The cruise market may be booming, but fierce competition in the travel space means that cruise lines cannot afford to be complacent. So how are they planning to keep cruise industry growth interesting?

In 2019, annual cruise passenger numbers were expected to reach 30 million. However, the cruise industry still represents only about 2 percent of world tourism. To keep appealing to new and past passengers, cruise lines are innovating like never before, spurring an evolution of cruise ships.

We asked the experts about potential future developments in the cruise industry -- and what’s already here.

Ocean Medallion's Play Ocean (Caribbean Princess)

Futuristic Cruise Ships

No surprises that some of the most hotly anticipated developments are in the field of technology.

"Technological advances will bring some of the most noticeable changes in the cruise experience over coming years, particularly in areas like entertainment, customisation, self-service and interactivity," Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) managing director Australasia Joel Katz told Cruise Critic.

On top of all that cutting-edge tech, we're talking fresh dining options, adventurous new itineraries and creative onboard offerings. It goes beyond the superficial, too. Companies are trying to change negative perceptions of cruising by improving their environmental credentials and overall policies regarding sustainability.  

Whether these succeed remains to be seen. However, there is no doubt that the next few years are going to deliver big things. Here we take a look at the some of the most exciting cruise developments on the horizon.

Several cruise lines have already introduced platforms involving apps or wearable devices that allow passengers to manage their cruise from their phone or computer. These are expected to develop greater functionality in the future as they evolve.

Take Princess Cruises' OceanMedallion, for instance. The complimentary wearable device aims to improve the guest experience by making it easier for passengers to interact with the crew, eliminating "friction points" and enabling interactive entertainment. The end result? A superior level of service and the ability to deliver personalised attention on a large scale, according to the cruise line.

Australians and New Zealanders will get to try it out it in local waters next year when OceanMedallion and the Medallion Class experience arrive with Ruby Princess in February 2020.

Royal Caribbean also offers its passengers wearable technology in the form of its WOWbands, which look like simple watch straps but are capable of opening cabin doors using radio frequency technology. These carry a charge of US$4.99 (about AU$7) or are provided free, depending on the ship and class of travel.

Interactive wristbands are available aboard MSC Cruises' vessels, too. The MSC For Me wearable comes with an app that offers 130 features such as a reservation service and a digital way-finder. It costs US$4.99 (AU$7) if not travelling on specific fares. The cruise line also launched virtual personal assistant ZOE this year, pitched as the cruise industry's answer to Amazon Alexa.

Digital platforms and devices are increasingly being used to help passengers manage aspects of their cruise, such as shore excursions, checking-in, accessing their cabins, making and monitoring transactions, reserving meals and activities, accessing movies and games, and even locating travel companions aboard the ship. "These systems are being rolled out by several lines and will become more common and more sophisticated as new generations of technology are introduced," CLIA's Katz explained.

Sustainability Sails Forward

Tech innovation is happening in areas outside the guest experience, too, like the way the ships actually function. New advances in propulsion and hydrodynamics are helping cruise lines reduce their fuel consumption and negative impact on the environment.

"Billions of dollars are being invested in new fuel advances like the introduction of ships driven by Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), which results in significantly lower emissions," Katz said. Worldwide, cruise lines are investing more than US$8 billion in alternative fuels, which include LNG. The world's first LNG-powered ship, AIDAnova, was launched by Aida Cruises in December. P&O Cruises will debut LNG-powered Iona in May 2020.

Other fuel-saving advances include wave-piercing hull designs and air-lubrication systems. And when it comes to waste, much is already recycled and reused. According to CLIA, cruise ships recycle 60 per cent more waste per person than the recycling rates on land. That amounts to more than 80,000 tons of paper, plastic, aluminium and glass that is recycled every year. Advanced wastewater treatment systems have also been implemented to produce cleaner water.

"Even so, cruise lines are introducing measures to reduce waste even further, including many that have announced plans to end the use of single-use plastics," Katz said.

Jumping on the already well-established trend is Virgin Voyages, which confirmed it will debut with its first ship in 2021 without any single-use plastics onboard. Cunard and the remainder of the P&O fleet will also enforce a single-use plastic ban by 2022 with Royal Caribbean and Celebrity also vowing to do the same in an undisclosed timeframe.

"Environmental measures are already one of the highest priorities for cruise lines and new measures being introduced will allow significant reductions in areas like emissions and waste," Katz said.

In fact, CLIA recently announced a historic global cruise industry commitment to reduce the rate of carbon emissions across the industry fleet by 40 per cent by 2030. Improvements to ship design and propulsion are expected to help cruise lines hit these ambitious targets.

Main Dining Room Service Staff on Allure of the Seas (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)

Working Conditions for Crew

The cruise industry has faced criticism for many years for the conditions faced by workers, but apparently a number of cruise lines are seeking to address these issues, particularly focusing on creating equal opportunities.

"Beyond the pure environmental concerns, the cruise sector is also leading the way on labour convention and being aggressive in gender diversity in the marine division of our ships -- which accounts for 15 percent of the people working on the ships -- up to and including women who are ship captains," Royal Caribbean vice chairman Adam Goldstein said.

Ensuring local communities benefit from cruise visits is also of growing importance. Cruise lines are working with NGOs such as WWF and GSTC to ensure this happens, partnerships which will likely gather force going forwards. Tackling overtourism is a large part of this, and so CLIA is working with destinations around the world, particularly in "sensitive" ports of call like Santorini, Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Venice, to find mutually agreeable solutions.

Surfing the Waves of WiFi

Connectivity is also a major area of change. Cruise ships have been notorious in the past for inconsistent Internet availability and expensive data packages. But with access to the Internet seen as a priority for a growing number of travellers, we can expect to see faster speeds and more enticing deals. Royal Caribbean's best offering is Voom, a "surf and stream" package priced from US$14.99 (AU$21) per day. Celebrity Cruises' Xcelerate delivers speeds adequate to stream movies for US$175 (AU$245) for one device on a cruise of four to six days. A high-data Premium deal is available for US$14.45 (AU$20) per day on Carnival ships.

Meanwhile, Princess Cruises recently launched MedallionNet giving guests access to Internet speeds that it says "eclipse typical land-based hotel connectivity performance levels" hitting 100 Mbps, with upload speeds in excess of 60 Mbps. While currently only available onboard its Medallion Class ships from US$9.99 (AU$14) per day, it will roll the service out across its fleet over the coming years.

Pacific Explorer (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

Big and Small Ships on the Way

Does size matter? Opinions are split. Some cruise lines are going big with their latest vessels like P&O Cruises with its newbuild Iona which will launch in May 2020 weighing in at a whopping 184,700 tons with a guest capacity of 5200 and a crew of 1800. P&O Cruises Australia's newcomer, Pacific Adventure, will also be at the larger end of the scale catering to 3,100 passengers when it debuts in late 2020. The ship will also feature the cruise line's first five-berth family cabins.

Meanwhile, others are favouring smaller, boutique vessels or expedition ships making mid-size ships the least in-demand at the world's shipyards. 

At this end of the spectrum is Silversea, which will take delivery of the 596-guest Silver Moon in August 2020 followed by Galapagos-dedicated Silver Origin arriving in summer 2020 and Silver Dawn in November 2021, with the luxury cruise line saying it prefers "small-ship intimacy". A further two Evolution-class ships are also on the cards as part of Silversea's Project Invictus.

Seabourn, which also prefers smaller vessels, will launch two new purpose-built expedition ships to take their guests to adventurous destinations like the Arctic and Antarctica in ultra-luxury surroundings. Seabourn Venture will take to the seas in June 2021, and its yet-to-be-named sister ship will follow in May 2022.

"Of more than 120 new cruise ships on order and scheduled for delivery between this year and 2027, around 37 percent will be at the larger end of the scale, catering to 3000 or more guests," Katz told Cruise Critic. "About 30 percent will be at the smaller end of the spectrum, designed for up to 500 guests."

Upgraded Dining Experience

Expect more big names, Michelin-starred chefs and familiar brands out on the high seas as cruise lines look to deliver standout culinary experiences in line with demand. For example, Ruby Princess will feature six-course fine dining restaurant Share -- by Michelin-starred chef Curtis Stone -- when it homeports from Sydney for the 2019/20 summer season. Majestic Princess will also return to Australia this summer featuring two restaurants by Michelin-starred chefs: Harmony by chef Richard Chen and La Mer by chef Emmanuel Reanut.

Making it easier to eat whatever you like is also a priority for many cruise lines. Take Carnival Cruise Line's new 'Pizza Anywhere' feature on the Carnival Cruise Line Hub App in Australia, which enables guests to have their favourite pizza delivered to wherever they are on the ship at any time.

Meanwhile, the popularity of "immersive" experiences will see cruise lines rethink their onboard dining. Silversea will launch its Sea And Land Taste (S.A.L.T.) aboard Silver Moon in August 2020 offering a culinary "experience" curated by the former editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, Adam Sachs. Its aim is to enhance passengers' experience of a destination by taking them to local markets and showcasing the regional cuisine with cooking demonstrations by guest chefs in the cooking lab.

Mardi Gras Cloud 9 Spa Thermal Suite on Carnival (Photo: Carnival Cruise Line)

Pamper Potential in the Spa

Wellness facilities are set to become a lot more exciting, too. When Carnival Splendor arrives Down Under it will introduce its Cloud 9 Spa and spa staterooms to local waters, upping the relaxation ante with its skin-refining facials, thermal suite and heated Thalassotherapy Pool as well as ergonomically-shaped heated loungers.

The 60 spa staterooms and suites give guests private access to the spa, complimentary access to the Thermal Suite and Thalassotherapy Pool, two yoga or Pilates classes and special spa packages and discounts.

"Holidays are the perfect time to sit back, relax and pamper yourself, so we're very happy to be offering a broad range of wellbeing options for Aussie cruisers," said Carnival Cruise Line Australia vice president Jennifer Vandekreeke.

Virgin Voyages will also place emphasis on wellbeing with its Vitamin Sea program an integral part of its offering when it launches with Scarlet Lady in April 2020.

"We are all so busy with life, work and family that vacations are critical for us to be able to rebuild our energy, so that we can live our best lives," Virgin Voyages president and chief executive Tom McAlpin said. "With wellbeing at the heart of everything we do at Virgin Voyages, sailors will come back feeling rejuvenated, not like they need a holiday from their holiday."

Group fitness classes at no extra charge, a boxing ring and a secluded sun deck for sunrise and sunset yoga are some of the offerings. But most exciting is the cave-inspired spa, which will be the venue for evening spa parties where a "killer DJ" will transform the spa's thermal suite into a "mermaid hideaway extravaganza".

Increased Capacity

Local cruise growth has been somewhat stifled by capacity constraints across Australia, but the next few years should see the challenges ease thanks to some hefty investments. For example, Brisbane's new $158 million cruise terminal is scheduled to open in October next year to help the city keep up with demand.

Cairns will also get a capacity boost thanks to the dredging of Trinity Inlet, which is currently underway. The AU$127 million project, due for completion in September this year, will enable larger cruise ships to access the cruise terminal in Cairns.

Solutions are still being considered for Sydney, which is in desperate need of additional berths. The Overseas Passenger Terminal, which underwent a $78 million upgrade, has been running at 100 percent capacity for the last two summer seasons, while White Bay cannot welcome larger vessels due to the height of the Harbour Bridge. Any major infrastructure project is expected to take more than five years for completion, restricting cruise growth from the Harbour City for now.

Meanwhile, Adelaide is taking on new importance as a record number of cruise lines base ships in the South Australian port.