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2008’s hot cruising trends

In the past decade, cruising’s undergone a revolutionary change. Affordable balconies, alternative restaurants, expansive spas with thallasotherapy, ever-more elaborate suites, and adventure-oriented shore excursions top the head-spinning list of newly introduced concepts. Europe has exploded as a cruise destination, and multi-month world voyages are making a huge comeback.

As one year turns into another, our annual coverage of new trends also spotlights some more controversial changes. Casual dining and lax manners top the list, but also potentially flagrant are issues like cruise safety, a declining level of passenger service, and outbreaks of the dreaded Norovirus.

But that was then. What genuinely new trends have you seen evolving in the past year or two? We’re hard pressed to come up with any that are more revolutionary than evolutionary. Even so, here are evolving areas of cruising that we’re sure we’ll hear a lot about throughout 2008.

Luxury goes mainstream

Until now: Luxury is easily the most overused word in cruise line advertisements. But the fact is that whether you prefer the mass market, 2,000-plus ships or 500-passenger ships of a more intimate size, you will experience luxury in some form. Where the mass market lines have been clever is in incorporating upscale accoutrements into their big ship product—[% 11986 | | Carnival %] ships, for one, have fantastic beds, elegant supper club alternative restaurants, and sushi bars. And as a hybrid luxury mass-market cruise option, Oceania delivers the industry’s best value for money. But the small ship lines themselves, with a few exceptions, have slumbered when it comes to reaching out to potential new customers—whether confirmed big ship aficionados or those who are new to cruising.

In 2008: [% 11070 | | Seabourn’s %] leading the way on the expansion front; though its new ships don’t launch until 2009 and beyond, that line’s commitment to building new vessels was the first genuine sign of life in this niche of cruising. As well, look for small ship lines in the soft adventure and river cruising genres to take some radical steps to incorporate upscale touches into what’s traditionally been a middling onboard experience.

Europe is booming

Until now: It’s easy enough to see why Europe’s a great destination for a cruise trip. It’s the perfect “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” primer for those wanting a whirlwind experience. You can experience a myriad of European cities and still sleep in the same bed night after night and unpack only once. As well, Disney’s foray into the western Mediterranean last year really emphasized the possibilities for family travelers (and other lines, such as Carnival, Ocean Village, NCL, and Royal Caribbean, are doing a great job there, too). While the western Mediterranean is, hands-down, the most popular region, there were plenty of ships plying the waters of Northern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, too.

In 2008: Some cruise lines are ramping up more exotic European itineraries. Croatia’s coast, the Black Sea, and southern Mediterranean itineraries that touch on Northern Africa will be popular for the been-there-done-that crowd. And, to further alleviate clutter and gridlock in the most popular ports, more and more lines are doing round-trips to the Canary Islands, Azores, and Cape Verde Islands, once the sole purview of a transatlantic voyage.

Industry consolidation

Until now: Prior to the last couple of years, the cruise industry was dominated by Carnival Corporation, which owns Carnival Cruise Line, Costa, P&O U.K., P&O Australia, Ocean Village, Cunard, Seabourn, Holland America, AIDA, and Princess. But other players are revving up—[% 15420 | | Royal Caribbean %], which owns [% 14665 | | Celebrity %] and Azamara, is in international expansion mode, acquiring the Spain-based Pullmantur and announcing a joint venture with the German Tui.

The latest new players though aren’t cruise lines at all. Apollo Management, L.P., a New York-based private equity firm, made its first foray into the industry with its acquisition of Oceania Cruises; in 2007, the company made more headlines by acquiring [% 9668 | | Regent Seven Seas %] and 50 percent of [% 12025 | | Norwegian %]. Another private equity firm—New York-based Court Square Capital Partners—has signed a letter of intent to add Grand Circle Travel to its portfolio.

In 2008: Apollo’s acquisition of Regent Seven Seas occurred in late 2007, so we’ll be watching developments there; prime, of course, would be the commissioning of the line’s first newbuilds in some years.

Focus on fitness

Until now: Flying right in the face of cruising’s bad reputation for overweening indulgence is the effort by cruise lines to focus on health and well being. The midnight buffet is, for the most part, an idea whose time has come and gone. Every line in the sea offers those on diets special menus ranging from heart-healthy to spa light. Aerobics was once the onboard staple as far as fitness classes were concerned; these days, cruise lines offer everything from boxing rings (Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class ships) to private training sessions. Yoga and Pilates are mainstays. Acupuncture, teeth whitening, and smoking cessation clinics are hot too.

In 2008: One of the few genuinely new concepts to emerge in the past few years has been a spa-oriented cruise vacation. Pioneered by [% 10816 | | Costa %] (available on Costa Concordia and Costa Serena)—and mimicked by Carnival in its newbuilds—passengers book a package that includes fitness classes, spa treatments, and exclusive entry to a spa-themed restaurant; cabins, while resembling standard balcony designs, feature special touches (including a health-oriented minibar). Solstice, Celebrity’s most innovative new ship design to date, debuts this year. This line will likely expand on its newly adopted trend.

The Caribbean conundrum

Until now: The Caribbean, which we divide into three fairly distinct regions (western, southern, eastern) has long been the most popular destination in cruising. But some of the itineraries are getting stale; there’s just not that much new to offer folks who’ve already sailed from Tampa year after year on pretty much the same western Caribbean routes.

In 2008: Building on a trend that actually began years ago, cruise lines and other developers are investing in private-island-like experiences at relatively unknown ports of call. Costa Maya, on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, was a classic success story—a port facility, complete with pools, entertainment, restaurants, and shops, was essentially carved out of the jungle. We say “was” because Hurricane Dean leveled the place in summer 2007. It’s being rebuilt but won’t reopen before next September. But in the meantime, there are other new purpose-enhanced ports of call, and Carnival is a leader in this field, developing places like Grand Turk, in the Turks and Caicos, and Progreso, in Mexico, to serve as alternatives to the same-old batch of stops.

Burgeoning Asia

Until now: Until recently a trip to Asia, cruise or otherwise, was typically limited (due to budget and time constraints) to the very wealthy or the extremely thrifty. The gap is closing as lines like [% 14460 | | Princess %] (with Sapphire Princess) and Royal Caribbean (which recently introduced Rhapsody of the Seas there) have moved larger ships into the market. It’s still expensive to get there—and the trip is still comparatively long when notched up against a seven-day voyage to the Caribbean. But because bigger ships offer more economies of scale (for travelers and cruise lines alike) the voyages themselves are more affordable.

In 2008: Having explored the U.S., Canada, and Europe already, a late 2007 cruise from Bangkok to Shanghai on Sapphire Princess was an excellent introduction to a part of the world that was entirely new to me. Exotic and yet comfortable, in most respects, we merely skimmed Asia’s cosmopolitan surface with visits to places that included Hong Kong and Singapore. Asia’s easily as multi-layered as Europe, and I can’t wait to go back.

Beyond your fare: Cruising as a wallet drainer

Until now: Cruise travel has long had a reputation (rightly or wrongly) for being an all-inclusive experience. However, it hasn’t been quite that all-inclusive for years now. Passengers have long been able to spend beyond-their-fares for casino gambling, shore excursions, art auctions, alternative restaurant service fees, spa treatments, fitness classes, video arcades, and ship shops. The thing is, though, that the basics—accommodations, many meals, service, and the chance to travel from port to port have been and still are part of any cruise.

In 2008: Look for more creative ideas on the part of revenue management types to part you from your hard-earned cash, whether it’s on ramped-up wine dinners on lines like [% 13516 | | Crystal %] and [% 16844 | | Silversea %] or restaurants that actually operate on an a la carte basis on the newer Norwegian Cruise Line ships. But here’s the thing: basics are still included in overall cruise fares—and beyond that? You can just say no.

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