NEW YORK More choices in food, activities, itineraries and luxury are some of the trends shaping the cruise industry for 2008. But the big unknown is what will happen with prices.
The Cruise Lines International Association estimates that 12.6 million people cruised worldwide in 2007 on the 24 cruise lines CLIA represents, a 4.6 percent increase over 2006. CLIA believes demand will hold, with a projected 12.8 million passengers for 2008 despite the weakening economy. A recent CLIA survey of 500 travel agents found 90 percent expect 2008 cruise sales to be as good or better than 2007.
But consumers with flexible vacation plans may be in for some deals. "The more uncertainty there is in the marketplace, the more deals there will be later in the year," said Heidi Allison Shane, spokeswoman for CruiseCompete.com. "When the cruise lines go out with high prices and they don't sell out, the bigger the discounts later on." The softest markets, she predicted, will be in mega-ships sailing to the Caribbean and Bermuda.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, also expects "more competitive prices for sure, because the economy is shaky, but where you'll find the real deals are on the older ships in cruise line fleets, not the newer and bigger models. Per diems on vessels like Cunard's Queen Victoria, Holland America's Eurodam and Celebrity's Solstice will be pricey and demand is strong because all three are new designs."
In addition to the Eurodam and the Solstice, other new big ships launching in 2008 are Royal Caribbean International's Independence of the Seas in May; MSC Cruises' Poesia in April; Carnival Splendor, July; Princess Cruises' Ruby Princess, November, and MSC Cruises' 3,300-passenger Fantasia, December.
Meanwhile Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2, one of the most famous ships in the world, will be decommissioned and turned into a floating luxury hotel in Dubai.Here is some other cruising news for this year.
ACTIVITIES: Last year, ships with bowling alleys and mechanical waves for surfing joined vessels with rock-climbing walls and ice-skating rinks. Cunard's Queen Victoria, launched in December 2007, became the first ship to offer fencing lessons at sea.
In December 2008, Celebrity Cruises will launch Celebrity Solstice with a half-acre lawn of real growing grass on the top deck. Guests will be invited to play bocce and croquet, picnic with wine and cheese, or practice golf putts. Also aboard Solstice: glassblowing demonstrations created by New York's Corning Museum of Glass.
In August, Nickelodeon, the children's cable network, offers its first-ever family cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, with a Western Caribbean itinerary.
Shore excursions throughout the cruise industry continue to reflect consumer demand for active and authentic experiences, including kayaking, wildlife watches and bike tours. Regent Seven Seas' Mariner cruises offer a ride on a floatplane in Alaska as it delivers the mail. Silversea Cruises' "Silver Links" program offers excursions to golf courses around the world.Most cruise ships now offer access to e-mail at sea, but at prices like 75 cents a minute, you might want to wait for an Internet cafe in port.
FOOD: Sure, most cruises still offer formal dining at 8:30 p.m. and midnight buffets. But more ships are offering casual dining, like Norwegian's successful Freestyle Cruising program, that does not involve scheduled seatings and formal dress at large tables with strangers.
Some cruises also offer restaurants with specialized menus and eateries designed by celebrity chefs. Ships may charge additional fees for the specialty restaurants.
The new Queen Victoria features a Todd English restaurant, as does one of Cunard's other ships, the Queen Mary 2. Famed sushi chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa known for his Nobu restaurants around the world will travel aboard Crystal Symphony to launch two onboard restaurants, Silk Road and The Sushi Bar, on a March 21 Hong Kong to Beijing cruise. Nobu already has restaurants on the Crystal Serenity.Cruisers can also enjoy wine tastings at sea, cooking classes and behind-the-scenes food programs. Princess Cruises' Chef's Table dinners, which debuted in May and are now rolling out fleetwide, provides the chef's table experience at sea, in which a chef presents a special menu and then joins the group for dessert ($75 a person).
LUXURY: More cruise lines are offering larger and more luxurious accommodations with private elevators, private courtyards and suites located near spas. Spa suite guests typically get priority or upgraded access to spa services.
Even the mass-market cruise line Carnival is getting into the luxury act with Carnival Splendor, launching later this year with 68 spa suites that feature access by private elevator to a 21,000-square-foot spa. Another new ship, MSC Cruises' MSC Fantasia, will also feature 68 suites accessed by private elevators.
Norwegian Gem, which launched in 2007, not only has one of the most decorative exteriors of any ship at sea a colorful jewel design on a white background but it has large one- and two-bedroom suites in its Courtyard Villa. The shared private courtyard has a private lap pool, hot tub, steam rooms and fitness area.In May, Celebrity Cruises launched a new luxury line, Azamara, with two midsize ships Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest. Both ships carry 694 guests and offer Sky Suites with in-suite spa services. Most itineraries are 12-18 nights with less well-known ports of call like Cartagena, Colombia, and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. In the summer, both ships go to Europe. Azamara Quest will later sail in Asia.
ITINERARIES: A survey from Cruise Holidays, which calls itself North America's largest cruise specialty retail franchise, found that in 2007, the Caribbean accounted for 43 percent of cruise bookings, Alaska 15 percent, the Mexican Riviera 8 percent, and Europe/Mediterranean 8 percent.
Compared to 2006, the survey found bookings for Alaska were up 17 percent, the Caribbean was up 4 percent and Europe was up 42 percent.
No wonder so many cruise lines are offering more European trips this year. NCL America's Pride of Hawai'i will be renamed Norwegian Jade in February and will serve Europe this summer instead of Hawaii.
European cruises are attractive despite the weak dollar because they are booked in U.S. dollars in advance, covering all lodging and meals. The Cruise Holidays survey figured the average cost per person per day for a 12-day Mediterranean cruise is $269, about a 7.6 percent increase in the past year.CLIA says some cruise lines are visiting South America this year for the first time, with Australia, New Zealand and Asia as emerging destinations as well.
BOOKING: While more than 50 percent of travel overall is booked online, only 7 percent of cruises are booked online, according to Douglas Quinby of PhoCusWright, a company that tracks online travel activity. Quinby attributes the continued reliance on travel agents to the complexity of cruise bookings and the need for advice, especially for first-time cruisers.