The best evidence that the cruise market is in flux and subject to wild changes is that Douglas Ward’s Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships hasn’t been updated since 2020. The Berlitz Guide used to sit on most travel agents’ desks. For 35 years, it could be counted on to give clients a two-page summary of every vessel promoted to clients by American travel advisors. It was more than a mere directory. The 754-pages of the 2020 edition rated the accommodations, cuisine, and service on each ship. It was the final word on ship statistics, so that passenger space ratios, passenger crew ratios, and tonnage could be reliably compared.
In my 2019 Amazon book, How to Plan Your Next & BEST Cruise: Secrets of Selecting Cruises, Ships & Destinations, I used Douglas Ward’s data in every chapter to show readers how to move beyond the ads and hype, and to make viable comparisons among cruise ships they were considering.
When you go beyond the party lines that everything’s OK and cruising is coming back better than ever, you see marked changes in the mix and characteristics of the ship now carrying guests or slated to start later this year. Since a 2023 edition of Berlitz hasn’t been announced yet, here’s my effort to briefly get the ball rolling:
The Mega-Resort Ships Will Be Much the Same
Except for a few new roller coasters and buffet-style dining venues, the megaships with more than 3,000 pax will remain much the same as before that pandemic. While some cruisers will avoid the problems associated with the large number of passengers, such issues will be mostly overlooked by those guests wanting inexpensive fares and resort-style entertainment. Their growth will be only enhanced by sending the oldest and most uneconomical ships to the breakers in Bangladesh and Turkey, and replacing them with newer, more appealing vessels containing the latest bells and whistles.
Small Ships Will Get Smaller, More Expensive, and Travel to More Remote Locations
Small ships are generally considered to be those with fewer than 1500 passengers. Whereas the sweet spot used to be ultra-luxurious ships with 600-1300 passengers—such as those built by Seabourn, Silversea, Viking Ocean, Regent, and Crystal—these are being supplemented with ships carrying no more than 500, since this is the maximum number of guests permitted to land guests in Antarctica. No more than 100 guests are allowed to be ashore at any given time.
Why is Antarctica so important? It is among the most popular destinations this year, if you count the number of guests visiting this year vs. five years ago. But other isolated locations that tend to be free of intrusive tourism will likely impose similar limits in the future. As an extreme example, tourism in the Galapagos Islands is already limited to ships carrying 100 pax or less.
As ships become smaller, this will inevitably lead to service cutbacks or higher cruise fares because of less space available for guest quarters, fewer crew members available to serve guests, and higher fuel costs per passenger. As more small ships become so-called expedition ships with ice-breaker armored hulls and Zodiacs being able to carry most everyone ashore, the daily cost of small ship cruising is rising from a top of $500-$700 pp a day for a veranda stateroom in 2018, to well over $1,000 pp a day for a veranda stateroom on an expedition ship today.
Also, simply labeling the new vessel as an expedition ship is a clue that the vessel will not be as luxurious, nor the cuisine as elaborate as on those uber-luxury small ships of 2000-2020 vintages. In return for these cutbacks, the newer and smaller expedition ships will be able to visit places unthinkable 20 years ago. The most extreme examples may be transiting the Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, or circumnavigating Antarctica. Between global warming and the newest expedition ships’ features, these may become everyday experiences for wealthy cruisers within five years.
Cruises Ship Brands Will Increase
While much is made of the demise of Crystal and the absorption of Hapag-Lloyd and TUI Cruises into the Royal Caribbean brand, much less is said about the recent stratospheric growth of Viking, Hurtigruten, Disney, MSC, and Ponant. These have had a more dramatic increase in their number of ships; and more importantly, they have opened new markets for cruising worldwide.
River Cruises Will Give Way to Coastal Cruises
Before the 21st century, cruise passengers could only choose between ocean and river cruises. This was fine until pandemics and global warming started limiting the choices for river cruisers. Many of the most luxurious river ships had been purpose-built to stay on a single river system. Their hull drafts or width made it impossible for them to go elsewhere. When some of the rivers they traveled on fell to lower levels due to droughts, the river lines faced the ignominy and expense of transferring their passengers and their luggage to other parts of the river where they would have to board other river boats.
Worse, if they had made reservations on rivers in Russia, Vietnam, China, or many other places that had to be closed to traffic due to political conditions or COVID-19 outbreaks, the river cruises needed to be canceled. This factor, alone, will inevitably lead to the demise of many riverboats that will be replaced with more seaworthy coastal cruisers with much shallower drafts and hydrofoil hulls.
The book on how to do this is being written by American Cruise Lines “building a dozen sister ships that will more than double the nation’s current capacity for domestic coastal cruises. The hybrid catamaran design will allow the boats, according to ACL, to have unprecedented near-shore operating versatility”.
While these ships are being designed for use on American coasts, such as the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the variety of conditions they will face cruising anywhere from Florida to New York City will also make them capable of sailing on most cruising grounds in Europe, Asia, Australia, or Japan. Further, they will be able to be transported from one continent to another by sailing on-and-off huge transport ships used to take yachts around the globe. The first 12 ships are scheduled for delivery in 2023. Within five years they will be everywhere as any good shipyard will be able to build them.
These predictions will bring about a “brave new world” of cruising. These changes are close to being inevitable. Travel advisors should prepare themselves for these just-around-the-corner changes in their guests’ cruising habits. They are likely to make cruises better than ever.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. He writes a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s read by more than 80,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.