Royal Caribbean: Cruising Beyond American Boundaries

June 1, 2008

When Raymond Reeves decided to book a cruise in Asia on Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas, his anticipatory reveries focused on exotic experiences ashore and a familiar flavor onboard. Until he was one of a number of Royal Caribbean passengers to receive a strange phone call last week.

"Much to our dismay we were informed that this would be an Asian immersion cruise," he wrote in a letter to Royal Caribbean President Adam Goldstein. "[The customer service representative] explained that means all of the food, beverages and entertainment onboard would be targeted for the local Asian audiences and there would be 'limited English support' on board.

"We did not book this trip with the idea of learning Chinese."

Reeves, it turns out, had purchased a cabin on one of Royal Caribbean's immersion cruises, a term that the company uses to define voyages whose overall mood and spirit reflects the cultures and lifestyles of the ports it serves. The 13 immersion cruises on the Royal Caribbean slate for winter 2008 - 2009, for instance, are generally less than a week in length (most are between three to five nights) and are offered from seasonal homeports such as Brazil's Sao Paulo (Splendour of the Seas and Vision of the Seas), Panama's Colon (Enchantment of the Seas) and Singapore (Legend of the Seas).

Editor's Note: Richard Reeves (and others) was originally booked on Legend of the Seas in Asia for a two week trip departing February 28, 2009. Now, it's apparently been changed from an immersion cruise to a traditional style Royal Caribbean experience. Lisa Bauer, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of hotel operations, tells us that "we don't have any 14 night immersion cruises scheduled."

These shorter-length trips -- too brief to appeal to a North American or European who would need to make the trek to South America or Asia, in particular -- are designated as immersion because the passenger make-up is 80 percent local. As such the cruises feature an onboard ambience tweaked to suit a regional cruise traveler. On some cruises -- say for instance the immersion trips on Splendour of the Seas -- onboard staffers make public address announcements and show introductions in Portuguese as well as English. Brazilians are famously late risers, so a daily brunch is served from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. because it's much more popular than early morning breakfast. And local food and drink is added to otherwise standardized bar and restaurant menus.

Immersion cruises should not be confused with longer voyages on the same ships from the same homeports that are marketed to English-speaking travelers. The type of cruise experience that is considered core to Royal Caribbean is intact on all but the designated immersion cruises. The problem is that up until the past week the concept was a mystery to most Cruise Critic readers -- even though it's already been tried out on Rhapsody of the Seas in Asia and on Splendour of the Seas in South America.

Until Royal Caribbean staffers proactively began phoning North America-based cruise travelers, many Cruise Critic readers -- like Mr. Reeves -- had no idea they'd booked vacations with an atypical onboard experience.

That, says Lisa Bauer, the cruise line's senior vice president of hotel operations, is the reason that customer relations representatives began phoning passengers on future cruises. "This is nothing new that we're doing," Bauer told Cruise Critic this week, referring to the concept of immersion cruises. "We were just trying to communicate to guests in advance [about impacted sailings] so people can adjust expectations." Bauer noted that most passengers who learned this week that they were sailing on an immersion cruise were still "outside the penalty phase so [were] able to cancel or change the booking without any issues. For those guests that fall within the penalty phase, they should contact their travel agent or us so that we can work with them to meet their needs."

But that hasn't quelled the fury that's arisen. On Cruise Critic's Royal Caribbean forum, one thread, R.C.C.L Respond To Immersion Crisis, Please, has already notched some 8,500 views. Rumors are running amok that Royal Caribbean is abandoning its traditional onboard experience (it's not), that immersion cruises will dominate offerings in South America and Asia (nope, not true, there's plenty of variety), and that if you try an immersion cruise no English will be spoken (it'll be multi-lingual).

Interestingly, plans to make Southampton-based Independence of the Seas an "immersion cruise" have been scrapped, Bauer reports. It would have qualified because it's attracting a majority of British travelers (even though language would not be as big of an issue as in Central America, South America and Asia). "As a result of some of our guest feedback," Bauer says, "we have removed Independence of the Seas as an immersion cruise as she features English as the primary language though our core product does feature some additional product enhancements."

These would include, Bauer says, "the addition of British/Belgian beers, such as Boddington, Guinness and Stella Artois, a porcelain in-cabin tea service, and television programming featuring Premiership Football. The key note here is that this is our core product, plus additional elements."

Same goes for San Juan-based Adventure of the Seas, whose weekly voyages can, on occasion, attract a vast majority of travelers from Puerto Rico. Some offerings are tweaked, but these are not considered "immersion" trips, regardless of the number of local people onboard.

What's ultimately dismaying about the events that have unfolded over the past two weeks is the strange and inconsistent information being offered to Royal Caribbean's existing (and booked) passengers. Even now, weeks after the line began proactively alerting passengers to the program, passengers who ask travel agents and Royal Caribbean customer service personnel for answers are still getting unsatisfactory responses. Posts Coffeegirl23, "I did call Crown and Anchor and the answers to my questions were 'I don't know, really' and 'I can't say for 100 percent sure.' I wish they would have answers for us, surely they would expect questions!"

And it's still tough to get a clear answer on what's an immersion cruise and what's not by checking the line's Web site. When we searched for Sao Paulo-based short cruises, the Royal Caribbean options did include the caveat that "this product has been sold almost exclusively to guests from Latin America; therefore the services and product have been tailored to their cultural preferences in food and beverage, entertainment and retail. While English language assistance will be provided, the local language will be the primary language spoken onboard. Please check with your local consulate or embassy regarding visa requirements." And yet on three- and four-night Asian trips out of Singapore, also slated for immersion status, there was no such warning.

We're not going to get into the debate here about whether it's better to cruise in an all-American environment or experience the world onboard and off because there's an argument for both sides. What's more important is how a line could knowingly sell these cruises without alerting buyers to their significant differences. Ultimately, Member cruisechick makes a salient point about this brouhaha, noting that for most people the problem isn't about the concept of immersion experiences. It's about choice. "The customer should know before they book and they can decide if they want to go. [An immersion cruise] wouldn't stop me from going because it would be part of the adventure, but I would want to know before I went."

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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