canadian press


Today’s cruise ships are offering new ports of call, innovative facilities and educational opportunities for passengers.


The show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition televises some amazing renovations, but none compare to one recently completed by Celebrity Cruises.

Their project involved the 71,000-tonne cruise ship Century, which company president Dan Hanrahan says had $55 million US worth of “plastic surgery.”

The massive refurbishment of the 12-year-old ship took just five weeks and included adding 14 new suites, 10 staterooms, a specialty restaurant, updated bathrooms, and plasma TVs and wireless Internet access in every room.

“Every space onboard that isn’t entirely new was renewed,” Hanrahan said of the ship sailing in the Caribbean this winter.

By far the biggest undertaking, he said, was the addition of 314 balconies, a first for an existing cruise ship. However, with passengers clamouring for such rooms, it’s a trend that couldn’t be ignored.

According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 21 cruise lines serving the North American market, this year new refurbished ships will continue to make waves with innovative facilities, new ports of call and more educational opportunities for passengers.

By the association’s estimate, only 17 per cent of North Americans have ever been on a cruise, leaving lots of room for growth, and lots of novel ways to entice people to come aboard.

The association’s member lines are so bullish on the future of cruising that they have 12 new ships launching this year.

Some lines, like Celebrity, are spending small fortunes to renovate ships. The cost may seem exorbitant, but not when you consider one of these floating hotels has a price tag in excess of US$350 million, and another $50 million is needed to decorate and furnish it.

Crystal Cruises just spent $23 million to upgrade one of its ships, and in 2005 Royal Caribbean cut one in half so a new prefabricated section — with 151 ready-to-occupy staterooms — could be inserted in the middle. The cost? A whopping $60 million. These figures are proof that the cruise industry is big business, and getting bigger. CLIA is forecasting a year of strong growth, with 12.6 million cruise passengers predicted to set sail in 2007, an increase of about a half million guests over 2006. And CLIA member lines have invested more than $15 billion in 30 new vessels that will enter service between 2007 and the end of 2010.

Mimi Weisband, vice-president of public relations at Crystal Cruises, says the cruise industry is always evolving.

“Twenty years ago gyms and spas were in the bottom deck of ships,” Weisband said in an interview from the company’s Los Angeles headquarters. “Today, because of the interest in health and fitness, ships’ spas and fitness areas occupy prime real estate. They have ocean views, state-of-the-art equipment and there wouldn’t be a ship built today that wouldn’t focus great attention on health and fitness.”

Since Crystal caters to the ultra-luxury consumer, their clientele is looking for “high-end” experiences, Weisband said.

Shore excursions are no longer limited to a city bus tour. Crystal cruise passengers can climb Kilimanjaro or fly a Russian MiG fighter jet. “Some of these are pricey (the MiG excursion is $22,000) but people will pay it because it’s worth it to them.”

Educational opportunities are also in demand on cruise ships. “They come on to learn how to use their high-tech cameras, to learn languages or take a Yamaha keyboard class,” Weisband said. “The sophistication of the classes has increased. Years ago, classes used to be arts and crafts.”

All the cruise lines have taken note that although baby boomers are aging, they want adventure, exploration and variety.

Crystal Cruises has responded by increasing the approximately 700 onshore excursions it offered a few years ago to close to 1,300.

Celebrity has also expanded its excursion offerings, and is particularly excited about one to the Great Barrier Reef on its new Australia and New Zealand cruise that sets sail in December. The company is also tempting passengers with almost 40 new ports of call in 2007, including some in the Black Sea and Africa; a 16-night voyage from Honolulu to Auckland with stops in Tahiti and French Polynesia; and a continuation of their four- and five-day trips to the Caribbean, which were introduced in November 2006.

The cruise lines have also noticed that, despite being on vacation, passengers still want to “stay connected.” Carnival, the largest cruise line in the world, is now offering wireless Internet access on all 21 ships and will have fleetwide cellphone service shortly.

Celebrity and Crystal also offer both amenities, but will employ “quiet zone” technology so select areas of ships are cellphone-free, such as dining rooms and theatres.

This new technology has fuelled another trend — that of non-retired passengers taking longer cruises.

“Before if you were out at sea, you were out at sea,” Weisband said.

“Today you can remain contacted through e-mail and Internet, so we have a number of people who are not retired, which has brought the age (of passengers) down a lot.

“Now on two-week cruises you see people in their 30s and 40s.”