In focus: luxury cruising

At the recent launch of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ ultra-luxurious expedition ship, Hanseatic Inspiration, chief executive Karl Pojer made an interesting point. “Luxury has changed from ‘having’ to ‘being’,” he commented. Speak to anybody in the luxury cruise industry and they’ll agree. 

Luxury is no longer about consumption; it’s about authenticity and experience, and cruise lines are increasingly responding to this trend. Clia’s global Cruise Travel Trends 2019 report states: “Experiential travel has evolved into achievement travel as vacationers look for experiences beyond sightseeing. Bucket lists have become goal-oriented and cruise lines are meeting these demands.” 

And the UK travel trade agrees that the wealthiest travellers are not afraid to push boundaries. “While we’re not seeing the average age reduce, the mentality of today’s 60-year-old is someone in denial about their age, and up for all sorts of activity,” says Edwina Lonsdale, managing director of Mundy Cruising.

While Brexit may have dented consumer confidence in the UK, the outlook for luxury travel globally is positive, according to Clia UK and Ireland director Andy Harmer. 

“In 2018, the market was valued at $891 billion and is expected to grow by almost 8% between 2019 and 2026,” he said. 

Cruising is part of this. A dozen ships in the ultra-luxury sector are launching in 2020 and again in 2021. Every established luxury cruise line is building new ships, as are several new entrants to the market.

This year’s big launch was Scenic’s 228-berth Scenic Eclipse. Setting sail after numerous delays, it looks like an oligarch’s yacht and offers a new level of indulgence in adventure cruising, with 10 dining choices, two helicopters, a submarine and all-suite accommodation.

In February, Regent Seven Seas Cruises will launch the opulent 750-passenger Regent Seven Seas Splendor, with more than an acre of Italian marble and what has to be one of the most lavish suites at sea, complete with its own spa, a $200,000 bed, plus a car and driver in every port.

Silversea Cruises has two new ships coming in 2020. Silver Moon will be a sister to flagship Silver Muse, with a strong focus on a new dining concept, SALT (Sea and Land Taste) that embodies the trend for immersive experiences. “Guests can meet the farmers in their fields, understand their harvest, learn to cook with their produce in our SALT Lab and then relax over dinner in our SALT Restaurant, where our chefs bring those local ingredients to life,” explains Peter Shanks, managing director for the UK, Ireland, Middle East and Africa. 

Silver Origin, meanwhile, will be the line’s first purpose-built ship for the Galápagos. Interestingly, this means Royal Caribbean, which has a majority share in Silversea, will have two new purpose-built high‑end ships in the Galápagos: Silver Origin and the sleek, new Celebrity Flora, which launched earlier this year. That looks like smart planning. The Galágapos is ranked top for adventure in the 2020 Luxe report just released by luxury travel agency network Virtuoso, and is also rated highly by Aspire readers, who rank it second in Aspire’s Wish List supplement.

Expedition growth

And the new ships don’t stop there, especially on the expedition front. Crystal Cruises launches its first expedition vessel, Crystal Endeavor, in 2020, while Seabourn Venture comes hot on its heels in summer 2021, with 132 balcony suites and a fleet of 24 Zodiac inflatables for exploration. SeaDream Yacht Club, meanwhile, has announced its first new-build. The 220-passenger SeaDream Innovation will make its maiden voyage from London in September 2021, bound for destinations such as Svalbard, Fiji, Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef.

While not every cruiser is looking for expedition, there are opportunities for agents to use this trend to convert clients currently taking land-based holidays. “The big plus is that expedition is pulling in first-timers: sophisticated travellers who are used to spending top dollar for private tours and exclusive hotels and who grasp the opportunity to go on these comfortable ships to destinations they couldn’t reach any other way,” says Lonsdale.

There are newcomers in the world of luxury cruising too. The first of Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s new 298-passenger mega-yachts sets sail from Barcelona in June 2020. The ship, named Evrima, will be all-suite and all‑inclusive, with six restaurants. 

Over-50s line Saga’s two 999-berth new-builds, Spirit of Discovery and Spirit of Adventure, could arguably give established vessels in the luxury sector a run for their money, with a beautiful, hotel-like design, all-balcony cabins and all-inclusive drinks.

French-owned Ponant continues to grow, launching six (yes, six!) Explorer Class ships, the last two of which will debut next year. These are a great option for clients looking for tropical adventure in places like Costa Rica, the Amazon, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Papua New Guinea, thanks to their gorgeous infinity pools and underwater viewing lounges. 

Meanwhile, upscale river operator Aqua Expeditions this year launches its first ocean‑going ship. Aqua Blu, with just 30 suites, will explore Indonesia’s Spice Islands and the pristine Raja Ampat archipelago with the ambience of a posh private yacht.

New destinations such as Raja Ampat are opening up for 2020 and beyond, while old ones are being revisited. SeaDream Yacht Club will sail to Israel in 2021, calling at Ashdod and Haifa. The company is also venturing into the Black Sea in 2021, as are Crystal Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Azamara, all responding to pent-up demand and an overcrowded Mediterranean. The region has been off limits since 2014, due to instability in Crimea, and while Yalta and Sevastopol are still no-go areas, Istanbul, the gateway to the Black Sea, is making a return. 

The expedition sector, meanwhile, gets ever-more extreme. Ponant’s hybrid-powered Le Commandant Charcot will take big spenders to the geographic North Pole in 2021, while Silversea will undertake its second expedition through the almost impenetrable Northeast Passage in 2020.

Changing tides

Voluntourism continues to be in demand. Crystal Cruises has announced several new volunteering excursions, among them working at the Samui Animal Shelter in Koh Samui and planting trees in New Zealand to help protect the yellow-eyed penguins of Dunedin. Citizen science projects are growing too; passengers on select cruises with Silversea and Saga can now join marine mammal surveys run by conservation charity Orca.

Sustainability, though, is likely to become a hotter topic. Just a couple of years ago, cruise lines were boasting about private jet projects, but as we move into 2020, a hybrid-powered ship is more of a headline-grabber. Upscale Lindblad Expeditions announced this year that it was becoming 100% carbon neutral, offsetting emissions from all 13 of its ships. Whether others in the luxury sector will follow remains to be seen.

By Sue Bryant

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