure handed out to all and sundry, were key executives' predictions about what cruising would be like in 12 years (2020). My favorites?
"By 2020, the new cruise ships being built will be powered in a completely different way," according to Dingle. "It could be biofuels; it could be liquefied natural gas (LNG)."
"Say goodbye to single supplements," says Peter Shanks, Carnival UK's chief commercial officer. "It will become viable to design ships with single accommodation that can be sold for the same per-person price as double cabins." Historic footnote: In times gone by, most ships did build a range of cabins that included those for solo travelers with no extra supplement. These days, few remain; Saga Holidays ships and Cunard's QE2 are among the few remaining options.
Shanks also notes that "weatherproof cruising" is another trend to watch out for. In fact, it's already beginning for a handful of lines (MSC, Costa) not under the Carnival UK umbrella, because there are plenty of indoor activities and facilities -- and multiple pools are built with glass roofs that can be closed during inclement weather. It's also worth noting that Christmas markets voyages to towns and cities in Northern Europe, once the purview of European river operators, are now popular amongst big-ship lines, especially P&O and Cunard, which both offered the itinerary in December 2007. Says Shanks, "Greater stability and range of weatherproof entertainment facilities will make winter cruising viable from and to many more places."
Look for "pools large enough for canoeing" and "ships modeled on apart-hotels" that accommodate different configurations from one to eight people, says Ocean Village Managing Director Nick Lighton.
What's your prediction for 2020? Tell us by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; please put "cruise report" in the subject line.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief