(Updated 11:47 EDT) -- In a surprising announcement, Royal Caribbean says that its Independence of the Seas, the only contemporary cruise ship to operate year-round from Southampton, will flee winter. Beginning next year (the 2012-2013 winter season), the ship will be redeployed to the Caribbean. We spoke with Royal Caribbean today to find out the reason behind the change.
Although several lines, like Cunard, Fred. Olsen and P&O Cruises, base their ships year-round in the U.K., Royal Caribbean has been the only line to offer a schedule of regular cruises round the calendar (without being interrupted by world cruises or other long voyages).
Independence of the Seas has been based in Southampton year-round since last year. Its presence there was considered a huge boon for Brits who, even in winter, wanted to avoid fly-cruises (and didn't mind a few days of brisk temperatures as the ship headed south).
Independence, affectionately dubbed "Indy," has also been a popular choice for Brits for its American-style cruising (complete with rock climbing wall and ice skating rink) that also incorporated English preferences, like in-cabin teakettles. Indeed, 83 percent of Cruise Critic members who've reviewed the ship have praised it highly.
Still, Royal Caribbean has its reasons. In a phone conversation, Jo Rzymowska, Royal Caribbean's Weybridge-based associate vice president and general manager, told Cruise Critic that "decisions like this are never taken lightly. There's a lot of thought, discussion and planning. Independence has got a great following. However there is a desire for 'guaranteed sunshine.' Therefore we made the decision to position the ship back into the Caribbean for the winter timeframe. It's absolutely coming back in the spring."
Unquestionably, part of the challenge in winter is that it takes Independence of the Seas a few days at sea to get to warmer climes -- the polar opposite of a fly-cruise scenario, where you're just a few hours away. So Independence's cruises from Southampton in the colder months have necessarily been longer than the usual fortnight, as itinerary planners needed to build in the time to get to warmer ports of call. "Once they get down to the Canary Islands and the sun they absolutely love it," Rzymowska said.
But that's not the only issue involved in Royal Caribbean's decision to abandon winter in Great Britain.
"What we need to look at on an ongoing basis with the whole of our fleet," she added, "is where are we getting the best rates and revenue, from a ticket sales point of view and an onboard revenue point of view."
The ship will depart Southampton on November 22, 2012, en route to its seasonal home port in Fort Lauderdale, where it will offer Caribbean voyages from December 2012 through March 2013. It will return to the U.K. in April.
Royal Caribbean hasn't absolutely closed the gangway on the possibility of someday assigning another ship to the U.K. port. Said Rzymowska, "I'd never say never either. We [including sister cruise lines Celebrity and Azamara] are constantly investing in the U.K. and I would stress that we have a commitment to the U.K. and Irish market. It's not about any less of a commitment to the marketplace. It's about international growth in general."
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, and Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief