Get ready to set sail

Prices are down, capacity is up, and Ireland is poised to grow as a port of call. Pól Ó Conghaile on why there’s never been a better time to cruise.

SHE’S ROUGHLY the same length as Titanic, but when MSC Lirica docks in Cobh this Wednesday, will locals bat an eyelid?

This is merely a medium-sized cruise ship, after all. It carries just 2,069 passengers. It has only eight bars, a 700-seater theatre and two pools.

The people of Cobh — well, they’ve seen bigger. Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas, for instance, which cruised into Cork this May. It brought 3,634 guests, a tonnage three times that of MSC Lirica, and its very own surf simulator, ice-skating rink and rock-climbing wall.

And not even Independence of the Seas matches the biggest monsters of the deep — Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class ships, capable of carrying over 6,000 passengers. I think it’s safe to say Cobh would blink at that one — almost five times the gross tonnage of Titanic.

This never-ending succession of cruise ships, with their never-ending succession of whistle, bells and innovations (Allure of the Seas boasts the first ever Central Park and Boardwalk at sea), all points at one thing.

Despite the recession, despite so many people taking fewer holidays, and despite the Costa Concordia disaster, cruise is outgrowing the wider travel sector.

“It’s a great time to cruise,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of the online cruise resource, CruiseCritic.com. “In 15 years covering the cruise industry, I’ve never seen so many great new ships — with lots of fun activities and creature comforts — at such value. You can travel almost anywhere in the world by ship these days, and river cruising is really on an upswing too.”

Cruising is also catching the imagination of Irish holidaymakers. According to Royal Caribbean, the biggest operator in Ireland, Irish passengers accounted for 10% of the business in its UK and Ireland office last year — exceeding per capita levels.

“Irish guests really get involved in onboard activities and enjoy facilities such as our Broadway theatre shows,” a spokesperson for the cruise line says. “In feedback, they also typically rate their overall vacation experience (OVE) higher than any other market.”

Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when few could distinguish their MSCs from their NCLs, and when cruising was widely seen as an expensive holiday for the newly-wed, over-fed and nearly-dead, as the unfortunate industry rhyme puts it.

“It started off as the blue rinse belles,” says cruise specialist John Galligan. “With no disrespect to the Irish market, we were immature and ignorant of the cruise product. But today, the average age of Irish cruisers is in the 30s and 40s, and it’s going down all the time.”

“The age profile has generally dropped to about 35-45,” agrees Eimear Martin of cruiseholidays.ie. “During the Celtic Tiger, we saw young customers taking cruises for the first time, on honeymoons and so on. They’re coming back to us with their families.”

The number of people cruising out of Ireland is down 10-15% over last year, according to industry sources. But so are prices. In May, Royal Caribbean advertised seven-night Mediterranean cruises from just €399pp.

That’s an extraordinary discount. But it’s nothing compared to the savings available if you can afford to spend more in the first place. John Galligan has 10-night luxury Oceania cruises from €1,100pp, for example.

Three years ago, the brochure price was €3,500pp.

“The guys with the money are the ones who are really reaping the benefits,” he says. “If Royal Caribbean reduces an €800 cruise by 50%, it’s a big discount. But it’s still only €400. If luxury lines like Crystal or Seabourn discount by 50%, you’re talking thousands.”

As well as keen pricing and canny marketing, cruise lines have invested heavily in Europe. This summer, over 200 ships are sailing around the continent.

In the UK, one in eight package holidays is a cruise — up from one in 25 nine years ago.

Why is cruising so popular? All-inclusive pricing is an obvious reason, with the bundling of meals and entertainment giving passengers control over their costs. More ships means a wider choice of cruise types and destinations too — from European river cruises to floating resorts on the Caribbean, and expeditions in the company of experts along the Alaskan fjords.

But there’s a darker reason for the value too. Off the Italian coast, the wrecked Costa Concordia still lies on its side. When it was driven into a reef this January, capsizing and leaving 32 people dead, the entire industry was thrown under the spotlight — and it struggled.

“The way cruise lines have reacted to the tragedy is to discount fares,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown of cruisecritic.com. “On an industry-wide level, the Cruise Lines International Organization has put together some new safety guidelines. But the emphasis is on ‘guidelines’.

Legally, the cruise lines don’t have to follow them. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.”

The long-term effects of the Costa Concordia tragedy remain to be seen. But it’s certain that the industry has been shaken, not just by a zeroing in on safety protocols, but by a vigorous and ongoing examination of working conditions and declining service standards.

Growth is slowing in 2012, there’s no doubt about that. But there is still growth. And it’s not just Irish holidaymakers benefitting from wider choices and lower prices. It’s Ireland. As well as MSC Lirica and Independence of the Seas, for instance, the Port of Cork will this year welcome some 58 other cruise ships to Cobh. In business terms, that’s worth €43m, 100,000 visitors and over 200 full-time-equivalent jobs to the local economy.

Cork has been building towards this for years. Cobh boasts the only dedicated cruise berth in the country, representatives travel to meet with cruise lines in the US, and visiting ships are given a real ceád míle fáilte. Irish dancers entertain passengers. Tourist representatives bring maps, train timetables, information. Ships depart Cobh to the fanfare of a brass band.

“They absolutely love that,” says Captain Michael McCarthy, commercial manager at the Port of Cork. “And it really encourages them to keep Cobh on their itineraries.”

Dublin Port is following suit, with plans for a €30m cruise terminal beside the O2 music venue by 2015. The terminal will allow passengers — currently disembarking deep in the port — to access the nearby Luas stops, bringing cruise ships, passengers and cash right into the city centre.

The development is long overdue in Dublin, which last year welcomed 85 cruise ships, and whose port is connected to the airport via the Port Tunnel. Bringing ships further up the Liffey will also create a brilliant sense of spectacle against the city backdrop.

“We’re pretty excited about Dublin’s new effort to court ships as ‘turnarounds — where passengers would fly to Ireland and board ships there,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown. “When Americans fly back home to the US they can do immigration in Shannon or Dublin. That’s a major advantage.”

“I cruised to Halifax in Nova Scotia, which is probably the equivalent of Galway or Sligo in cruising terms,” says John Galligan, who wonders why all of this has taken so long. “They have a dedicated cruise terminal with shops in it. What the hell is wrong with us?” Nor is Dublin the only place pushing for a piece of the pie. When Holland America’s Prinsendam docked in Foynes, Co Limerick, recently, a special information centre was set up on board the liner by Foynes Flying Boat Museum to inform its 800 passengers of sightseeing options.

Limerick received a €500,000 economic boost from the overnight visit, according to Shannon Development, with a fleet of 20 buses bringing visitors, mainly from the US and Europe, to tourism destinations including Adare, Limerick, Bunratty and the Cliffs of Moher. This Tuesday, P&O Cruises’ Adonia will dock in Foynes with a further 700 passengers.

Although there’s growing interest in no-fly cruising, it seems likely that Ireland’s future will lie as a port of call more than a point of departure.

Licensing and bonding complexities, competition from Southampton and Barcelona, and the small scale of Irish facilities (even with a Dublin terminal, Ireland could only handle three large cruise ships at a time) will see to that.

MSC Lirica, however, is not only starting a cruise from Cobh this Wednesday — an itinerary taking passengers to Amsterdam, Hamburg and several other stops in northern Europe. MSC recently launched a dedicated Irish website (msccruises.ie), and will be back for other cruises on Aug 26 and Sept 8. There’s never been a better time to jump on board.

THREE TOP CRUISE OFFERS

The French and Italian Rivieras

Why pack and unpack your way along the French Riviera, when you can take your hotel with you? This 12-night cruise offers direct flights with Aer Lingus (out to Nice, back from Rome), and cruising on the Azamara Journey as it visits Monte Carlo, St Tropez, Portofino, Florence, Sorrento, Rome and other ports. It’s full-board, and departs on Sept 22.

Details: 021-4644948; Trailfinders.ie; from €1,469pp.

The Mediterranean

Royal Caribbean has been discounting hugely in Ireland this year, with a drive to get people booking now rather than waiting until the last minute. CruiseHolidays.ie, an arm of Tour America, has a six-night cruise including flights transfers, taxes, tips, meals and entertainment from €799pp. The trip departs in late October (ref 420215). Details: 021-2429555; cruiseholidays.ie; €799pp.

Iceland’s volcanoes and glaciers

Not every cruise involves the Caribbean or Mediterranean, you know. Discovery Cruises’ Quest for Adventure departs Cobh on Aug 20 on a 12-night voyage taking in the Orkneys, the Shetlands and Faroe Islands, before sailing onwards to Reykjavik. Return flights via Gatwick are included in the price, currently listed at £1,772 (€2,238).

Details: 01-2076555; jgt.ie; €2,264pp (approximately).


Lifestyle

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