MIAMI - Cruise buffs will endlessly debate their favourite ships, lines and onboard amenities. But this year, there seems to be consensus about one thing: The class of 2020 is pretty exceptional.
About 24 ships are slated to debut this year, a possible record depending on how you count them (ships vs. berths) and on whether every vessel launches on time.
But what sets this year apart is not the number but the ships themselves. They include new-to-cruise brands, an unprecedented number of expedition vessels and some of the most environmentally advanced ships at sea.
The new brands are sparking the most attention because they are global: Virgin Voyages, debuting the Scarlet Lady in March, and Ritz-Carlton’s Evrima coming in June.
“What’s really new about 2020 is that there are two new brands launching,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, chief content officer at Cruise Media. “And what’s exciting about them is that they are both based on other travel niches that people have heard of. It’s bringing cruise into a whole new space.”
Spencer Brown added that the Virgin and Ritz-Carlton brands have the potential to expand the new-to-cruise market.
“It’s a comforting thing if you’re a Ritz-Carlton style of traveller and you know the brand will be consistent and it will have people like you,” she said.
Gene Sloan, senior reporter covering cruise for the Points Guy, agreed that these names will generate industry buzz.
“Virgin is known worldwide,” he said. “It’s a major brand getting into cruise and doing advertising around it. It’s going to get a lot of play with non-cruisers and new-to-cruisers. It’s a big story.”
However, Sloan also pointed to Carnival Cruise Line’s Mardi Gras as this year’s game changer: “That’s the biggest ship of the year. It’s a real milestone for Carnival.”
Carnival Cruise Line’s Mardi Gras, the biggest ship to launch in 2020.
Over the past 20 years, Sloan said, Carnival hasn’t gone big like Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises. As those lines created large resorts at sea, with Royal’s Oasis-class ships topping the rest at more than 220,000 gross tonnes, Carnival’s largest vessel, last year’s 133,800-gross-ton Carnival Panorama, ranks as the industry’s 44th-largest ship.
The 180,000-gross-ton Mardi Gras is a significant jump, Sloan said, adding that it’s “Carnival saying, ‘We’re going to go big, too.’ It’s a pivot point for the brand and for Carnival Corp.”
The Mardi Gras will have the industry’s first onboard roller coaster.
“The consumer media is going to eat that up,” Sloan predicted. “It will create a huge amount of interest.”
Here comes the Mardi Gras
The Mardi Gras is also significant for being the first ship for the US market powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). Carnival’s European sister brands Costa and Aida recently debuted the first two LNG-powered ships, and P&O will launch one this year, as well.
What remains to be seen is how this will impact Carnival’s deployment options.
Monty Mathisen, managing editor at Cruise Industry News, said, “Carnival is really out in front of everyone here. LNG is cleaner and emits less air emissions, which is great, but since they are still a little ahead of the curve, they are still putting in place the fuel supply chain.
“You may not be able to get LNG at every port in the world right now. Carnival has been busy putting all that infrastructure in place. It’s been a big process.”
This year sets a record for the number of expedition ships slated to debut, currently at 10.
“That’s unprecedented,” said Cruise Media’s Spencer Brown, recalling when expedition was a “sleepy little genre that nobody cared about. You’d have a cabin with two beds bolted to the floor and a shower over your toilet,” she said.
Fuelling the expedition surge, she said, are the younger baby boomers who drove the experiential travel craze but are older now and are finding cruise ships to be easy and comfortable.
“Young baby boomers want to be as comfortable as they are at home when they’re on the ship,” she said. “And when they’re off the ship, they want to be on the edge.”
Other upscale-cruise fans won’t veer far from the familiar, said Sharon Fake of Travel Experts. With a line like Crystal debuting its first expedition ship this year and Silversea expanding its expedition fleet, Fake said she has an opportunity to move them to expedition cruising.
“If you have a Crystal customer, they will be happy to try the Endeavor,” she said. “If you have a Silversea customer, they will do the Silver Origin. I’m not so sure that those people are ready to jump and leave those brands behind to try something new.”
Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, agreed, asserting that Celebrity Cruises “opened the world of the Galapagos” more than any other brand.
“It gives us that extra story to tell a cruiser who typically sails on Celebrity,” Fee said. “They can get the same experience but on an expedition ship.”
Much improved luxury experiences
Sloan said Silversea’s Origin, built for the Galapagos, is a “big deal” for the archipelago, where the off-ship experience often contrasted sharply with older cruise ships. With the Celebrity Flora debut there last year, and this year the Origin, the Galapagos offers a much-improved luxury experience.
Sloan said the same was true of expedition vessels in places like Antarctica: The hardware finally matches the off-ship experience.
“It’s always been expensive,” he said. “But you were paying a tonne of money to go to Antarctica and the Galapagos on 30-year-old, run-down vessels. Now you pay that money and get a great product in addition to a great experience.”