All eyes will be on the Mississippi, where two companies are looking to breathe new life into cruising on the Big Muddy -- one refurbishing an American icon, the other introducing its take on a classic sternwheeler. And, in April, the world will remember the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster with special cruises, a new museum and other events.
That's not to say there's nothing else going on: Several massive ships will debut, a river cruise line will launch a half-dozen vessels in a mere six-month period, a continent and a U.S. city will become even more important in the cruising world, and smokers will come closer to meeting their match (though not in the way they'd like).
Intrigued? Read on.
Refurbs, Not New-Builds
Cruise lines continue to pour millions into upgrading older ships in lieu of building new ones. In 2012, Celebrity Cruises will send Celebrity Summit and Celebrity Millennium to the yard for $30-million-plus overhauls. The dry-docks will complete the line's $140 million initiative to retrofit older vessels with popular bars, restaurants and spa cabins introduced on the Solstice-class quartet. In a similar vein, three Carnival Cruise Lines ships are scheduled for refurbs in the line's $500 million FunShip 2.0 program. Additions vary by ship but may include tequila and rum bars and a burger joint designed by celebri-cook Guy Fieri. Carnival will also "Aussify" Carnival Spirit; during a month-long surgery, the ship will be readied for its Down Under deployment with the addition of a huge, near-vertical waterslide and outdoor grill restaurant.
Finally, Royal Caribbean will add popular venues from its game-changing Oasis-class ships to a trio of its older vessels. Specifics will be announced at a later date.
Related: Cruise Ship Refurbishments, 2011 - 2012
There's No Breaking That Cruise Ship Mold
With some key exceptions, Cruise Critic's new-build chart for this year features second (Disney Fantasy, Oceania's Riviera), third (Carnival Breeze), fifth (Celebrity Reflection) and sixth (Germany's AIDAmar) ships in a class. Sure, there are somewhat substantial thematic, design and amenity changes on the docket for these sisters, but 2012's freshest design has to be American Cruise Line's 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, the first Big Muddy-based new-build to launch in some 15 years. The modern sternwheeler with Victorian aspirations will feature crystal chandeliers, dark wood paneling and enormous standard cabins. Viking River Cruises will intro the other new prototype, a 190-passenger "Longship" -- but it will churn out six nearly identical versions from March to August.
Related: New Cruise Ships on Order, 2012 - 2015
Cabin-Stuffing: More Rooms, Less Space
Cabin-stuffing is a troubling trend set to continue in 2012. Many lines have made a point of inserting extra cabins during refurbs, which adds capacity while necessarily subtracting available public space. Beyond a generally more crowded ship, the upped passenger count can put added pressure on popular public places like buffets. Sister ships Celebrity Millennium and Summit will both gain 60 cabins during 2012 refurbs, upping the double-occupancy figures from 1,950 to 2,070. Execs dismiss suggestions that crowding could be a problem and claim that ships are "under-capacitied," but industry-watchers call it what it is: Cabin-stuffing is all about added revenue.
Year of the River (Again)
It was hot-hot-hot last year, but river cruising gets even steamier in 2012 as Viking River Cruises launches six -- count 'em, six -- new ships in a single year. But wait, there's more: Another four Viking new-builds will debut in 2013. The newly designed ships, which up the ante on the once-spartan riverboat ambience, include more suites, alfresco dining and environmental improvements. New Europe-based ships from AMAWATERWAYS, Avalon Waterways and Scenic Tours round out the offerings. Meanwhile, Asia river cruising continues to lure travelers looking for a more exotic experience, with AMA, which boasts a pair of stylish, custom-built boats, leading the way. Of course, you can't forget the fact that ...
Related: Cruise Critic's River Cruising Survival Guide
... The Mississippi Is Back
Having all but been declared dead in 2008 when the two largest lines trawling the Big Muddy went bust, cruising on the Mississippi is about to roar back. The all-new Great American Steamboat Company, based in Memphis, is updating and upgrading the 436-passenger American Queen (which previously sailed for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company). Starting in April, it will offer upper and lower Mississippi sailings, as well as cruises on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. The aforementioned Queen of the Mississippi, currently under construction in Maryland and due in August, will offer similar itineraries, but add the Missouri and Cumberland rivers into the mix. But is this a quick burst or a sustainable trend? With the relatively high fares and history not on their side, the ships may face an upstream battle.
Related: Tour the Under-Construction Queen of the Mississippi
Warning: More Fees Ahead
Cruising as an all-inclusive vacation? That idea will get more out-of-date as cruise lines continue to scrape every last dollar out of cruisers' wallets to save their bottom lines. In 2011, cruisers saw the addition of the most expensive specialty restaurant afloat (Disney's Remy), all-you-can-drink packages to get you to pay more up front and more for-fee bars and eateries added to older ships during refurbs. Sure, some new onboard attractions are free (think Disney Dream's AquaDuck watercoaster, hot shows on Allure and Epic, etc.), but with the economy still in the toilet, next year's new innovations are likely to come with a price tag. At least fuel surcharges have yet to make a comeback.
Related: 10 Hidden Costs of Cruising -- and How to Fight Back
Smoking Gets Snuffed Out
The battle lines have been drawn between nonsmokers wishing to breathe clean air everywhere onboard and smokers wanting a peaceful place to puff away. So far, the nonsmokers are winning: Carnival, Holland America, NCL and Princess recently announced more restrictive smoking policies, due to passenger preference. No more lighting up in cabins and, in some cases, on balconies. As cruise lines take note and the general trend is toward healthier living, smokers likely will have ever fewer places to light up onboard in the coming year.
Related: Cruise Line Smoking Policies
What's the Rush? Late Debark Programs Gain Favor
Here's a win-win scenario: Cruisers reluctant to end their vacation get a few more hours on the ship; cruise lines, always looking to cash in, collect fees from them for the extra time onboard, as well as any last-minute spa treatments and drinks they purchase. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara initiated late-debark programs in 2010 and 2011, and other lines may soon follow suit. You can't go wrong with a scenario that makes both parties happy and possibly eases some of the debark chaos -- making all the other passengers happier, as well.
All Eyes on Galveston
Even Hurricane Ike couldn't keep this scrappy Lone Star Stater down. After the storm ripped the city to pieces in 2008, numerous ships that had spent part of the year sailing from Galveston were permanently redeployed. Now, there's a new bloom on the Texas rose: 3,690-passenger Carnival Magic started the ball rolling in November 2011, when it joined 2,758-passenger Carnival Triumph and made Galveston its homeport. Royal Caribbean's 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas is wintering there now, and later in 2012, two more giants are slated to make Galveston their temporary home: 1,754-passenger Disney Magic and 3,080-passenger Crown Princess. And, let's not forget New Orleans, which is undergoing its own surge; in November, Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas became the largest cruise ship to make the Big Easy its winter homeport.
Related: Progress Report: Is Galveston Ready for an Influx of Cruise Ships?
Prepare yourself for unprecedented hype come April 15, when the world marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. Special events include special cruises on Fred. Olsen's Balmoral and Azamara Journey, which will retrace the mighty liner's ill-fated maiden voyage in the North Atlantic. If you can't get onboard, there will be plenty of ways to remember Titanic on land. Expect Belfast, where Titanic was built, to make the biggest fuss: Its multimillion-pound Titanic museum, slated to open in March, will join the myriad other Titanic-themed tourist attractions there. Other special events include a massive auction in New York City of 5,500 items from the ship; it will be held at Guernsey's on April 1. And in Liverpool, the West Kirby Light Opera Society will reprise "Titanic -- the Musical" in June.
Global Chaos = More Uncertainty
Upheaval throughout 2011 -- including the riots in Cairo and spates of violence in ports along Mexico's West Coast -- wreaked havoc on cruise itineraries, and the trend is likely to continue in other global hotspots. The beleaguered Nile River became ground zero for deep cruise discounts, and popular tourist sites were largely deserted. After years of onerous visa restrictions turned off cruise lines, Tripoli, Libya, had been poised for a comeback until political unrest forced lines to cancel calls there. (At this point, it's not on 2012 itineraries, but keep an eye out for 2013.) The violent travails of Mexican port cities like Mazatlan, Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta spurred cruise lines to send ships elsewhere. The result: Hawaii is seeing a surge of interest.
On the bright side, places like Myanmar's Yangon and Albania's Butrint, which had long been avoided by most lines, are regaining favor. The Middle East continues to gain in popularity beyond Dubai; these days, cities like Qatar's Doha, Bahrain's Manama and the United Arab Emirates' Abu Dhabi are adding ever more fantastic museums, attractions and shopping.
Australia: The New Mediterranean?
A few years ago, American-based lines like Celebrity, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Princess decided that Europe was a fertile breeding ground for cruise development. As such, the lines deployed some of their bigger, more amenity-laden vessels to the Continent. It worked. American found that the Mediterranean was within reach on ships they loved -- but at prices much more affordable than in the past. In 2012, it's the same story, different continent. Australia's hot. As one of the world's fastest-growing markets for cruising, Australia, which for years was served primarily by its homegrown P&O Australia and a few older models from companies like Princess Cruises and Holland America, will offer Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Carnival Spirit and Celebrity Solstice, among other blue-chip contemporary ships.
--by the Cruise Critic Editorial Staff