Cruising, which continues to be one of the boom segments of travel, has changed enormously over the past few years – and there's still plenty of room for growth. While mainstream cruising has made the biggest strides in terms of numbers – worldwide, more than 23 million people will take a cruise this year with one million Australians having done so last year – it's not all about mega-ships with capacities for 5000 or more passengers.
These continue to be built, with ever more amazing facilities, but at the same time small, luxury and expedition ships are booked up as fast as they're launched (or refurbished), and now mid-sized ships are making a comeback. As to where the next hot cruise destinations will be, you can more or less take your pick from the world's oceans, seas and inland waterways.
Much depends on the size of the ship you're cruising on, but there's a huge appetite for new experiences and new places to explore along with continued expansion in popular regions such as Australasia, Alaska, the Pacific, Caribbean and Mediterranean. As the 2015-16 cruise season gets under way and more people than ever before take to the seas for the first (or 21st) time, we take a look at upcoming trends in this booming travel sector. As the saying goes, there really is something for everyone – and it's never been truer for cruising.
Talking of appetite, wining and dining at sea is set to become more diverse, sophisticated and fun. Celebrity chefs are jumping aboard and designing menus in their famous-name restaurants and would-be masterchefs are joining up for cooking classes in their droves.
WHERE TO NEXT
Ocean cruising in Asia is growing at a rate of knots. The region's key cruise hubs, Hong Kong and Singapore, are relatively close for Australian travellers and south-east and northern Asia offer a range of fascinating cultures, cuisines and relaxing holiday spots year round.
"Two clear trends are emerging," says Ann Sherry, chief executive of Carnival Australia and chairman of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) south-east Asia. "Firstly, we are seeing an increasing number of travellers from Asia on our Australian ships and more and more Australians are cruising in Asia. In fact, the fly-cruise market from Australia is a very big opportunity that will grow dramatically.
"The other big trend is that all Asian countries are investing in their port infrastructure because they can see the potential economic value of cruise tourism."
Sherry says China is building 12 ports for local and international ships, and Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam are all working on developing cruise tourism. Major cruise lines such as MSC Cruises (msccruises.com.au), P&O Cruises (pocruises.com.au), Princess (princess.com) and Royal Caribbean (royalcaribbean.com.au) are basing more ships in Asia rather than visiting on world or repositioning cruises; and the much anticipated Ovation of the Seas will spend seven months home ported in Tianjin, near Beijing, before it arrives in Australia at the end of 2016.
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) is returning to Asia after a 15-year gap, for a short season at the end of 2016 – "dipping our toe in the market", as Steve Odell, the recently appointed senior vice-president and managing director Australasia, says. He adds that Hawaii is attracting increasing numbers of Australian travellers and NCL (norwegiancruiseline.com.au) expects to see more of them sailing on NCL's Pride of America, the only dedicated ship to sail in Hawaii, as awareness of the line spreads Down Under.
Sought-after destinations for small (100 to 300-passenger) ships and expedition lines naturally tend to be more remote. Sarina Bratton, Asia-Pacific chairman of luxury expedition company Ponant (en.ponant.com), says Antarctica "continues to wow people from around the world" and this will continue for a long time to come. Ms Bratton says there's increasing demand for Arctic and Northwest Passage voyages, the Russian Far East has "wildlife on steroids and extraordinary Cold War history" and "every Australian should be proud to know we have one of the most exceptional, pristine wilderness areas in the world – the Kimberley".
BIGGER, BOLDER, BETTER
Some of the world's biggest ships are set to launch over the coming months, starting with the 4200-passenger Norwegian Escape next week. Among the mega-ship's many features for thrill-seekers are the biggest aqua-park at sea, NCL's largest ropes course and beams for "walking the plank" over the side of the ship. Norwegian Escape will be followed by its identical sister, Norwegian Bliss, in March 2017, and they will be the biggest ships in the then 15-strong fleet.
Next April, Royal Caribbean's third Quantum-class ship, the 4180-passenger Ovation of the Seas, will leave the German shipyards for China, followed closely by the 5479-passenger Harmony of the Seas, which will remain in Europe for its maiden season. Harmony will be slightly larger than its 5400-passenger sister ships Oasis and Allure of the Seas and will take on the title of the "world's biggest cruise ship".
The next gigantic vessel to set sail will be the 3954-passenger Carnival Vista, Carnival Cruise Line (CCL)'s 25th "fun ship". Launching in May, Vista (carnival.com.au) will boast several "first at sea" features, including an IMAX theatre and the Sky Ride, an aerial cycling track suspended 30 metres above sea level. A sister Vista Class ship is due to make its debut in 2018.
Holland America Line's new flagship, MS Koningsdam (hollandamerica.com) – the line's first new-build since MS Nieuw Amsterdam – is scheduled to set sail in May. Accommodating 2650 passengers, highlights of the ship include new dining venues such as the Lido Market and dinner at HAL's signature Culinary Arts Centre. Another identical Pinnacle Class ship is being built and will launch in 2018.
HONEY, WHO SHRUNK THE SHIP?
Amid much fanfare, Viking Cruises (vikingcruises.com) launched its first ocean-going ship earlier this year. Viking Star is one of three 930-passenger ships for the world's biggest river-cruise company and was designed after taking feedback from river cruisers into account. A common complaint was that contemporary resort-style ships were just too big.
In September, British company Saga Shipping ordered a similar sized ship for delivery in 2019, with a possible second one for 2021. Back in 2011 and 2012, Oceania built the highly successful 1250-passenger sister ships Marina and Riviera and now it is spending $US40 million refurbishing the former Oceania Princess to relaunch it as Sirena in May.
Azamara Club Cruises (azamaraclubcruises.com) continues to fill its 686-passenger ships, Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest, and next year both will receive extensive makeovers. It's adding up to a trend for yet another cruise sector – one that sits between mass-market ships that carry thousands of passengers and expensive ultra-luxury ships that accommodate just a few hundred.
SMALL AND PERFECTLY FORMED
The first in a collection of boutique, luxury ships to set sail over the next couple of years is Regent Seven Seas Explorer (rssc.com.au), which will be christened in Monaco in July. The $US450 million ship's maiden cruise sold out within weeks of its announcement, proving without a doubt that there is an incredible demand for this style of cruising.
Silver Muse (silversea.com) will join Silversea's fleet of classic and expedition ships in 2017. Karen Christensen, Silversea's general manager and director for sales and marketing, says the company has seen a constant increase in the popularity of small-ship cruising, "due to the personalised service on offer, our ability to sail to unique and interesting destinations larger ships cannot access and an increased desire to visit multiple destinations in the comfort of one luxury suite".
On the expedition, or soft-adventure front, Silver Cloud will be converted to an ice-class expedition ship in November 2017. Star Clippers, which operates three traditional sailing ships, is building its first new ship for five years. When it sets sail in late 2017, the 300-passenger, five-masted vessel will be the biggest in the fleet, carrying 5574 square metres of sail.
HITTING THE SUITE SPOT
Royal Caribbean has also introduced "Suite Class" on board its Oasis of the Seas. Adam Armstrong, the line's international commercial manager Australia, says more and more cruise passengers are travelling with families, so the new split-level suites on Oasis and Quantum class ships, which have larger living areas and bedrooms, give families plenty of space to enjoy time together, "while also offering sufficient space to sneak off if the family gets too much".
And to complement the increasing sophistication of spas at sea, several cruise lines are offering special spa suites. Their amenities vary from line to line but they are designed to give passengers the full "spa experience" that you might enjoy on land. Guests in Seabourn's Penthouse Spa Suites, for example, have direct access to the spa via an internal staircase, priority bookings for treatments and they can use the Serene Area at any time.
Celebrity Cruises' AquaClass Suite guests have unlimited access to the AquaSpa Relaxation room and Persian Garden thermal suite, and exclusive access to the specialty restaurant Blu. Spa suites are also available on select Carnival, Costa, HAL and NCL ships.
Another interesting trend is to offer luxury facilities on premium or mainstream ships, so that passengers can enjoy all the fun features and dining options of a mega-ship while being able to retreat to a private sanctuary. NCL's "ship within a ship", The Haven by Norwegian, first appeared on Norwegian Jewel in 2005.
Its latest ship, Norwegian Escape, has an expanded version of the exclusive enclave, with 55 suites and villas plus its own sundeck, pool, restaurant and spa treatment rooms. Butler service is on tap 24 hours a day. MSC Cruises has a similar concept, the Yacht Club, on its newest ships Fantasia, Splendida and Divina; Celebrity Cruises is currently rolling out its Suite Class services and facilities for top-tier suite passengers.
WINING AND DINING
What's in a name? Apart from the helpful publicity, having high-profile chefs' restaurants on ships is helping to raise the bar on the quality and choice of food on offer. It's like eating out in a big city – you can choose from Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, French, Italian, Indian and more - or plump for a restaurant owned by the likes of Jamie Oliver, Luke Mangan and Marco Pierre White.
Curtis Stone is the latest celebrity chef to partner with a cruise line. Stone is as well known in the US as in Australia, has written six cookbooks, owns a highly acclaimed restaurant in California and has hosted dozens of TV cooking shows. His "Crafted by Curtis" dishes will be served in the main dining rooms across Princess Cruises' 18 ships and his "Share" restaurant will be introduced on select Princess ships – including Australia's Sun Princess.
Jamie Oliver's seaborne restaurants are onboard Royal Caribbean's Quantum-class ships (Quantum, Anthem and Ovation of the Seas); Luke Mangan's Salt Grill is on P&O Cruises' five ships; and Marco Pierre White is just one of an impressive line-up of celebrity chefs whose restaurants and winebars are a major drawcard on P&O UK's newest ships.
Britannia and Viking Cruises' Viking Star, which launched this year, both offer culinary classes in state-of-the-art kitchens. At Britannia's Cookery Club, you can sign up for classes with big-name chefs such as MPW, UK TV chef James Martin, Indian "spice guru" Atul Kochhar and master patissier Eric Lanlard.
If you have a competitive streak, you'll enjoy Celebrity Cruises' cooking contests. The line's Quickfire challenge program is based on the US TV show Top Chef – you'll cook up a main course and have lots of fun working with, or against, your fellow passengers.
There's also a gradual move away from the traditional cruise-ship buffet. Lines such as Viking Cruises, Royal Caribbean, P&O and NCL are adding "marketplace" venues that offer a range of dishes in much more stylish surroundings. Viking Star claims it has more al fresco dining areas than any other ship; NCL's Norwegian Breakaway, Getaway and Escape have also "reconnected" with the great outdoors and the Waterfront and 678 Ocean Place feature numerous restaurants and bars along oceanfront boardwalks.
As the number of solo cruisers increases, cruise lines are beginning to build dedicated single cabins on their newest ships. Some companies waive the single supplement on select itineraries, but having to pay twice as much to travel alone in a cabin designed for two people is still a major bugbear.
On the positive side, HAL is introducing 12 single oceanview cabins on the upcoming MS Koningsdam, Norwegian Escape will have 82 "studios" plus a dedicated lounge for solo travellers and Royal Caribbean's Quantum class ships each have 28 single cabins – including some with virtual balconies.
More cruise lines are offering single passenger "matching" services for those who are prepared to share a cabin with another same-sex single traveller, but that doesn't work for everyone. Perhaps we can look forward to a trend of adding more single cabins to older ships when they are refurbished – there's no doubt they'll be snapped up.
Not to be outdone by their ocean-going counterparts, the major river-cruise lines will be launching yet more ships, mostly for European waterways. There will be six new Viking Longships, APT's MS AmaStella and MS AmaViola, Scenic's Azure (to sail on Portugal's Douro River) and Scenic Amber, Evergreen's Emerald Belle, Avalon Waterways' Avalon Passion and Croisi-Europe's Princesse Elbe.
River cruising in Asia is also on the rise. In 2016 Croisi-Europe's Princesse Apsara and Scenic's Scenic Spirit are launching on the Mekong; Scenic Aura and APT's RV Samatha will set sail on Myanmar's Irrawaddy River; and Uniworld is heading to India in January with the all-suite Ganges Voyager II.
America's Mississippi, Columbia and Snake rivers are also coming to the attention of avid river cruisers – Viking is launching two new ships to sail the Mississippi in 2017 and American Cruise Lines' eighth ship, America, starts cruising there in 2016.
Debra Fox, APT'S chief marketing officer, says that while Europe is still the bestselling cruise destination for APT, the company is "always on the lookout for new and exciting rivers for our guests to explore. In 2016 we're tipping the Douro in Portugal, the Mississippi in the US and the lower Ganges in India to attract lots of interest."
Fox says that cruise safaris on Botswana's Chobe river (introduced in 2013), cruises on the Peruvian Amazon and on all of France's waterways are also high on river cruisers' wish lists. Bordeaux is the latest destination of choice in France – Scenic, Uniworld and Viking started cruising on the region's Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde rivers over the past couple of years, and APT's MS AmaDolce will offer five itineraries there from April next year.
Another emerging trend is to combine two or even three European itineraries in one package – for example, you can cruise from Paris in France's north to Avignon in the south over 14 to 22 days, or take a Douro river cruise that includes a few days in Spain, followed by a Bordeaux cruise. Depending on your budget and how much time you can spare, the options are almost limitless.
There's an increasing number of special-interest cruises coming up. Avalon Waterways runs cruises for beer enthusiasts, golfers and music lovers, as well as Jewish heritage and European history cruises; various experts deliver presentations on board and itineraries are tailored to the specific themes. APT is bringing a quartet from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on board to perform on six cruises next year and it's also introducing gourmet-themed cruises in France.
Cruise lines are also vying with each other to offer "exclusive" experiences that would be difficult, if not impossible, to organise yourself. For example, Scenic has collaborated with the Salzburg Orchestra to produce the Best of The Sound of Music and Salzburg Show, featuring songs from the classic movie performed by actors, a children's choir and a 16-piece orchestra on a day trip to Salzburg.
While Uniworld and Tauck are increasing their family-friendly river cruises, river cruising continues to attract the older end of the well-heeled baby boomer generation. Still to come are river cruises that will appeal to budget-conscious travellers in their 30s to 50s who are looking for more freedom to explore independently, more energetic activities on and off the ship, and much less in the way of outdated on-board entertainment. Mama Shelter afloat, perhaps?
FIVE NEW LUXURY SHIPS TO WATCH
REGENT SEVEN SEAS EXPLORER
Launching in July, "the most luxurious ship ever built" will offer 570 privileged guests vast suites, elegant public spaces, fine dining and one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios in the business. See rssc.com.au
Due in April 2017, the 596-guest ship will be an enhanced, enlarged version of 2009's Silver Spirit, with Silversea hallmarks such as butler service to all suites and friendly, small-ship ambience. See silversea.com
Seabourn's all-suite, all-balcony, 600-guest ship will continue the line's chic, understated style, while being a bit bigger than its Odyssey-class fleetmates. After its December 2016 debut it will visit Australia. See seabourn.com
CRYSTAL EXCLUSIVE CLASS
The first of Crystal Cruises' three all-suite, all-balcony, 1000-passenger luxury expedition ships is scheduled to launch in 2018, with 48 top-deck Crystal Residences for sale to exceptionally well-heeled travellers. See crystalcruises.com
Two river ships are on the drawing board for Crystal Cruises, offering 70 super-spacious suites. The "six star" vessels are due to sail on Europe's waterways in March 2017.
FIVE SHIP SUPER-SPAS
EUROPA 2'S OCEAN SPA
Facilities in the cool, elegant space include four saunas, a whirlpool and eight treatment rooms, plus a gym where you can take fitness classes or perfect your golf swing. See hl-cruises.com
VIKING STAR'S LIV NORDIC SPA
Starring the Snow Grotto, the Arctic-themed spa has a saltwater thermal pool, hot tub, sauna and eight treatment rooms. Access is free – treatments, of course, are extra. See vikingcruises.com
ROYAL & REGAL PRINCESS'S LOTUS SPA
These are the biggest Lotus Spas in the fleet and feature The Enclave, a thermal suite with a good-sized hydrotherapy pool. Serene and stylish, with 16 treatment rooms. See princess.com
CRYSTAL SERENITY AND SYMPHONY'S CRYSTAL SPA
Designed on feng shui principles to invoke balance and harmony, the spa offers a range of exotic and calming treatments for mind and body, a private relaxation deck, salon and gym. See crystalcruises.com
SEABOURN ODYSSEY, SOJOURN AND QUEST'S THE SPA AT SEABOURN
The two-deck facility boasts a yoga room with Kinesis wall, hydrotherapy pool, thermal suite, sauna and Spa Villas for private treatment sessions. See seabourn.com