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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Are cruises ‘corny’? Some first-time passengers looking for a deal say maybe not.


An undated photo provided by Virgin Voyages shows an interior space of a Virgin Voyages cruise. Tom McAlpin, the chief executive of Virgin Voyages, which started in 2021, says the hope is that a Virgin cruise will be viewed as something like “a boutique hotel on the high seas.”

By Ceylan Yeginsu


The idea of being stuck on a giant ship in the middle of the ocean with thousands of people riddled Holden Brown with anxiety. It wasn’t just the horror stories about passengers stuck on cruise ships during the pandemic (though that was part of it).


“I always thought of cruises as corny vacations for the elderly,” said Brown, 32, a member of the logistics team at New York streetwear company Supreme.


But this October, he and his sister, Genevieve, 29, who is a manager at the same company, are taking an 11-night cruise on the Norwegian Prima, departing from Barcelona, Spain, and ending in Rome with stops that include Florence, Italy; Valencia and Ibiza in Spain; and Cannes, France. The cost? About $2,000 each, including an ocean-view room, dining, beverages and a basic Wi-Fi package. The reason? “You get to see all these different places and can take day trips without having to lug your baggage around,” Brown said.


With airfares at a five-year high, limited accommodations in popular destinations and pent-up travel demand, many people are looking to cruising as a high-value alternative to land travel. Interest among younger generations who have never cruised is higher than ever, with 73% of millennials and Gen X travelers considering a cruise vacation, according to a survey conducted by Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s trade group. Of the 4,500 respondents who took their first cruise, 88% of millennials and 86% of Gen X said they would do it again, according to CLIA. The association projects cruise tourism to reach 106% of 2019 passenger volume in 2023.


“There’s a lot of convenience about getting on a boat, like the ‘all inclusive’ aspect with meals, drinks and activities covered,” Brown said.


Carnival, the largest cruise operator in the United States, said the number of new-to-cruise guests who sailed with the company from April to June this year exceeded 2019 levels.


“Consumers want fun, they want experiences, they want great food and entertainment, and they want value,” said Chris Chiames, the chief communication officer for Carnival. “That’s what cruise vacations offer.”


Jonathon Fishman, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Group, said the company aims to “address different age and demographic categories.” He added that guests on Royal Caribbean were younger than before the pandemic.


Shorter trips, longer stops, ‘boutique cruises’


To attract more first-time passengers, cruise companies have been adapting their itineraries to offer more options to target a broader range of demographics, such as themed sailings, adult-only cruises and short trips for people to “test the waters.”


“The general ocean ship cruising with 30 restaurants and 4,000 people, I don’t know how long that is actually going to survive,” said Joshua Smith, the founder and travel designer at Global Citizen Journeys, a travel company that caters to millennials. “I’m seeing more and more companies introducing niche cruises, like the groove cruise music festivals or small-scale boutique cruises to target younger millennial audiences. It’s been a success.”


River cruises, which are offered on much smaller vessels that typically accommodate fewer than 200 guests, are particularly popular among first-timers who are looking to distance themselves from crowds during peak travel seasons, particularly in Europe. Christine Chambers, a 42-year-old book editor from Boston booked an eight-day Uniworld river cruise to Burgundy and Provence in June to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary.


“We’ve traveled all over Europe by plane and train, but wanted to try something different, a little off the beaten path,” Chambers said. “I would never go on one of those behemoth ships with thousands of people, but I’ve always wanted to try a river cruise — they seem to be more elegant and serene.”


The couple splurged on a deluxe stateroom with a balcony, costing $14,000, with food, beverages and shore excursions included. “We would never spend so much on a one-week vacation, but we are making up for the years we didn’t travel during COVID,” she said.


To appeal to more people and allow for more exploration, some cruise lines have modified their itineraries to allow longer port stops.


MSC Cruises, for instance, has started offering overnight stays at the Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, a private island in the Bahamas, where guests can enjoy a range of activities, including light shows, beach bonfires and dance parties. Prices for the three-night cruises, which depart from several U.S. ports, including Miami, Port Canaveral, Florida, and New York City, start from $179 for an inside cabin, $289 for a standard balcony and up to $1,109 for a deluxe suite. In Europe, the company has been offering extended stays in popular destinations including the Greek island of Mykonos, Istanbul and Stockholm.


“Our large, resort-style ships offer an incredible variety of experiences at sea combined with unique itineraries that give guests more time to explore the ports they visit,” said Rubén Rodríguez, president of MSC Cruises USA.


Virgin Voyages steps up


One line that is attracting first-time passengers is Virgin Voyages, which started in 2021, during the pandemic. Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages, says the hope is that a Virgin cruise will be viewed as something like “a boutique hotel on the high seas.” The cruises are adults-only and include food, drinks and tips at a variety of eateries. There is no main dining room or crowded buffet, and each food station has a particular focus, from steakhouses and Korean barbecue to an international food market and a late-night pizza station.


Virgin cruises start at around $2,600 per cabin for two people for an inside cabin and go up to $33,000 for the most luxurious suites.


When Jeanine Fisher’s dance group suggested going on a five-night Virgin Voyages Caribbean cruise this summer, she was worried it would be like a fraternity party with people making out in the corridors and throwing up over stairwells.


“Adults-only sounds kind of kinky, and I didn’t know what to expect,” said the 23-year-old makeup artist from Miami. “But it was so much fun! There were parties, but there were also amazing fitness classes and incredible food. It was everything you could want from a vacation, all in one place.”

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