A demand for more in-depth experiences — from learning how to scuba dive to dining in a private home in port — are shaping what's new in the cruise industry this year. Other cruise news: a boom in Alaska trips, a few precious sailings to Cuba and potentially game-changing new technology.
High seas, high tech
Princess Cruises will debut a coin-sized medallion in November aboard the Regal Princess that could dramatically change guest experiences. Passengers will carry or wear the medallion, which will direct them to their cabins, unlock their doors as they approach and alert crew members to their schedules and preferences, whether it's a class they've signed up for or a favorite cocktail. It will also streamline getting on and off the ship.
Alaska expects 1.06 million cruise passengers this year, likely breaking its 2008 record of 1.03 million visits. The Alaska Travel Industry Association says larger ships are bringing more visitors, and destinations like Sitka, Juneau and Icy Strait Point have built out piers to accommodate bigger vessels. Smaller ships are simultaneously expanding service, specializing in more remote destinations the bigger ships can't reach.
Holland America Line marks its 70th year of exploring Alaska with the redeployment of its Oosterdam ship from Europe to Alaska. Seabourn, a small-ship line, returns to Alaska in June for the first time in 15 years. Lindblad launches a new ship, National Geographic Quest, whose itineraries will include Alaska. Carnival Miracle will do a 14-day round-trip to Alaska from Long Beach, California, that will include Carnival Cruise Line's first-ever call at Icy Strait Point. Crystal Cruises, which last summer sailed the largest luxury passenger vessel ever through the Northwest Passage, offers a repeat trip from Anchorage on Aug. 15.
In 2018, Norwegian Cruise Line will launch Norwegian Bliss, a ship custom-built for Alaska trips.
Long-term prospects for travel from the U.S. to Cuba remain uncertain under the new presidential administration. But for now, a number of cruises are scheduled through spring. Havana is on the itinerary for sailings from Florida in April and May aboard Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas, and in May on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sky. The Fathom brand continues seven-night sailings to Cuba every other week through May.
New experiences on board and onshore
Royal Caribbean is the only cruise line offering scuba-diving certification through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Passengers begin the course at home online, continue lessons in a ship pool and finish with four mandatory open-water dives in ports of call.
Carnival Cruise Line is offering longer sailings of nine to 15 days with options for more immersive and adventurous experiences beyond beaches and bars. Passengers might visit a school in Mexico or get a home-cooked meal at a private house in Jamaica. "People are looking for meaningful experiences," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz.
MSC Cruises launches a wellness experience in April with personalized health assessments and fitness programs, along with a Weight Watchers cruise from Miami to the Caribbean in May.
Princess is expanding Discovery at Sea offerings for kids with new programming such as MythBusters science activities and destination-themed programs on culture and nature. Princess is also featuring a new show, "Born to Dance," produced with famed composer Stephen Schwartz, paying tribute to Broadway's greatest choreographers and dancers.
Holland America Line's new programs include cooking shows and workshops in partnership with "America's Test Kitchen," plus Rijksmuseum at Sea, with interactive displays about the famed Amsterdam museum as a tie-in to the cruise line's Dutch heritage. HAL has also just rolled out a partnership with BBC Earth, with games, activities and live concerts during screenings showing wildlife and wilderness.
Norwegian Cruise Line has opened a new private destination in southern Belize called Harvest Caye with a beach, villas for daily rental, a lagoon for canoeing and kayaking, and "Flighthouse" with a zip line, ropes course and more. The port also makes it easy for guests to explore Belize on shore excursions.
Cunard's Queen Mary 2 this year offers trans-Atlantic cruises themed on space exploration and fashion.
Disney Cruise Line will offer Marvel Day at Sea programs featuring Marvel Comics characters in activities, shows, parties and films on seven sailings on Disney Magic from New York City this fall.
In November, Royal Caribbean debuted the world's largest cruise ship, Harmony of the Seas, with a 5,479-passenger capacity, two 10-story enclosed dry slides and an escape game room.
This year Viking Cruises adds two more ocean-going ships, Viking Sky and Viking Sun, with the Sun embarking on Viking's first-ever world cruise, 141 days long, in December. Viking is also adding two new river ships, Viking Herja and Viking Hild.
Crystal Cruises not only launches two new river ships this summer, Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler, but the cruise line is debuting AirCruises on a private Boeing jet that will take guests around the world, starting with a 27-day, $159,000 trip. "The world is getting wealthier and the wealthy want to travel," said Crystal CEO Edie Rodriguez.
Silversea Cruises launches Silver Muse in April with eight dining venues including a jazz club and Hot Rocks, where guests can cook their own meat, fish and vegetables tableside. Silversea's refurbishment of Silver Cloud as an ice-class expedition ship will be done in November, in time for 11 Antarctic and eight Arctic trips in 2018.
In July, American Queen Steamboat launches American Duchess, the first contemporary boutique paddle-wheeler vessel built for Mississippi River cruises. The company already operates American Queen on the Mississippi and American Empress in the Pacific Northwest.