Indy Optimism

May 2, 2008

The Brits can't get credit; the cost of food and fuel in the U.K. has rocketed; the value of their houses is falling. But what do they do? Go out and book a cruise, of course.

That might be paraphrasing the views of senior management at Royal Caribbean a little, but it really is only a little -- which is a good thing given that the new 154,407-ton, 3,634-passenger Independence of the Seas, the third is a series of the world's (current) biggest cruise ships, starts its summer season of sailings from Southampton in England today.

"There will be peaks and troughs, but cruising is here to stay," Robin Shaw, vice president, managing director, Europe, told British journalists on a two-night mini-cruise to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, to celebrate the ship's arrival and naming in the U.K. this week.

"Cruising is not recession proof, but it is more recession resistant than many other parts of the travel industry." Before anyone could ask whether the line was in a peak or a trough at the moment, Jo Rzymowska, managing director U.K. and Ireland, said: "By the way, U.K. sales have been and remain incredibly strong."

With each Independence sailing expected to carry 95 percent Brits, a few tweaks have been made to what's onboard.

Cabins have kettles, pools have been heated (more in deference to the U.K. weather, it should be said, than any peculiar traits of the British people), and there's so-called English bacon at breakfast rather than the crispy stuff the Americans prefer -- although that is also available if you look around.

The entertainment has also been geared to the U.K. market -- we were treated to an ABBA tribute band one evening of the cruise -- but onboard spend stays in dollars. Royal Caribbean changed to sterling the first year it sailed from Southampton, in 2005, but that was quickly dropped. The line is that the British prefer to dollars.

Royal Caribbean is trialling a dine-when-you-like option on Brilliance of the Seas in Europe this summer after a successful similar trial on Freedom of the Seas in the Caribbean last winter.

Apparently, passengers were free to turn up at the main dining room to eat when they wanted, which sounds a bit haphazard, but was very popular, Paul Randall, U.K. operations director said.

Looks like Royal Caribbean could be the next to move to the dual dining system that has become so popular on Princess Cruises and now also been adopted by Holland America Line and P&O Cruises.

We'll keep you posted.

--by Jane Archer, Cruise Critic contributor