The British class system is alive and well on cruise ships, it would seem -- or so the media would have it. Last week at The Travel Convention in Barcelona, a gathering of the U.K.'s top travel professionals, Carnival CEO Micky Arison was pushed in an interview with the BBC's Jeremy Vine to defend falling standards in passenger behaviour as Vine dredged up a much-publicised brawl on P&O Cruises' Ventura last Christmas. Arison insisted: "Fighting isn't just something that happens to people on low incomes. Whether you earn 10p or £100,000 a week, it often comes down to how much beer you've drunk or the circumstances you're in."
Incidents of loutish and inappropriate behaviour onboard seem to be on the increase -- or is it just media hype as cruising becomes more popular? Carnival Cruise Lines has dumped Antigua from the weekly itinerary of Carnival Victory just a month after six passengers were arrested following a headline-grabbing punch-up with a taxi driver (Carnival does not make a connection between these two events, saying it was looking to replace Antigua anyway; the line still calls there with Carnival Freedom).
Some cruisers are rumbling about the "chavvy" influx attracted by low prices. In a feature on Times Online this week, veteran passenger Geoffrey Hooper is quoted as saying: "Standards have definitely dropped. There was a time when the only tattoos one saw were on the crew."
It should be noted that, indeed, cruising is facing a double-edged sword. On one hand, the market is growing, with new figures from the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA) in the U.K. predicting that 1.55 million Brits will go on a cruise in 2009. On the other, bringing new people into cruising at a time when prices are at rock-bottom is bound to attract passengers from different or untraditional socio-economic groups, seen by some as the "wrong crowd."
Ironically, it was the introduction of cruising by tour operators like Airtours and Thomson in the mid-1990's that opened up holidays at sea to a broader economic spectrum. Carnival was quick to follow with the launch of budget brand Ocean Village. First Choice jumped in with Island Cruises. But now, Airtours has gone; Ocean Village is being absorbed into P&O Australia; and the one remaining Island ship has been snapped up by Thomson Cruises, the only mass market tour operator still in cruising. The cruise industry has got what it wanted, getting these new cruisers hooked and persuading them to upgrade to better ships with a higher ticket price, tattoos or no tattoos.
Travel agents specialising in luxury cruises say the top end of the market has not been affected by the "wrong" kind of passenger. "Prices at the top end have held out quite well, not like the period immediately post September 11, 2001, when they really did fall and there were problems," points out Edwina Lonsdale, managing director of luxury specialist Mundy Cruising. "Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for example, has put out a powerful promotion with its offer of free shore excursions, but still offers very little for less than $300 a day -- and that's not peanuts."
And what about Mundy Cruising's more mass market clients? "In real terms, you have to live with it," says Lonsdale. "If you choose to go on a mainstream ship, you can't deny that there will be people at the 'bottom end.' It's a challenge for lines like Cunard, offering a five-star Grill-class product alongside what is essentially entry-level cruising."
The whole argument may be academic as cruises are unlikely to stay at today's prices. Robin Shaw, vice president and managing director U.K. and Ireland for Royal Caribbean, says: "Prices need to go up. There is a fundamental profit equation here, and we do need to recover some of our investment [in new ships] over the next year or two."
Plus, if Arison has hit the nail on the head -- and bad behaviour on the high seas has nothing at all to do with financials -- we're in for more interesting stories and scandals, regardless of cruise fares.
What's your opinion? Do low fares have anything to do with the influx of chavvy cruisers? Are uprisings here to stay? Speak out in our poll!
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor