Regent’s announcement of a definite order for a fourth ship- to be called Seven Seas Explorer- has put the spotlight firmly back on the luxury segment of cruising. Coming hard on the heels of the recent delivery of Hapag-Lloyd’s brilliant new Europa 2, the announcement might conceivably be the catalyst for a whole new race in the deluxe segment.
So, who are the runners and riders, the wannabes, and where do they stand at present?
Seabourn can certainly be reasonably content for the moment; with the arrival of the 32,000 ton trio of Sojourn, Quest and Odyssey, the line has the most well balanced and integrated trio afloat. With their arrival, the sale of the smaller, original trio of Pride, Spirit and Legend was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
What was surprising was the buyer; Windstar. While the three Seabourn ships will be a great addition to the Windstar brand, I thought that at least one of these might have ended up at Seadream. That smart little brand has prospered mightily with the original brace of Sea Goddesses, but it remains a fact that both of these svelte, ultra deluxe ships are now in their late twenties. New tonnage is beginning to look like a necessity.
Silversea appears to be marking time on the mainstream circuit, instead concentrating its efforts on upscale adventure cruising. With the arrival of Silver Galapagos to join Silver Explorer, the line has clearly gained a small but significant lead in what is a niche market.
On the mainstream front, the option of a sister ship for the highly styled, 2009 built Silver Spirit was allowed to pass. Thus, she became the first ship in the Silversea fleet to be a one off.
Regent of course have announced the forthcoming Explorer, after a lot of ‘will-they, won’t-they’ shadow boxing with the travel media. With her 2016 arrival, some seem to think that it will amount to sayanora for the pioneering, 1999 built Seven Seas Navigator, though I personally doubt it.
Which brings me to Crystal. It is now ten years since the introduction of their last ship, the magnificent Crystal Serenity. A couple of years later, Harmony was sent back to parent company NYK, leaving Crystal as a two ship line.
Now, those two ships are both fabulous, unique, and magnificently refurbished. But the line clearly needs a third vessel; I think retiring Harmony was a huge mistake. For, while Crystal is seen as treading water, other lines now clearly have momentum, and greater global reach; something that a line as prestigious and forward thinking as Crystal simply cannot afford to ignore.
Oceania, the so called ‘luxury lite’ paragon, has upped its game massively with the debuts of Marina and Riviera, two highly acclaimed larger ships, but I think this is probably as far as they will go for a few years, at least.
Instead, look to direct competitor, Azamara, and it gets interesting. The current duo of Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey are very successful, but also suffer from ‘two ship fleet’ syndrome. With Oceania raising the bar, I would expect to hear something from Azamara on possible new builds in the not too distant future.
And yet, all of this stands against a backdrop of increasing global uncertainty; the luxury market twitches nervously every time the Middle East erupts in one of its periodic conflagrations. Political uncertainty around Egypt and Israel is a constant, ongoing worry; and the price of oil threatens to engulf profit margins like some long dormant Kraaken that surfaces to feed on our insecurities at will
As for markets, we are looking at a slightly dumbed down future presence in Mediterranean Europe, and that’s right across the the board. Mainstream economies in Europe have simply not recovered from the crash of 2008 and, despite the protestations of some, show little or no sign of doing so. Massively increased transatlantic airfares are also a negative factor, for both the American and European travelling public as a whole. It is now just as cheap to fly to Asia as it is to travel to the continental United States.
More Asia and South America itineraries are emerging; a trend I expect to continue. Northern Europe/Scandinavia might hold its own, but recent events in Russia could prove to be a slowly ticking time bomb for the industry as a whole, and not just the ultra luxury lines.
That said, I would expect further positive developments in the luxury market, and in the not too distant future, at that. Stay tuned.