Ocean Talk

Douglas Ward: Comments about cruising, the ships, and other component parts of the cruise experience.

 

AMSTERDAM TAXES CRUISE PASSENGERS

In a rather stupid move, the City of Amsterdam will implement an €8 per passenger tax for cruise visitors (€16 per person if it’s an overnight call). The tax will not be administered to ‘normal’ tourists and visitors arriving by airplane, train, bus or car. This is utter discrimination and could lead to less use of the port and terminal facilities (and jobs).

The tax will certainly dissuade cruise lines from including Amsterdam in their itineraries. Indeed, reaction to the tax has ben swift, with MSC Cruises taking the port out of its itineraries starting in 2019. Well done, MSC Cruises. Are the city fathers so stoned that they cannot see that this tax is a deterrent to cruise passengers? It is, in two words, utterly stupid!

 

DELAYED EXPEDITION SHIPS

Two companies currently building expedition ships have annoounced delays. They are: Mystic Cruises’ World Explorer, being built in Portugal, and Scenic’s eagerly awaited Scenic Eclipse (it’s the ship’s second delay, due to problems with the shipyard in Pula, Croatia). Compaies rely on shipyards to deliver their specialist ships on time, and always sell-out the scheduled maiden voyage. However, this is not exactly a good strategy, simply because, with prototypes, cruise lines should always allow for lateness or problems that can occur during the final fitting-out and equiment supplies. Then it often falls to the travel agents to tell their clients, and make alternative arrangements.

 

LNG SHIPS COMING

The first long-awaited dual-fuel hybrid, capable of using LNG to propel the 183,000-ton ship (AIDAnova), will arrive later this year (although it has been delayed a little). Will LNG work for the cruise industry? Yes, but only if the supply infrastructure is in place. At present, it isn’t. While we know that LNG works, it really will depend on where the cruise lines can purchase the fuel. There are now over 20 LNG-powered cruise ships on order. So, watch this space.

 

IMAGINATIVE ADVERTISING

I recently noticed an advertisement by a cruise travel agency in the UK. The agency was advertising a Far East in Bloom and Mount Fuji Discovery, for 11 nights. All well and good. The picture above the descriptive information showed Mt Fuji, some nice cherry blossom, and Ise Grand Shrine in Yokkaichi (Mei Prefecture), Japan. The picture was rather nice, showing Mt Fuji in the distance. However, it is not possible to see Mt Fuji from the temple, as displayed. This is an example of artistic licence taken beyond the limit!

It’s a little like an advertisement I saw for an Alaska cruise, by one of the most well-known cruise brands in the USA. The accompanying photo showed a nice white polar bear. However, there are no white polar bears in Alaska, only brown grizzly bears!

 

NEW SHIPS THIS YEAR

In 2018 some 18 ships are scheduled for delivery. They are (in alphabetical order, by name): American Constellation (American Ctuise Lines), Carnival Horizon (Carnival Cruise Line), Celebrity Edge (Celebrity Ctruises), Flying Clipper (Star Clippers), Le Champlain and Le Laperouse (Ponant), MSC Seasviw (MSC Cruises), National Geographic Venture (Lindblad Expeditions), Nieuw Statendam (Holland America Line), Norwegian Bliss (Norwegian Cruise Line), Mein Schiff 1 (TUI Cruises), Roald Amundsen (Hurtigruten), Scenic Eclipse (Scenic), Seabourn Ovation (Seabourn), Symphony of the Seas (Royal Caribbean International), Ventus Australis (Australis), Viking Spirit (Viking Ocean Cuises), and World Explorer (Quark Expeditions).

 

CROWD CRUISING

Yes, my new term for cruising aboard the large resort ships. They are simply fantastic flowting theme parts – some with more class (and more classes) than others, but 2018 sees the introduction of some really large ships (over 150,000 gross tonnage). Symphony of the Seas (Royal Craibbean International; 228, 081 gt; 5,518 passengers), is now officially the largest cruise ship in the world. Debuting soon will be AIDAnova (AIDA Cruises; 183,900 gt; 5,000 passengers); Norwegian Bliss (Norwegian Cruise Line; 167,800 gt; 3,900 passengers). Also, introduced in December last year was MSC Seaside (MSC Cruises; 153,519 gt; 4,134 passengers). Passenger numbers are given as lower bed capacity.

 

HURRICAN IRMA RELIEF EFFORTS

Cruise lines operating in the Caribbean, their crews, shoreside employees and passengers quickly pitched in to Hurricane Irma relief.

Norwegian Cruise Line delivered 35 pallets of supplies to hurricane-ravaged St. Thomas aboard Norwegian Sky and brought back nearly 1,000 stranded visitors and displaced residents. ‘In my 30 years of working for Norwegian Cruise Line, it was my proudest moment,’ president Andy Stuart said on the ship’s return to PortMiami Friday. ‘Hearing the stories directly from those who survived the storm and seeing the emotion and relief on their faces as they stepped off the gangway was a moment I will never forget,’ he added. He also described how crew members had spent the en route time to St. Thomas preparing supplies, from the carpentry team gathering plywood, tarps, hammers and nails to the housekeeping department preparing sheets and towels. Norwegian Sky arrived with 15 pallets of personal donations, including toiletries and clothing.

Royal Caribbean International mobilized three ships to provide immediate help with provisions and evacuation efforts. Both Adventure of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas made stops at St. Maarten and St. Thomas to provide supplies and transport evacuees. Also, Empress of the Seas delivered provisions to Key West. According to a Seatrade news brief, the cruise line has evacuated 1,700 people, delivered more than 20 pallets of medical supplies, 5,539 gallons of water, 7,831 gallons of milk, 4,200 rolls of toilet paper, 67,500 garbage bags and 13,050 pounds of animal supplies.

Also,  parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. has committed to match donations up to $1million by passengers and crew from Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises to aid Hurricane Irma relief efforts. Those efforts are via World Vision and include tarps, tents, blankets, medical supplies, hygiene kits, food, buckets, water filters and more.

Carnival Corp. & plc, the Miami Heat Charitable Fund and the Micky and Madeleine Arison Family Foundation are pledging up to $10m in funding and in-kind support. As part of this, 11 Carnival Cruise Line ships carried supplies to the Bahamas and Caribbean island nations that were impacted. Carnival Fascination was chartered by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for relief work from October through February 2018.

The Carnival brand also set up a program enabling passengers to donate directly to Hurricane Irma recovery efforts via Carnival Hurricane Relief. Princess Cruises also created a matching fund through its Community Foundation for employee donations to support hurricane relief via the American Red Cross. The Community Foundation additionally set up an initiative on board Princess ships to gather donations from passengers and crew. These will be matched up to $100,000.

Also, P&O Cruises UK set up a campaign to support hurricane relief through donations directly to UNICEF.

Finally, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line opened its ship for several nights while in the Port of Palm Beach to people needing housing and served free, hot meals to first responders.

Who said that cruise lines were money-grabbing corporation? Well Done from CruiseBerlitz.com!

 

THE GROWING MARKET FOR CHINA CRUISE TOURISM

Some readers of my Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guidebook have been asking me lately about the growth in popularity of cruises in China and Japan. With the announcement by the Chinese government that a fifth area was highlighted for domestic cruise tourism, it appears that the only way is up for the tremendous growth in the region. In July I was sailing abaord ships in the area with Chinese passengers. Perhaps the company that knows the area best is Genting Hong Kong, whose Dream Cruises and Star Cruises brands (Genting Hong Kong also owns Crystal Cruises) are particularly good at catering to the local area markets. Several of the major western cruise lines are also well established in the region. AIDA Cruises, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean International all have ships (many of them new) in the region. Most of the ships based in ports like Shanghai and Tianjin, however, operate short cruises, which the Chinese enjoy.

One of the most successful itineraries is one that sails from Shanghai  and calls at several ports in Japan, then back to Hong Kong in a 7-day route, aboard SuperStar Virgo. This certainly appeals to the Chinese, who are now able to travel from mainland China, by road, directly into Hong Kong – something that was difficult to do until recently. Passengers from Japan can also embark in Osaka, making it conveniet to take a 7-day voyage that includes ports in China. Speaking about Japan, Princess Cruises operates Diamond Princess directly from  Yokohama (close to Tokyo) on a very nice itinerary around Japan.

The only downside of cruising in the region, however, is the weather in the winter, when the Sea of japan can be extremely choppy, and very unfriendly to ships in the region. This is why the companies then move their ships south to Australasian waters (this is like some of the Caribbean ships moving to the Mediterranean region for the summer).

 

ALL INCLUSIVE  vs NOT ALL INCLUSIVE

So many cruise passengers are confused by the term “All Inclusive”. What this really means is that drinks (whether alcoholic or not) are included in the cruise fare. However, it’s the cruise line that chooses the drink brands – not you. This is clearly not acceptable for discriminating passengers who don’t want to be told what brands they can and can’t have. Even worse, is that so-called premiium brands cost extra – so what’s the point of “All Inclusive” when all is clearly not inclusive?

What some passengers think is that All Inclusive makes it easier, because they don’t have to sign for drinks, which makes it appear convenient. However, with the advent of the “medallion” or electronic wrist band now being introduced by many major players, the potential of not knowing how much you are being charged for any drinks you sign for. So, you could swipe your wrist band or touch a purchase point with your “medallion” and not know just how much you are being charged for that premium brand drink you thought was included!

I am often asked whether “All Inclusive” includes spa treatments. The answer is a resounding NO! There are also other items that are simply not included, such as laundry and dry cleaning, or optional excursions (unless stated as included). So, there you have it.

 

The tips (gratuities) are going up!

In March, Norwegian Cruise Line upped its tipping required amounts to $13.99 per person per day for categories up to a mini-suite, and $16.99 pppd for suite occupants. Tips for Norwegian Sky are higher, because of its drinks-included 3- and 4-day Bahamas cruises, and are now $18.99 pppd for all categories up to suites, and $21.99 pppd for suite occupants. Where will it all end?

Expedition News: Hapag-Lloyd’s 164-passenger expedition ship Bremen made history when, on 11 February 2017, it reached the southernmost position a ship has ever reached (The ship reached LAT: 78o 44,056’S at LON: 163o 41,644’ W). Congratulations to all concerned in this superb achievement. This happened during a 31-day semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica, from Ushuaia to Bluff. The ship broke the record set by The World, one month previously. Bremen visited the giant iceber B30, which is more than 1,500 sq.km in size (approximately 26  x 18 nautical miles – a huge beast that can clearly be seen from satellite charts.

Shore Excursions (the new jargon)

Cruise companies are getting more involved these days regarding shore excursions, and the marketing people are coming up with all kinds of phrases like “Total Personal Immersion”. Exploration is another buzzword used in conjunction with shore excursions and onboard destination presentations. It’s all a bit a of a rehash of what used  to be done many many years ago aboard ships that operated long voyages, such as Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) in the 1970s. showing destinations and “connecting with the locals” in socially responsible ways. There’s just more hype today, and, thankfully, in-cabin televisions that can dedicate one or more channels to shore excursions, including overnight stays and emphasis on overland tours (gosh, we did those in the 1970s, too).

Speaking of long voyages, I have been getting questions from passengers about around-the-world cruises regarding luggage and storage space. In former days, ships like Queen Elizabeth 2 had massive baggage rooms where you could store your luggage. It would be taken from you by the room steward, until it was needed again at the end of the voyage. However, none of today’s ships have such a room, which means that you either have to store your luggage under the bed (if there is space), or left open to view in your cabin. It’s important, therefore, to make sure that you buy a cabin with enough space for a voyage lasting 90 days or more, and, in this regard, the larger the ship, the more cabin space you should be able to find.

February 2017

I seem to have been zipping around the world a little this month, having in sailed in the Caribbean region (from Miami), followed by a a  trip to, and sailing from, Sydney, Australia. Both were different sized ships, with totally different markets.

I also wanted to see Sydney’s White Bay Cruise Terminal. Well, I did – it’s where I joined one of the ships for a week in Australasian/Tasmanian waters. The glass domed terminal building itself is quite good, but the access road is absolutely appalling – it goes through a disused industrial area – and it’s not a pretty sight! What is Sydney trying to do to the cruise industry? It has to be one of the world’s worst “welcomes” (and I use that word in jest) I have experienced. I pity passengers that have to embark, or disembark from, any ship that is forced to go there.

January 2017

It was a rather busy month making preparations for all the changes to be included in the 2018 edition of the Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guidebook (and e-book), and, of course, making schedules for ships, flights, and hotels in order to maintain my busy travel schedule. Meanwhile, I hope that you, my readers, are making your own decisions and preparations for your next cruise. Meanwhile, may I wish you all a Happy and Healthy 2017.

 

November 2016

I went to Tokyo to give a speech/presentation on the state of the global cruise industry, at a special Japanese government-sponsored Cruise Conference organised by the Japan Travel Research Institute. Other speakers included Mr Makoto Washizu (President, Japan Travel Research Institute); Mr David Goh (General Secretary of CLIA Asia); Mr Tsuguhiko Sawanobori (General Manager of Jalan Research Centre); Mr Masato Takamatsu (Director General for the Tourism Risk Management Research Office of Japan Travel Bureau – JTB).

New ship order season is really underway, with several major cruise companies placing orders for new large resort ships. LNG appears to be the latest fad, with 13 ships (out of more than 70 new ships) to be fitted with the technology, which takes up a lot of space for storing the fuel. At present, however, LNG bukering is only possible in very few ports around the world. Developing bunkering facilities that can be used by cruise ships in a practical manner will be crucial to the ships being able to use it.

 

August 2016

The 2017 edition of the Berlitz Cruising and Cruise ships is now in the bookshops (the official publication date was October 1st). The book has a fresh new look. It is 736 pages long (32 pages longer than the 2016 edition – and there’s no price increase!). For the first time, it includes a full colour photograph of each ship. The book has lots of new information,  including 32 ways to upgrade your cruise experience (one for each year of the book’s publication). The order of chapters is more user-friendly, and the Ships Rated by Score chart is back – at the back of the book – so you can see at a glance the scores – from the highest to the lowest.

The book also comes with a free app and eBook version – so it’s even better value than ever before. you can purchase it now from www.amazon.com., or your favourite bookstore or online retailer.

 

July 2016

50 Remarkable Years. Pure Magic!

On 21 July 2016, I celebrated 50 years in the cruise industry, aboard the Russian nuclear-powered 132-passenger icebreaker 50 Years of Victory. I was on an expedition voyage to the North Pole – something I had always wanted to do, but had not been able to achieve previously. The ship – an incredible piece of machinery – is able to operate with paying passengers (expedition participants) only during the short summer months (June, July, and August) because, for the rest of the year, it is at work keeping the seaways clear of ice, as well as rescuing lesser qualified icebreakers. The voyages are organised by Quark Expeditions and Poseidon Expeditions, who charter the ship.

It certainly was a historic voyage for me, and a wonderful way to celebrate my 5oth year of cruising. It was also the ultimate digital detox, because there was no internet connection, or e-mail connectivity (just like in 1965)! There was also 24 hours of daylight, and a real sense of camerarderie among the participants. We also saw polar bears on three separate occasions, and the ship stopped so that we could see close by, without disturbing them.

My first voyage, which I joined on 21 July 1965, was a transatlantic crossing aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth (the original) from Southampton to New York. I was hooked, and have never looked back. My first book (Berlitz Handbook to Cruising) was published some 20 years later, in 1985. And the rest is history!

 

June 2016

It was really enjoyable to take a look at the “remastered” Queen Mary 2 (QM2), and I must say that the extensive work carried out – in the technical department, the accommodation and the public spaces – has resulted in a much refreshed ship. A true ocean liner, QM2 now feels more like the ship it should be. There are several changes, but one thing that has remained is the traditional feel of an ocean liner.

Now with a newly installed Verandah Grill, Queen Mary 2 has the same extra-tariff dining venue than smaller half-sisters Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria (both of which are cruise ships pretending to be ocean liners), with menu items chosen to show the art of haute cuisine.

One thing that is immediately apparent as soon as you walk aboard is the carpeting (the carpet now has underlay on all the stairs and foyers, and throughout the public rooms), something that has been noticeably missing ever since the ship debuted in 2004.

Kings Court – the large casual self-serve eatery – has been redesigned and completely refreshed and is now a far more comfortable large bistro-style venue. The expansive food court will, I am certain, become a favourite haunt for many passengers.

Some 35 new cabins were added in a new upper deck section (and discreetly so without altering the profile of the ship), including 15 quite spacious solo-occupancy cabins similar in design to those retro-fitted aboard Queen Elizabeth aand Queen Victoria.

 

15 March 2016 (Expedition Ship Orders)

Today comes another announcement about a newbuild, this time from Crystal Cruises. The company has announced it is building a new “luxury” expedition ship, of 25,000 tons (that’s a bit large to get into some of the really tight passages, nooks and crannies of the Antarctic Peninsular, or the romote areas of Papua New Guinea). The ship will carry submersible craft, ATVs, two helicopters (and two landing pads), roving underwater submarines, and lots of other equipment.

Just a few weeks ago, Scenic (known for their excellent river cruises) announced that it, too was building a new “luxury” expedition ship, to include two helicopters and roving underwater submarines.

Both ships have six dining options, and both have two helicopters, underwater submarines, and so on. Both ships are being built in shipyards that have never built an expedition ship before – an interesting new direction.

Finally, if you are thinking of a cruise aboard one of these new ships, you’d better check that your travel insurance includes helicopter flights and underwater taxis (bookings will open for both ship later this year)!

 

Just a thought

I saw a cruise line advertisement recently. It said “Every Corner of the World for every Bucket List”. I did find it amusing, because I was under the impression that our world – the earth – was round (well, almost round – although it is slightly flattened at the poles). Still, perhaps the marketing bods just hadn’t learned that yet – or perhaps they come from Cornerbrook (Newfoundland). Or, perhaps it’s a cube, after all. Rubik would know!

Wait a moment, though. There are seven continents on Earth (I know that, because I’ve cruised them all), but only six faces on Rubik’s Cube. Now that’s magic (that’s the original name for Rubik’s Cube – the Magic Cube)!

 

Missed ships

I am often asked, during interviews (I seem to have spent a lot of time this year doing those), whether I have ever missed a ship. Well, I have. I also receive many letters from passengers regarding the utter frustration in trying to get to and from their chosen cruise ships as efficiently and smoothly as possible because the cruise line sent them on circuitous flights with idiotic connections.

 

When all goes well, travel can be wonderful. Travel, however, doesn’t always work as you want it to, and so I thought I would share some of my own experiences. I have only missed joining a ship three times in the 32 years of my role as author of the Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guidebook.

 

Missed Ships: The first time

The first time was in the summer of 1988. It was due to a fire on an Amtrak train between New York and Baltimore, where I was due to embark aboard a Celebrity Cruises ship (ss Meridian) in the early days of the company, for a one-week cruise to Bermuda.

 

Missed Ships: The second time

On 10 December I was due to fly on British Airways from London to Johannesburg (a night flight leaving London at 20:10), with a connecting flight (at 11:10 the following morning) to Port Elizabeth (South Africa), where I was due to board the small expedition vessel Bremen, which was due to depart at 17:00 (many passengers had, apparently done an overnight trip to stay and experience a wildlife lodge for a spot of big game animal watching).

 

Unfortunately, my flight to Johannesburg was delayed by 3 hours. When I arrived in Johannesburg (at 12:30pm), my connecting flight had long gone. British Airways kindly rebooked me on another flight, leaving at 13:05. However, I had to first collect my one checked in bag, then go through immigration and customs, and re-check my bag onto the new flight, then go to the Domestic Terminal (and through security again). Well, that didn’t work, and so I missed my flight. After another scramble, British Airways then tried to rebook me on the next flight (15:45), which would arrive at 17:25, although the flight was full (and the ship was due to leave at 17:00). Somehow, British Airways managed to find me a seat on the flight, and I duly checked in, and sent my luggage on its way.

 

After managing to contact the ship, the pilot and captain very kindly agreed to delay departure until 18:00, at which time the ship had to leave in order to get to the next port (Mossel Bay) on time. So, guess what? The rebooked flight was delayed by 45 minutes, and so I missed the ship anyway! Now I was in Port Elizabeth, with no ship – just a suitcase.

 

So, I decided to head south to Mossel Bay by car, and booked a hotel along the way. The ship, meanwhile, was encountering some bad weather, including some rather choppy sea conditions. When it arrived in Mossel Bay the next day, the port pilot had great difficulty getting aboard. When he did so, he advised the captain that it would not be wise to attempt to get into the tiny harbour to berth the ship alongside (the pier is just big enough for the 8,672-gt, 111.5-meter-long Bremen. Needless to say the port call was abandoned, and the pilot faced extremely dangerous conditions when he tried to decamp to the pilot boat – it took over 45 minutes to do so. Afterwards, the ship headed for Cape Town.

 

I was informed of the aborted port call, and decided that, in the circumstances, the only thing to do would be to carry on by extending the car rental, in order to get to Cape Town, which meant a very long journey ahead. I also had to find another hotel somewhere, Cape Town being the destination of choice.

 

From Port Elizabeth to Cape Town is a road distance of over 500 miles (12,950 km) – along the Garden Route. This encompassed some really beautiful scenery and greenery (it’s amazing how much trees, flora and fauna change during the journey). I did see a few wilderbeests along the way, and scores of ostriches came to see me as my car headed south, on Sunday.

 

Eventually, I arrived in a very windy Cape Town – before the ship – and even made it in time to check in to my hotel and go for dinner (at the “Five Flies”). But I did get to board the ship the following day, before flying back to the UK. The moral of the story is, if you are flying long distance to get to your chosen cruise ship, try to go one day ahead (I didn’t have the luxury of time to do that). It saves a lot of frustration, money, and time!

 

Missed Ships: The third time

Another time was more recent. In November 2015 I was due to fly from London to Las Palmas, but via Madrid because no direct flights were available. I was in plenty of time at Heathrow, and duly checked in one piece of luggage. However, the first flight was delayed by 55 minutes. But there was no possibility of getting to my connecting flight, because it would leave before my delayed flight could make it in time for me to reach the connection in Madrid (the connecting time was one hour, and I would need to go through immigration and a further security checkpoint). The next flight from Madrid to Las Palmas was at 21:00. It was a two hour flight. But the ship sailed at 21:00. So, again, there was no possibility of joining it.

 

The next day was a day at sea, and the day after that the ship was in Agadir (Morocco). But there were no flights to Agadir for several days. So, I had no choice but to cancel the London-Madrid-Las Palmas flights with Iberia, and the ship. But then, getting my one piece of luggage back took another four hours! In all, I spent 7 hour at Heathrow. I then had to call for another car (private hire taxi) to come and take me home – a two hour journey from home to Heathrow Airport. It was, to say the least, a complete waste of a day, and I had nothing to show for it except two taxi fares (four hours in total), and a missed ship.

 

I sincerely hope your travel days are better, and that you allow for any delay when travelling with connecting flights, and consider some alternatives – particularly when flying internationally.