Cruise ships searching for new 'wow' factor
A cruise is basically made up of two ingredients: the ship (aka the what) and the ports it sails to (the where).
For many years, we heard a lot about the what. With each new ship came a new can-you-top-this amusement - climbing walls, basketball courts, putting greens, virtual-reality experiences.
Passengers have been conditioned to expect something wow-worthy when they come aboard.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines' 4905-passenger Quantum of the Seas created a buzz with news of its sky-diving simulator, RipCord by iFly, and its Ferris wheel-style sky ride, North Star.
In the past, this is what made news in the cruise world. It was what got potential passengers interested.
But the "where" can also make a cruise line stand out.
With competition fierce and so many ships sailing the same routes to popular ports around the world, every cruise line is under pressure to find a new "wow", according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry association with 26 member cruise lines and 10,500 travel agencies.
Cruise lines big (Carnival, for example) and small (Azamara) are finding wow factors beyond what's onboard. They're adding new ports or two every season, or developing a new itinerary in a popular destination. They're also moving ships to new destinations in areas they wouldn't have even considered five or 10 years ago, including Montenegro and Afghanistan.
Viking Cruises, American Cruise Lines, UniWorld and other small ship lines are commissioning new builds.
Besides ships, whole small-ship cruise lines have either just opened (Emerald Waterways, DreamCruise) or are expanding (Aqua Expeditions, Ponant Croisieres, Tauck Cruises) to keep up with demand.
All feature ships with a capacity of less than 250 - built not just to blend in with traditional vessels of the regions but withstand the vicissitudes of remote areas and/or extreme weather.
Time has also been spent researching and testing waterways that have long been the lifeblood of civilisations but not on our radar today, because size matters when it comes to ships and where they can go when they're carrying a few thousand people.
Destinations on the rise today include Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Amazon among the exotics. France - yes, France, its many canals and rivers - is especially au courant right now for small-ship sailing.
The big cruise lines are adding ports in all parts of the globe. Regent Seven Seas has added 21 ports, ranging from Natal, Brazil, to Nosy Be, Madagascar. Crystal's two ships have 12 maiden calls, including Oban, Scotland, and Luanda, Angola. Holland America is adding Burma, Labrador and Angola, as well as itineraries based out of Singapore.
The big lines know they can't tread water, even in the Caribbean, which is still the most popular destination for cruisers. So they are adding new islands to their itineraries.
Even fans of "the islands" who don't really care about the "where," as long as it's sunny and warm, eventually want a change of scenery - provided it's still sunny and warm, of course.
So itineraries are being refreshed to include less-visited islands.
Regent Seven Seas has revamped several sailings, including its Caribbean Colonies 10-night itinerary round trip from Miami, to include new destinations and new experiences: For instance, it pulls into San Juan, Puerto Rico, midday, timing the visit to allow passengers an evening of urban fun, after which ports of call include Gustavia, St Bart; St John's, Antigua; Castries, St Lucia; and Philipsburg, St Maarten, before returning to Miami.
Many destinations, understanding the value of cruise ship tourism, are investing in their ports to make them more attractive and accommodate larger ships. Especially in the Caribbean, demand for new ports is so high CLIA and its member cruise lines formed a Global Ports Committee to bring together key players from the cruise lines, port operators, port authorities, government and port-related service providers.
Of course, one of the advantages of small ships and river cruises is they can go where big ships can't. That is one reason river cruises are the fastest-growing segment of the cruise market.