Picture this: you arrive at a cruise terminal and check into your ship by swiping the microchip embedded in your finger across a scanner.
You deposit your luggage – which will be delivered later by robot – and relax in your cabin, where you feel right at home thanks to an interactive photo wall already showing snapshots of your friends and dog. No need of a butler. Thanks to your cruise-ship app, your favourite pillows and toiletries have already appeared, and your restaurant table is booked.
You set out to explore your ship, which is full of young passengers and helpful crew holograms, and replete with gadgets once seen only in James Bond movies. Thanks to your electronic bracelet, this is a smart ship that follows your every move. Soon it knows how you like your breakfast toast and evening steak, can recommend tailored shore excursions, and anticipates when you’re about to arrive at the Sailor’s Lounge for your pre-dinner martini just the way you like it.
It isn’t a case of whether the above scenarios are likely to happen on cruise ships: it’s just a matter of when. It might be 10 years, or 20, while in 50 years no one can even imagine what the travel world will be like. If you can remember 1967, you’ll know why.
So where is cruising headed over the next decade? In truth, it’s difficult to make genuine predictions, since most guesses rely on already existing, emerging trends. Maybe virtual reality will allow you to undertake a ship inspection before you choose which cruise to book.
What we do know is that there will be a whole lot more choice. Next year, 17 new ships will launch; 22 the year after. An astonishing 97 are currently on order up to 2026 which, says Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), adds capacity for 230,788 more passengers.
That doesn’t mean the cost of cruising will fall, however. Capacity will likely be far outstripped by demand, so I suggest you make sail while the sun shines. Passenger numbers rose 62 per cent over the last decade, and this year CLIA says 26 million passengers took a cruise. That growth is accelerating. The reality is that hardly anyone has cruised yet – not even 5 per cent of Americans or Australians – while Asians have only just discovered holidays afloat.
More millennials and Gen X travellers will also take up cruising. Nearly half of cruise passengers are already under 50, and over a third of the exploding Asian cruise market is under 40. As the average age of cruisers falls, large ships will surely continue the trend towards more active and adventurous options both on board and on-shore excursions.
Expedition cruising is likely to continue its current boom. Sightseeing may well be combined with fitness activities, whether jogging, kayaking, cycling or even extreme sports in remote locales: skiing in Antarctica provides great social-media kudos.
Millennials in particular are tech-savvy and will be making use of cruise ships’ already existing technological advances: comprehensive booking apps, luggage-tracking apps, radio-frequency identity bracelets, and interactive online games and photo sharing.
They won’t be the only ones celebrating a farewell to frustrating shipboard communications. In another 10 years, we’ll all be rid of the cruise bugbear of dreadful internet and mobile-phone connections. Passengers will get the included, high-speed connectivity now common in hotels. Cruise companies are beginning to recognise another advantage in this, apart from customer satisfaction: the lucrative incentives and conference market that has so far ignored ships. Business cruisers could well become more common.
Another response to younger travellers is a move towards more tailored travel experiences. Set meals times and buffet venues are out; branding is in. DreamWorks, Apple, Jamie Oliver, LEGO and Starbucks are among brands already co-operating with cruise lines.
The one-cruise-fits-all model is fading: “Not just any cruise,” as an MSC Cruises slogan goes. Cruisers will use tech tools to build their own custom cruise that will differ from anyone else’s in its on-board experiences and increasing range of optional tour choices. Lower-priced cruise lines will supply many more bundling options so passengers can create their own cruise fare.
Certain ships will be increasingly devoted to different nationalities, catering to the divergent expectations of holidays among Americans, Europeans, Asians and Australians. (Majestic Princess and Norwegian Joy are set to target the Chinese market, and many other ships are homeporting across Asia, for example.)
Different market sectors could be targeted too. Uniworld recently introduced two European river ships specifically for 21 to 40-year-olds, shaking up the retiree-oriented river-cruise scene.
Themed cruises (golf, sports, wine, music) will be ever more common, along with shorter cruises with add-on land options. Few passengers just want to do a cruise any more, at least in the long-haul market. At the same time, look out for more cruises to nowhere, which don’t just cater to youthful, party-seeking cruisers tight on time, but are perfect for cruise companies confronted with increasing demand on docking quays.
A grand variety of new cruise ships is plunging down the slipways over the next few years. Among them by the end of this year is Star Clippers’ 300-passenger Flying Clipper – which will be the largest square-rig sailing ship ever built – as well as Viking Sun and MSC Seaside (see gallery above), though the latter is specifically for the North American market.
Next year sees Royal Caribbean’s mega-ship Symphony of the Seas, Norwegian Bliss and Celebrity Edge among several other larger ships, plus small luxury vessel Seabourn Ovation and two Ponant ice-class vessels. Scenic Eclipse and Crystal Endeavor also become rivals in the luxury polar yacht market, in a first for both companies.
In 2020, new brand cruise company Virgin Voyages promises three ships. Virtually every other cruise line has new ships on order, including P&O Australia, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Regent Seven Seas and Princess Cruises.
Predicting the long-term future of cruising is a challenge: who could have imagined mobile phones, the internet, GPS and other world-transforming technologies just 50 years ago? Still, we’ve cast our eyes a little further ahead to what might happen over the next few decades.
There’s a growing buzz about driverless cars, and it’s surely a small leap to ships without captains; there are fewer hazards at sea than on the roads. Japanese shipbuilding firms recently announced plans to have remote-controlled cargo ships by 2025; Rolls-Royce has also flagged autonomous vessels.
Robots are already stocking Amazon shelves, dispensing prescriptions and doing the vacuuming, so surely housekeeping, cooking and accounting on cruise ships must be next. Indeed, four Royal Caribbean International ships already feature robot bartenders who can shake, stir and produce endless cocktail combinations.
Ships with enough space for 50,000 people, such as the fantasy US$10-billion Freedom Ship project, have been mooted since the 1990s, although they have so far been postponed. Marine architects have produced other designs for entire slow-moving floating cities powered by wind and solar energy….
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