Experts talk about cruising: Trends, issues and tips

By BETH J. HARPAZIndustriesAssociated Press

What are the latest cruise trends? Should consumers worry about Caribbean cruises after last year's hurricanes? Do cruises still battle the perception that cruising is for the "overfed, the newlywed and the nearly dead"?

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Three experts discussed these issues and more in a Jan. 4 forum in Miami aboard the Seabourn Sojourn. The panel was moderated by The Associated Press with a live audience of Seabourn passengers. Panelists were CruiseCritic.com editor at large Carolyn Spencer Brown, Miami Herald business editor Jane Wooldridge and Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, speaking in his capacity as chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

The forum was taped for the Jan. 24 and Jan. 31 episodes of AP's weekly travel podcast, "Get Outta Here." The podcast is sponsored by Carnival Corp., which also owns Seabourn.

WHAT'S NEW IN CRUISING

Brown says there's a "huge shift" underway to "small ship cruising," whether luxury, river or expedition trips. "People are looking at cruising as a way to be a traveler rather than be tourists" by choosing itineraries and shore excursions "that help you meet local families or learn local culture." Brown said another trend is how the cruise industry has embraced healthy eating and fitness "so you can continue your regimen from home or start a new one."

Wooldridge says she's excited about the growth in expedition ships going to "great places" (like Antarctica), though often those trips are expensive.

Donald noted that cruising is booming, with 27.2 million passengers projected for 2018. While small ships are popular, he added, "There's also a huge appetite for the large ships." A total of 27 new ships, big and small, debut this year, from brands represented by CLIA.

CARIBBEAN

Donald said "five ports that are heavily frequented by cruise ships" were impacted by hurricanes, but more than 80 ports were not. At this point, he added, "Even the places impacted are receiving ships. ... People are having a great time in the Caribbean."

Wooldridge said that as a resident of Florida, she understands the stress of living through hurricanes and asked that passengers heading to a port that's been impacted "just have a little extra forbearance and empathy if things aren't perfect."

Brown said "the perception of the damage is so much worse than the actual damage. ... You can still go to so many islands and have a great vacation." She said some people are reluctant to go to the Caribbean, thinking it's "insensitive" to go back so soon in case locals were still coping with cleanup, but "what we heard on the ground especially in places like St. Martin's, St. Bart's, is, 'We can't wait for you to come back.'"

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

Do cruises still fight the stereotype that they are for the "newlywed, overfed and nearly dead"?

Wooldridge said the saying was once true, but no longer is. "It is easy to be overfed on a cruise, but it is not as difficult to be judicious as it once might have been because there's been much more emphasis on healthy food, healthy eating."

Donald noted that there are "so many different brands," each catering to a different "psychographic" segment (referring to the mind-set of passengers rather than their demographics). He said anyone wondering whether there's a cruise that's right for them should "just talk to someone who has gone on one," adding that "word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool" for cruises. He said research shows that millennials enjoy cruises because they're experiential vacations, and they're affordable.

OVERTOURISM

Some destinations that are overrun by tourists cite cruise ships as part of the problem. Are they, and is there a solution?

Wooldridge said cruise lines "could be more proactive about working together to see that there are not too many ships in port. One of the places that really works well is Antarctica. Only vessels with 200 passengers or fewer are allowed into Antarctic waters ... and the ships all talk to each other ... to make sure they're not going to be in the same place ... because the ecology there cannot take it."

Brown said cruises are trying to help by taking passengers "out of the big cities" and into smaller destinations, along with staggering ship schedules so they're not all in town on the same day. But she added that ports "have every right to just say no" to cruise arrivals, and "they're not." As a result, "we're seeing locals rise up, in Barcelona in particular. Locals have said, 'We've had it.'"

Donald said "overtourism is a legitimate issue," and the cruise industry has "to be part of the solution," but he noted that all the ship "cabins in the world don't add up to 2 percent of hotel rooms." He said cruises get blamed for overtourism in places like Venice because the locals see a big ship in the harbor and "it becomes a symbol" even if it's "not where most" of the crowds originate. Still, he said, the industry can be part of the solution by staggering ship arrivals, sending passengers to a variety of locations on shore and helping guests understand "correct behaviors" when in port.

DECLINE OF FORMAL WEAR

A member of the audience asked why ship dress codes seem to be "dumbing down. ... Was it a conscious trend in order to attract people or was it just a reflection of where the world is going?"

Donald said it's a "conscious" move driven by guest preferences, though he noted that Cunard ships like the Queen Mary 2 will "stay formal."

Brown said passengers still love the chance to dress up, citing "formal nights" held on the Regal Princess ship that had everyone onboard "excited" about looking their best for a special occasion.

SOLO FARES

An audience member noted that solo travelers often feel they're overcharged because most cruise cabins are priced for double occupancy. Why is that?

Donald said it's the reality of shipbuilding: "You think about the square footage and the revenue to recover the investment, so single rooms often become a tough economic factor to make work." Design-wise, single rooms are sometimes tucked in when public areas of the ship don't leave enough space to build a full cabin.

Wooldridge advised looking for fall cruises, a slow season when many brands waive the single supplement fees.

Brown said solo fares are a "huge issue" for CruiseCritic readers and advised passengers to "make a fuss" to get policies changed.

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Listen to the discussion about cruising on the AP Travel podcast "Get Outta Here!" First half: https://apnews.com/afs:Content:1762250007 and second half: https://apnews.com/afs:Content:1777860057 .