Despite a love of being on the sea, I have never taken a cruise in the Caribbean.
Although some years ago it did occur to me that if one could fit in meetings at each port of call, doing so might offer an alternative way to island hop in the Eastern Caribbean, the idea of sharing a voyage with large numbers of retirees, and the type of on board entertainment offered filled me with horror.
Not only is this probably unfair, but my thinking also appears to be factually incorrect, as according the Cruise Lines International Association, the average age of travellers vacationing on its members’ cruise ships in 2014 was 49.
My prejudice and that of many others reflects a problem that faces the cruise sector: how to change the image and the product so that seaborne vacations have a broader appeal, particularly to the higher spending younger visitors that Caribbean destinations have been so successful in attracting?
The issue is critical. If the cruise industry cannot change its demographic and offering, it will struggle to ensure the profitability of its new ships, which reports suggest now cost around US$1bn each and have a working life of around ten years.
Over the last year some of the leading cruise lines have publically recognised that as the post second world war baby boomer generation fades from view, they will need to attract a younger group of travellers, particularly millennials and families wanting experience, authenticity and connectivity. They are also aware that to do so they will have to reconceptualise on-board facilities, entertainment, the nature of shore excursions, and in some cases the whole concept of a cruise.
Much of their primary focus is now on trying to achieve seamless on-board connectivity so that customers experience something not far removed from what their clients enjoy at home.
Like many others in the tourism sector, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and MSC, have all recognised that without twenty-four-hour connectivity they cannot hope to attract a younger clientele and are investing millions of dollars on updating their communications technology.
Although the companies say their intention is to provide, at a cost, a connection that is very fast and can be linked to a wide range of platforms, this is technologically complex and expensive. It involves an uplink to a satellite when the ship is at sea, a shore connection when in harbour, or for some lines, a unique hybrid maritime system able to move between both. This is however, far from straightforward as it involves reaching commercial agreements with the few maritime communications companies that own or lease bandwidth or have their satellites focussed on the most cruised parts of the region.
This has the consequence that for passengers the cost varies depending on the technology used and the type of services required with rates ranging from US$5 per day for access to social media to US$25 or more if passengers want streaming, with some services requiring high bandwidth like skype being inaccessible.
More interestingly however, for the land based industry in the region, are the ways in which the cruise companies and others have begun to change their on-board offering. At the quirkier end it includes anthropomorphic robots that can bartend or read human emotions, but more seriously includes multi-screen cinemas, Bluetooth technology, high definition TV screens, new ways of getting a tan, alternative music and entertainment, and so on.
More challenging perhaps are new types of cruises specifically aimed at millennials where the on-board experience is as important as where is being visited.
Carnival Cruise Line’s Fathom brand and the kind of lifestyle cruise offered by Summit at Sea provide interesting indications of where a part of the market is headed.
Fathom is a one-ship line that ‘encourages volunteerism and social support.’ It is cruising to Cuba and the Dominican Republic using the 704-passenger Adonia and includes for example in the case of Cuba, artistic, educational and other activities such as visits to organic farms, visits with Cuban artists and authors, and walking tours. It also has on-board experiences, including discussions about history, culture, food and entertainment, as well as making available Cuban literature and Cuban films. Unlike most other cruises it does not have a casino.
Even more targeted is a concept developed by Summit at Sea which according to online blogs offers annually ‘inspiring talks, great music, some art, many many great people in a closed offline environment and some weird stuff such as special meditation techniques.’ It has been going since 2011 and uses a standard cruise ship – apparently the slot machines are ignored – and sails out of Miami to the Bahamas using a smaller cruise ship.
According to the blog I read, it is invite only, and mixes 25-40-year-old entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and people involved in interesting projects: in fact, just the type of individuals that most Caribbean investment agencies would like to reach.
Tourist Boards, hoteliers and the industry should give more thought to the implications of this. While the typical cruise customer is not going to change suddenly, the diversification now taking place suggests that before long, land-based tourism will have to consider how to respond.
As for me, I am seriously considering a cruise of sorts: on one of Hurtigruten’s small working ships along the coast of Norway this coming winter to see the Northern lights.