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Luxury cruising is riding the crest of a wave, writes Andrew Conway, and there’s never been a better time – or way – to explore the world

At any given time, on any given day, a luxury cruise ship is slipping its moorings and heading towards the open ocean, along a slow-moving river, or exploring the wildest and most remote destinations on the planet.

It could be Crystal Serenity sailing gracefully out of Monte Carlo on a chic Mediterranean sojourn; Viking Heimdal cruising languidly under the historic bridges of Budapest; Silver Explorer standing by off the coast of Vancouver as a pod of orca whales splashes in front of its bow, or MS Europa 2 on its inaugural voyage to Japan.

So many ships, ports, destinations, unforgettable experiences and choices. Luxury cruising is now the fastest-growing sector of the global travel market, a multi-billion-dollar industry that knows no bounds.

The steamer trunks may have disappeared, along with the hat boxes, white tails and smoking jackets, but a new golden age of luxury cruising – with a thoroughly modern twist – has dawned.

More Australians are cruising than ever before and more ships are rolling off international production lines, each bigger, smaller and better than the last one.

Humble cabins have been transformed into spacious and luxurious staterooms, suites and penthouses, all with private balconies to watch the waves pass by. Single-seating dining and dreaded midnight buffets have been brushed aside, replaced by an array of chic celebrity-chef restaurants delivering the world on a plate.

And forget keeping fit and healthy on the promenade deck. Today’s luxury liners boast extraordinary wellness retreats and spas operated by the finest on-land brands.

Silver service comes in the form of neatly pressed butlers, while curated and exclusive shore excursions open doors to a private world of luxury in palaces, castles, vintage wineries, art galleries and museums.

Luxury ocean and river cruises are expanding like never before, with an armada of liners and longships offering a seemingly endless choice of new destinations and itineraries.

Al fresco dining on Seabourn Encore

But perhaps the most exciting change is in luxury expedition cruising, with brand new, purpose-built and ecologically sound small ships taking fortunate and well-heeled passengers to the world’s final frontiers from the North Pole to the Antarctic, and all points in between.

The age of luxury cruise passengers is dropping like an anchor, down from the mid-70s of yesteryear to the late 40s of today. And more major cruise lines are basing their flagships in Australian waters than ever before.

Barely a day goes by during Sydney’s busy summer cruise season when a liner of varying size and style isn’t berthed at the Overseas Passenger Terminal or White Bay Cruise Terminal.

Cruise industry hype? Think again. The latest annual Source Market Report by Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA) Australasia reveals Australian cruise passenger numbers hit another record high last year with 1.34 million passengers taking a cruise.

The local cruise market grew by 4.4 per cent, equating to

almost six percent of the population in 2017, putting Australia on par with the US as the world’s fastest-growing cruise market.

Accounting for 5.4 per cent of the 27.6 million people worldwide who took a cruise in 2017, Australasia is now the world’s fourth largest cruise region.

And CLIA Australasia Managing Director Joel Katz says there is still so much more potential. “As cruising continues to grow in popularity, more cruise lines will base more ships down under and the number of homeports and itineraries will only grow,” he says.

“With the equivalent of almost one in every 18 Australians cruising last year, Australians are overwhelmingly choosing a cruise as their holiday of choice and they’re coming back time and time again.”

The majority of Australians are cruising in local waters, New Zealand and the South Pacific, while the average age of Australian passengers is now just 49 years old.

CLIA’s most astonishing revelation is this: 109 new cruise ships, the majority of them luxury, are scheduled to be delivered globally between now and 2027 at a total cost of more than US$58 billion.

River cruising in contemporary style with U by Uniworld

So, what’s the essence of this new wave in high-end travel? “Today’s luxury cruise passenger is seeking freedom and choice,” says Amanda McCelland, CEO of Cruiseco, the largest distributor of luxury cruise product in the southern hemisphere.

“They expect cutting-edge design, amazing personalised service, ‘wow’ experiences, and the freedom to do what they want, when they want, and how they want.

“My idea of luxury cruising is being with like-minded people who share similar interests, along with a curated experience and great value,” she adds. “Luxury cruising must cater to the individual’s needs, wants and desires, such as dining in the comfort of your suite or stateroom or in one of the ship’s five-star restaurants.”

Luxury cruise lines – especially those with small expeditionary ships – are becoming ever more creative with ideas to enhance their passengers’ personal experiences. “We work to overlay the expected with the unexpected,” says Monique Ponfoort, Ponant’s Vice President Asia Pacific.

“The ship’s captain inviting you to the bridge for a personal overview; an expedition team member taking time to chat to you about her time in Borneo working with orphan orangutans; a Zodiac driver moving closer to a saltwater crocodile so you can get that special photograph; or the surprise champagne bar popping up in the middle of nowhere,” she adds.

“Ponant overlays this level of detail when exploring some of the most remote places on Earth, meeting with Inuits in the Arctic, small tribes in New Guinea or in the Amazon Basin. These are rare moments that add extraordinary layers to the word ‘luxury’.”

“Luxury cruising today is about choice – and quality of choice – for people who want to travel in elegance and luxury all over the world,” says Karen Christensen, who helms the five-star, all-inclusive Crystal Cruises in Australia and New Zealand.

“The special moments Crystal provides are so strong and impactful that people don’t feel the need to go anywhere else. From the second our guests step on board a Crystal ship, the warm, attentive service, the contemporary and spacious design, acclaimed Michelin-inspired dining, and carefully curated shoreside experiences are all effortlessly delivered.”

"Our guests are very well travelled and searching for new destinations... and are actively seeking a deeper travel experience - up close, immersive and authentic." – Leanne Fonagy, Director of Marketing Asia-Pacific for Silversea Cruises

Christensen says the company has seamlessly integrated its signature ‘Crystal Experience’ across all four of its luxury brands – ocean, river, expedition, and exclusive private jet Crystal Sky.

“This attention to detail has remained true to Crystal’s original cornerstones of service, space, quality and choices, and to me, the essence of luxury cruising goes far beyond the ships themselves to the itineraries and shoreside experiences, immersing guests in new cultures and destinations around the globe,” says Christensen.

“We have a comprehensive collection of destination experiences focused on authenticity,” she adds, “many tailored to guests’ individual interests and passions, from food and wine to culture, art and music. Crystal recognises that today’s luxury traveller desires that personal touch, from the ship to the shore.”

While major cruise lines are spending billions of dollars on new and refurbished ships and services to stay relevant to the incessant needs and demands of contemporary travellers, they also have to keep pace with the ever-changing concept of ‘luxury’ in today’s crowded and highly segmented tourism market.

A very high level of accommodation, food, wine and service, along with quality linen, toiletries, room service, and well-organised shore tours are now a given at the top end of the luxury cruising market.

A handful of the most luxurious lines offer all-suite and all-inclusive cruises to stay one step ahead of the competition. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for example, includes free and unlimited shore excursions on all of its ships – Seven Seas Explorer, Mariner, Voyager and Navigator – with optional bespoke tours if guests want to pay to elevate their onshore experiences.

And the new Seven Seas Splendor, scheduled to launch in 2020, will raise the bar even higher. “Splendor will be a game changer and set a new standard in luxury cruising,” says Steve Odell, Managing Director Asia Pacific of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCHL), which owns Regent, the premium Oceania Cruises, and the leviathan Norwegian Cruise Line.

Odell says NCHL has spent US$125 million on refurbishments to Seven Seas Mariner, Voyager and Navigator in the past 18 months – good news for Australian cruise enthusiasts as Mariner will be here in December and Navigator will follow in her wake next February.

Even mass market mega-liners are cruising into the luxury segment with Norwegian Cruise Line incorporating an exclusive concept called The Haven into its seven mega-liners.

“It’s a suite-only concierge space with a private restaurant and bar, guests are fast-tracked everywhere, get priority dining reservations, and can use all the facilities of the ship or relax in The Haven,” says Odell, a 30-year veteran of the global cruise industry.

“It’s a very appealing concept to the extended and multi-generational family market where grandparents and parents can enjoy the luxury and privacy of The Haven while the kids go off and enjoy all the ship has to offer.”

The luxury cruising industry’s approach to younger, extended and multi-generational guests is catering to new and emerging demographics.

Yuppies and Dinks of previous generations are now Henrys – High Earners, Not Rich Yet – and Skip-Gens, a rapidly growing multitude of well-heeled grandparents who are taking their grandchildren travelling instead of their own children.

Henrys are individuals in successful jobs, have significant discretionary income and a strong chance of being wealthy in the future, and are very familiar with the leading luxury brands.

While Henrys might think cruising is for an older generation, they are dipping their manicured toes into luxury river cruising with companies like Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.

This award-winning line has 18 sleek river cruisers in Europe and worldwide – all delivering on the credo: “No request too large, no detail too small” – and offers U by Uniworld, a new take on experiential luxury cruising specifically tailored to a younger but high-income market.

Expedition cruising is undergoing one of the biggest and most exciting transformations. Once the remote domain of sturdy and non-stabilised Russian ice-breakers – with basic cabins, simple food and burly crew – today’s version can be five-star luxury all the way.

Leading the charge to explore the planet’s final frontiers – from the North Pole to Antarctica – is French luxury expedition cruise line Ponant which currently has its original masted ship Le Ponant, four sister ships built between 2010 and 2015, and a flotilla of luxury Explorer vessels recently launched or on order in the next three years.

SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream II on a European sojourn

The brand new Le Laperouse is currently cruising Iceland and will sail to Australia in 2019. A sibling will also launch this year with two more in 2019, another two in 2020, and a luxury icebreaker setting sail in 2021.

Sarina Bratton AM, Ponant’s Chairman Asia Pacific and a pioneer of the luxury cruising industry here, says the new Explorer ships will have only 90 staterooms and suites with private balconies. “They have a real feel of being on a private super-yacht,” she says.

“And our new eco-friendly luxury icebreaker will be state-of-the-art hybrid electric, powered by LNG, able to cut through two metres of ice, and take guests in luxury to the North Pole. And it’s just the beginning, a glimpse of what the next generation of expedition cruising will look like.”

“Luxury means different things to different people,” says Leanne Fonagy, Director of Marketing Asia-Pacific for Silversea Cruises, “and the nature of luxury is changing, replacing ostentation and opulence with authentic, sophisticated and memorable experiences.

“For Silversea, the true essence of the experience we offer is one of intimate and whispered luxury. Our guests are very well travelled and searching for new destinations and enriching life experiences. They appreciate luxury, comfort and value, but they are actively seeking a deeper travel experience – up close, immersive and authentic.”

Managing director of award-winning cruise specialist Wiltrans International Diane Patrick, who has represented some of the world’s best-known luxury cruise brands for three decades, insists the market has never been more exciting.

“This is a wonderful time to be in cruising and to be cruising,” she says. “The evolution of the ships, onboard products and services has been so dynamic through the years, and I only see it getting better.”

Ponant Le Laperouse