Thursday 18 December 2008

Australians addicted to cruising

Of 20.5 million Australians, 263,435 took a sea cruise holiday last year - or almost one in every 80 men, women and children. Another 11,761 Australians bobbed along the rivers and canals of Europe. The 2007 total is a 116 per cent jump over a five-year period, according to an umbrella body, International Cruise Council Australasia.

Cruise officials say their leisure niche is poised for another bumper year - and will be less buffeted by the stormy seas of economic turbulence than the rest of the troubled travel industry. Holidays afloat clearly give a big chunk of the Australian public what it wants - not that all cruise aficionados are attracted for the same reasons. Some go aboard for the onboard party atmosphere - intent on dining, drinking and nightclubbing. Others seek out quiet hideaways to read, play board games and unwind from hectic onshore careers. One woman I met on a ship boasted of travelling on nine cruises and never going ashore at any port of call. Shipboard life was enough for her. Others rate highly the freedom from repeated packing and unpacking. As the cruise people put it, "destinations come to you".

Twin trends are the increasing popularity of ever-larger ships carrying more and more passengers - and, proving these aren't for everyone, simultaneously growing business for small, specialist vessels going to off-the-beaten-track destinations unable to accommodate seagoing giants. While choice is vast - where there's water, cruising usually exists - potential pitfalls exist for anyone shopping for a cruise break.

Ways to avoid these include:
- Researching as much as possible about your chosen route and vessel (including checking on whether the ship is aimed mainly at the old, the young, in-betweens or all age categories).
- Using a specialist travel agent with well-honed knowledge of the cruise business.
- Having a back-up plan if your first choice of vessel and destinations aren't available - so that you aren't talked into something unsuitable. After all, if your heart is set on a dream trip to the icy Antarctic, a cruise across the tropical South Pacific - no matter how good - could leave you feeling disappointed.

Where do Australians go? Statistics from International Cruise Council Australasia reveal more than six in 10 opt for the waters of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. Asian destinations attract roughly nine per cent of the market, with Alaska and Europe (mostly the Mediterranean) luring slightly less. South America, Africa, Antarctica (where high prices keep numbers down) and the rest of the world are a mere seven per cent.

Most passengers want voyages of eight to 14 days, with five to seven days the next most popular. However, a growing minority of passengers pick longer cruises. Australia is poised this summer for its biggest cruise season on record, according to Carnival Australia, the country's largest operator with Cunard Line, Princess Cruises and P&O among its brands. Twelve Carnival ships will make 225 calls at Australian ports. Passenger numbers are "up 20 per cent on last season," says Ann Sherry, chief executive officer of Carnival Cruises Australia. Many passengers fly to join cruise ships for segments of multi-country voyages, with flights and hotel stays built into the price. For instance, Australians can board these ships here - and disembark at a foreign port to fly home. Or, some passengers fly to join cruises in the Mediterranean or Caribbean - and then take flights back to Australia. However, many Australians prefer locally-based ships - such as P&O's Pacific Dawn and Pacific Sun - which often pick them up and drop them off at a port close to home.

These two ships have added two-night and three-night mini-cruises to their menus. The same ships' longer cruises commonly include Australian and New Zealand ports as well as destinations in nearby South Pacific island countries such as Fiji and Vanuatu.

Big ships usually include a choice of restaurants and bars as well as nightclubs, cabaret lounges, shops, spas, child-minding centres, swimming pools and other amenities. Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess - based in Australasian waters this summer - may seem gigantic: it carries 2,700 passengers and 1,100 crew. But compared to some vessels - particularly the latest American vessels based in the Caribbean - it's a minnow. For instance, Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas accommodates 4,700 passengers.

While these will enable more people to cruise, added capacity comes at a bad time. Worsening economic conditions particularly in the important United States market have dented demand.

Discounting, already common in the industry, is expected to become even more widespread making cruises to destinations such as the Caribbean more affordable as shipping lines try even harder to woo non-American travellers.

Wow factor is an important marketing device on the biggest ships - with artificial rivers, waterfalls and so on. The industry, well positioned in the "mature" market, is trying to broaden its appeal to young adults with the addition of rock-climbing walls, bowling alleys, ice skating and the like. More than ever, it's important to pick a vessel on which you'll feel most comfortable. Antarctic cruises feature highly on many a wish list. Most leave from Ushuaia in Argentina with some departing from Punta Arenas in Chile. The Antarctic is a fast-growing niche. Last year 612 cruises ships visited the frozen south, nearly twice as many as five years previously. Again, do your homework. Many ships deployed for Antarctic cruises don't have ice-strengthened hulls. "As soon as there's floating ice around they move out quickly," says Benjamin Krumpen, an executive of German-based Phoenix Reisen which sends many passengers to the Antarctic. (A Canadian ship sank last year after hitting an iceberg, 1000 kilometres from Cape Horn, but all aboard were quickly rescued and there was no loss of life). What's more, a shipping industry code of practice ensures vessels with more than 500 passengers aren't allowed to conduct shore excursions. Some ships merely give views of northernmost ice.

Joining Australia-based Orion, with ice-strengthened hull, does not require a trip to south America. It uses New Zealand's Bluff and Australia's Hobart on its Antarctic and sub-Antarctic exploration voyages. The Orion takes 106 passengers in five-star environs and has benefited from a preference, in part of the market, for small ships and expedition-style cruising with plentiful shore excursions and knowledgeable lecturers. (Other Orion voyages include Papua New Guinea, Australia's remote Kimberley region and Asian ports). Papua New Guinea can also be explored on Aurora Expeditions' Marina Svetaeva. This ice-strengthened Russian vessel is also used for Aurora's Antarctic voyages and visits to the Russian Far East. Melanesian Travel Services uses its small but comfortable Kalibobo Spirit to explore the coastal villages of Papua New Guinea as well as cruise down that country's mighty Sepik river or to PNG's Trobriand Islands.

Prefer Europe's rivers and canals? Globus is among companies marketing cruises along the rivers of Europe, where there's a trend among repeat visitors to cruise along lesser-known waterways. It's wise to check with operators that land excursions cover what you want to see.

Western Australia's far-flung Kimberley region, with its rugged coastline and broad rivers, is explored by Pearl Sea Coastal Cruises' 18-passenger Kimberley Quest II.

Guests stay in roomy cabins with spacious en suites. The vessel is small enough to visit remote upriver locations. Mangrove-lined tributaries are reached aboard motorised dinghies. Shore trips include rambles to ancient Aboriginal rock art, scenic waterfalls and other spots as well as to a crashed World War II aircraft.

Aboard, passengers quickly get to know their fellow travellers in an environment showcasing good food and drink. Amenities include a swimming pool and library.

Among Kimberley Quest II's competitors in this region is North Star Cruises' 36-passenger True North which has added the option of exploring little-visited parts of the South Australian coastline, promising chances to eyeball great white sharks as well as visiting Kangaroo Island and McLaren Vale wineries.

Other small-ship forays include Captain Cook Cruises' voyages on the Great Barrier Reef, Murray River, Sydney Harbour (a weekend mini-cruise) and in Fiji. A modestly-priced alternative is a cruise on Australia's only remaining mixed-use assenger-cargo coastal ship.

A lifeline to the Torres Strait, laden with general cargo, Sea Swift's MV Trinity Bay sails northbound from Cairns every Friday, returning on Wednesdays. Some passengers choose the round-trip, others go either northbound or south (flying in the opposite direction or loading a vehicle aboard so they need drive only up or down Cape York Peninsula).

Because most of the trip is within the reef, sailing conditions are usually very calm. A maximum of 38 passengers have a choice between en suite or shared facilities with standards akin to those in a mid-market motel.

Other than a bar and restaurant, amenities found on large vessels are absent. Ports of call include Horn Island and Thursday Island where optional tours are available. But the MV Trinity Bay - which seldom advertises - is often sold out. So, book early. Another oddball option: the last of the world's grand mail ships, Andrew Weir Shipping's RMS St Helena which sails from South Africa's Cape Town to one of Britain's few remaining colonies, the island of St Helena (which has no airport). It takes 128 passengers in luxury, as well as mail and other cargo. St Helena - where passengers can remain ashore for about a week while the ship makes a side-trip to Ascension Island - is populated by about 7,000 people. It's delightfully old-fashioned, a time-warp "little England" of little crime and genteel manners. People are of mixed African, Asian and European descent. Narrow winding roads head to the island's scenic interior. Several hotels cater to visitors.

The isolated colony - where exiled Napoleon died - is the ultimate in getting-away-from-it-all. As an islander put it to me, today's biggest cruise liners could accommodate almost the entire population of this lonely pinprick in the Atlantic Ocean.

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