AIDA Cruises, Germany's largest cruise line, can trace its history back to 1960's East Germany. In 1960, Deutsche Seereederei, East Germany's state-owned shipping company, purchased the Swedish-American liner Stockholm of Andrea Doria sinking fame, renamed it Volkerfreundschaft ("Friendship Between Peoples"), and put it into service as a cruise ship -- or "holidaymaker ship," as it was called -- for the East German market. Later, the ship was chartered by foreign tour operators for part of the year.
In 1985 the Volkerfreundschaft was retired (After several more owners and a massive refit, it now sails as Classic International Cruises' Athena.), and was replaced by the Arkona, which had been built only four years earlier as the Astor for an unsuccessful new West German cruise line. Like its predecessor, the Astor sailed part of the year as a "holidaymaker ship" for "well-deserved socialists" in East Germany, and the rest of the year on charter to Western tour operators. In 1991, after Germany's reunification, Deutsche Seereederei was privatized -- like many of East Germany's state-owned companies bought by West German investors -- and the Arkona was chartered year-round to the West German tour operator Seetours.
In 1994, the company placed an order for its first brand-new ship, from Kvaerner Masa-Yards (now known as STX Finland Cruise) in Finland. Named Aida and entering service in 1996, the ship introduced a totally new concept called "club cruising." Based on Germany's popular Robinson Club resorts (think of a German Club Med), Aida's "club ship" experience was radically different from traditional cruising. Except for a small a la carte alternative restaurant, all the dining was buffet-style; there were no dress codes, and a strong emphasis was put on wellness and fitness-related activities.
Meanwhile, the company also continued operating the traditional Arkona on charter to Seetours, which it later acquired from the huge German tour operator TUI in 1997. That same year, Aida was sold to NCL, but continued on charter to Deutsche Seereederei.
In 1999, DSR's cruise operation -- now renamed Seetours, and incorporating both Arkona and Aida, which was bought back from NCL -- was sold to P&O Princess Cruises, the world's third-largest cruise operator. Recognizing the huge success of the "club ship" product, P&O Princess immediately ordered two new ships for the Aida brand from Aker MTW Werft, not far from Seetours' headquarters in the former East Germany. In 2001, Aida was renamed AIDAcara in preparation for the brand's second ship, which entered service in 2002 as AIDAvita.
At the same time, Arkona was sold and replaced by a new brand, A'ROSA, a more upscale product loosely based on the AIDA concept. The A'ROSA fleet was made up of A'ROSA BLU, the former Crown Princess, and the newly built river cruise ships A'ROSA BELLA and A'ROSA DONNA. By now, Seetours was the largest cruise operator in Germany.
The AIDA concept was so successful that P&O Princess created Ocean Village for the U.K. market -- essentially a British version of AIDA, though billed as "the cruise for people who don't do cruises" rather than "club ship." Despite the different name, Ocean Village, whose eponymous first vessel was previously P&O's Arcadia, copied almost all the aspects of AIDA's groundbreaking product.
AIDAaura, the brand's third ship and an identical sister to AIDAvita, entered service in 2003. Shortly before the new ship's delivery, P&O Princess merged with Carnival, and AIDA became part of the world's largest cruise operator. Shortly after the merger, Carnival sold the A'ROSA name and the two river cruise ships back to Seetours' former parent company, Deutsche Seereederei, while A'ROSA BLU moved to AIDA as AIDAblu, the largest-yet AIDA ship. Seetours - still headquartered in Rostock in the former East Germany - was renamed AIDA Cruises and was now Carnival's sole German-market brand.
Not long after the sale of A'ROSA, in 2004, Carnival announced an order for two new AIDA ships of a totally new design, to be built at Meyer Werft, the largest builder of cruise ships in Germany. Before the first of these ships was even delivered, two more were ordered -- one in 2005 and one in 2006 -- demonstrating the huge popularity of the brand and the amount of confidence Carnival has in it.
AIDA had one of its biggest years yet in 2007. The first of the new class of ships, AIDAdiva, entered service, while AIDAblu -- always purely a "stopgap" ship for AIDA, as it wasn't purpose-built for the company -- left the fleet, headed for that British AIDA copy Ocean Village. In early 2007, Carnival also announced the foundation of a new joint venture with TUI, Germany's largest tour operator. The venture is 25 percent owned by TUI and 75 percent by Carnival, and it encompasses AIDA and also in the future a new, more traditional German-market cruise brand called TUI Cruises. In a way, this joint venture has brought AIDA full circle -- it was TUI from which Deutsche Seereederei bought Seetours, and TUI founded and owns the Robinson Clubs on which the "club ship" concept itself was based.
AIDAdiva's sister ship, AIDAbella, followed in 2008, followed by debuts in 2009 (AIDAluna), 2010 (AIDAblu) and 2011 (AIDAsol), all cementing AIDA's position as by far the largest German cruise line. Two more 71,300-ton vessels are due in spring 2012 and spring 2013. In August 2011, Carnival announced plans for two 125,000-ton, 3,250-passenger ships that will debut a year apart starting in spring 2015.
AIDA's emphasis is on an active, ultra-casual cruise experience. The informal "club" ethos is reflected in every facet of the experience -- for starters, unlike almost all other cruise ships, off-duty crew are allowed to mingle freely with passengers. By day there is a big emphasis on wellness and fitness activities in the large and popular AIDA Spa and Fit & Fun, and on the expansive open decks. At night there's lively entertainment in the theatre, and the well-patronized bars and lounges create a festive, easygoing atmosphere.
Dining, as befits the unstructured "club ship" concept, is entirely open-seating and takes place in two (or, on the new AIDAdiva, three) large self-service restaurants. While there is no main dining room, buffets on AIDA are executed with unusual finesse for mass-market ships. For those who get tired of buffet meals, an a la carte restaurant (several on AIDAdiva) offers high-quality cuisine in a more elegant atmosphere.