MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE: Ships & Itineraries Update
By Lillian Africano
Everyone loves the Med. Veteran cruisers and newbies alike are drawn to the romance, history and culture of Mediterranean destinations and the product offerings are keeping up with the demand at every price point. This year the Med will be busier than ever as new ships, new competition and new exotic ports are added to already highly desired itineraries.
Celebrity’s new 2,850-passenger Eclipse, based in Southampton this summer, will cruise the Med along with Holland America’s newest vessel, the 2,106-passenger Nieuw Amsterdam. Cunard’s 2,092-passenger Queen Elizabeth will do a two-week Med cruise in October right after her launch, while the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Victoria vessels will have a presence through the fall. Regent, Silversea, Seabourn and Disney’s Magic also linger in the Med through fall.
NCL’s Jade, home-ported in Barcelona year-round, sails 7-day western Mediterranean cruises. For winter 2011/2012, the Jade’s 11-day Mediterranean and Holy Land itinerary includes two stops in Israel, in Haifa and Ashdod, for the first time since 1999.
Princess Cruises also does the Western Med during peak season. SeaDream yachts cruise the Med in summer; Silversea and Regent, spring through fall; Windstar, summer and fall; Royal Caribbean, spring and fall; and Seabourn, summer and fall.
A newcomer to the American luxury marketplace is the French-flagged Compagnie du Ponant, which is adding a new mega-yacht, the 466-foot Le Boreal (224-264 passengers), to its fleet of three in May; Le Boreal will sail the Med in May and June. The line’s three-masted 290-foot Le Ponant (64 guests) and the stylish 330-foot Le Levant (90 guests) will offer Mediterranean itineraries from May through October. Ponant itineraries include ports in Croatia, Slovenia and Tunis, as well as multiple ports in France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey.
Another newcomer to the American Med market is Louis Cruises. Though the Cypriot company’s Greek islands itineraries have long been popular with North Americans, Louis Cruises is now aiming to entice the same market with their European cruises and the acquisition of the 1,800-passenger Louis Majesty (formerly the NCL Majesty). In contrast to mega-ships, which are themselves perceived as “destinations," Louis markets itself as a destination-oriented cruise line with small-to-midsize human-scale vessels offering Greek hospitality. To broaden the product appeal, Louis has an aggressive pricing policy with heavily discounted SMART rates for early booking as opposed to last-minute discounts. The Majesty sails the Med year-round, with cruises ranging from 7-days, 6-nights to special cruises of 13-days, 12-night; all originate in Genoa.
For Europe-based MSC Cruises, the Mediterranean plays a key role, says Gail Nicolaus, Director of Marketing and Public Relations. “During the course of the year, every ship in our fleet [of 11] sails in either the Med or Northern Europe. The Mediterranean is our home; we know it inside and out. Many of our 42 worldwide offices are located in the Med—and we offer departures from nearly every major port in the region.” They also offer extended land stays from many of these departure points and pay commission on airfare. MSC has added a stop in Santiago de Compostela to one set of cruises and Haifa, Israel to another.
Looking toward the future, MSC plans to add “more ships and more itineraries.” Said Nicolaus: “We just christened our fourth ship, MSC Magnifica. Three days after the flag ceremony, MSC signed a letter of intent for the delivery of a new ship in 2012.” Nicolaus added that MSC not only pays 10% commission on air, but also on pre-booked shore excursions and spa packages and pre and post hotel stays.
Maurice Zamati, President and CEO of Costa North America, describes his company’s product as “floating Italian villas” and “a premium experience at a contemporary price.” He points out that “all of Costa’s newest ships, and those comprise the vast majority of the fleet, are based in the Mediterranean at some point of the year. We also offer more 7-night cruise options than any other cruise line in the region, making vacations with Costa especially convenient for North Americans with limited vacation days. Moreover, we know the region inside and out as we have sailed the Mediterranean for over 60 years.”
Costa’s strategy in the Med, according to Zarmati, “is to become the preferred cruise line for North Americans traveling to Europe, and with that, the Mediterranean. To do this, we’ll work very closely with our travel agent partners to ensure they’re trained on how to best understand the key selling points of Costa in the Mediterranean. This training ranges from webinars to familiarization trips and more. In short, we heavily rely on travel agents to help their clients understand just why we’re the perfect choice for their clients in the Mediterranean. “We’re strategically focusing on working with agents who have shown they’re strong Europe producers or that they have the potential to become one. That doesn’t mean we won’t work with any other agents as our phones are always open, but it’s our goal to work more effectively with this select group of partners.”
In the upscale sector, Oceania Cruises’ Med sailings are almost all sold out, with only a few late-season bookings available. In 2011, Oceania’s new ship, the 1,252-passenger Marina, will do summer cruises in the Med. The 2011 calendar also includes 21 new itineraries and more than 125 ports. According to Tim Rubacky, Oceania’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications, what makes Oceania unique in the Med is their “unique blend of star ports with boutique off-the-beaten-path ports like Zakinthos, Nauplion,Cagliari, Marmaris, Murmansk and Portree.” “Oceania,” he says, “is on a steady, solid growth path. With the introduction of Marina in 2011 and Riviera in 2012, we will begin to offer even more destinations around the globe. Rubacky describes Oceania as “the most agent friendly line in the industry,” explaining, “we can design, print and mail direct mail pieces, provide co-op budgets and host cruise nights. All the agent has to do is ask.”
The Yachts of Seabourn also have strong Med programs for 2010 and 2011. Public Relations Manager Irene Lui says; “The Mediterranean continues to be our most popular sailing region. Most of the Seabourn fleet – four out of five yachts – will sail in this region in the spring, summer and fall of 2010 from the French and Italian Rivieras, to the Dalmatian coast and Greek isles. Our newest yacht, the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn, is scheduled to enter service this summer, and will operate a couple of voyages in the Med, including her maiden Mediterranean voyage departing in October from Lisbon, Portugal, to Rome.
“Seabourn Quest [also 450 passengers], our third new yacht launching in June 2011, will operate a series of alternating seven-day eastern Mediterranean cruises. In 2011, two of our yachts will operate the same Eastern Med itineraries but on alternating weeks. This was designed to provide guests with many departure dates when they are planning their cruise. No matter what week guests pick, they will always find a Seabourn yacht sailing in the Mediterranean.” It seems, given the wealth of current and expected cruise offerings, that no matter what the season or price point, one can always find a cruise ship sailing in the Mediterranean. And with prices strengthening industry-wide, it’s a good idea to urge clients to book the cruise of their choice as early as possible.