Blue-rinsers and Benidorm-botherers; sheeplike ultra-tourists flocking into port towns and cities in their oblivious droves, blind to local cultures and customs; hungry honeymooners hoovering up all-you-can-eat buffets before spending ‘a night with’ Celine Dion wannabes who never even made the grade as television show backing singers. Cruises get a hard rap. Which makes news that millennials now set sail on ocean liners more than baby boomers all the more surprising.
In fact, a recent study showed that 32% of those famed for propping up co-working spaces while carefully-positioning their next Instagrammed flat white had cruised in the last five years – that’s 32% compared to 18% of the greying post-war generation; that’s a whole third of millennials belting out My Heart Will Go On at the nightly cabaret. Or is it?
To understand the shift in generational attraction to the oft-maligned cruise liner experience, it’s important to leave those preconceptions at the door – a new wave of traveller, who doesn’t point at a foreign bit of food and slowly pronounce the word two, is hitting the waves, and that’s because there is a new wave of cruise to attract these social media-savvy jet-setters.
Cynical cruise-deniers might live in a bubble of captain’s dinners and prawn cocktails, but Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas sees that love-him-or-hate-him cheeky chap going all pukka with his Jamie’s Italian brand. If that’s a bit too ‘posh end of the high street’ for you, Crystal’s 68,000-ton Crystal Serenity and 50,000-ton Crystal Symphony liners allow diners to sit down at Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa’s Silk Road and The Sushi Bar restaurants – Thomas Keller, the three Michelin-starred chef who singlehandedly transformed American haute cuisine, works in partnership with über-luxury cruise line, Seabourn. Put those piña coladas down, cruise cuisine has arrived to the 21st century.
Naturally, as cruise companies shift their focus to a younger audience, it’s not just city-minded cuisine that is being rethought, the entire experience is in the midst of a sea change. The website of the obscenely luxurious Regent Seven Seas Explorer might still star a monied silver fox in its promotional imagery, but the Miami-based brand have certainly noted the millennials’ growing admiration; New York Times journalist Sheila Marikar observing a pool deck ‘reminiscent of Miami or Mykonos’ with a hip hop DJ leading a party into the early hours as she accompanied its maiden voyage. Mixologists and yoga classes, surf simulators and rock climbing walls… These days there is plenty to confound that presumed clientele with their one foot in the grave.
Such is the millennials’ voracious appetite for the high seas, luxury cruise company Uniworld – an old hand in the game, established in 1976 – announced U earlier this year: an Ace Hotel-ification of the cruise business, if you will. A ‘new take on experiential travel, with cruises designed for those with a passion for exploring and a taste for authentic adventures’, they say of the fresh-faced brand that will specialise in European river cruises and Instagrammable moments. What they also say is: ‘U by Uniworld cruises were specifically planned for those in the 21-45 age group. You must be within this age group at the time the cruise begins’; which is a much harsher line than the many millennial-minded hotel brands that have popped up in recent years. Imagine telling the skinny jean-wearing, 46-year-old owner of a hip media platform that he can’t pull out his MacBook at The Standard in New York.
A clue to Uniworld’s hardline approach to their U cruises might come with the news that they’re part of The Travel Corporation group, which also includes the lairy Contiki Tours brand – dressed up as a fun and friendly sector reinvention, and a way to ‘change the way you see the world’, U could possibly be Club 18-30 in more expensive (artisan-made) clothes. Fairytale European towns like Germany’s jaw-dropping Rothenburg, steady yourselves.
Leaving the march of mass tourism behind, the cruise industry’s real potential to stand out lies in its ability to quench a thirst for adventure and singular experiences. Putting U’s ‘sleek design’ and ‘social life’ aside, cruising with a purpose is an authentic attraction for a generation hungry for differential. A 2014 Harris survey found that 72% of millennials would rather spend their money on experiences than material things, which is good news for experiential cruise companies like Aqua Expeditions, whose cruises through unexplored regions like the Peruvian Amazon and The Mekong offer experiences like accompanying fine art photographer Francisco Marin capturing villagers in Cambodia.
Dining room of Aqua Expeditions luxury craft, Aqua Aria, photographed cruising the Amazon river just outside Iquitos. Peru. #aquaexpeditions #amazon #cruiseships #luxury #cruiseboat #richpeople #luxe #toplife #superyachts #travelandleisure #condenasttraveler #boatinternational #peru #iquitos #cruiseholidays #cruiseship #luxurycruises #cruiselife #southamerica #richardmarkdobson
David Thompson, the esteemed Australian chef whose Nahm Bangkok is currently ranked Asia’s fifth best restaurant, is the consulting chef of Aqua Mekong, and will take part in limited-edition chef-hosted departures next year – join the chef who picked up a Michelin star in just six months on a market tour or master cooking class; or join noted Peruvian chef, Pedro Schiaffino, on Aqua’s Aria Amazon. Of course, these experiences may pale into insignificance when seen alongside the majesty of the untouched world – an expedition to the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca (at 12,500 ft), or canyoning excursions in the South Central Highlands of Vietnam, just some of the experience that will see you totally win at Instagram.
Winding its way down the historical Ayeyarwady River, the handsome Strand Cruise is all deep wooden hues and carries the air of colonial splendour; it has a pool deck that is more Lake Como than Miami, and plush suites feel like city centre apartments. The ancient capitals of Burmese kingdoms are your ports of call: rarely visited temples, impressive Buddhist sanctuaries and Bagan, one of the planet’s great archeological sites — an ancient city in the heart of Burma that those in the know say rivals Machu Picchu, home to thousands of monuments and inspiring scenery. These are the moments that millennials are trading for material things; these are the experiences that are shaping the new wave of cruising.
For all the Michelin-starred chefs and selfie opportunities, millennials are the first generation to begin reconnecting with the pre-war potency of travel as pure adventure, of truly new horizons and of deeper connection. It is worth noting, though, that travellers don’t always want to think. Too much, at least. Stating that they were ‘responding to a macro trend around the hunger for greater meaning and purpose in our everyday lives’, the world’s largest travel leisure company (Carnival Corporation & plc) launched their socially-conscious brand Fathom in April last year, however it was announced less than six months later that their ship had already sailed.
Voices in the industry believed it would be not if but when the line would be axed, but Carnival say that Fathom will live on as an line of experiences that will join countless other ships operated by their nine sister brands. Giving passengers the opportunity to get their hands dirty working with locals – digging ditches, building houses, and helping out at a chocolate farm – Fathom’s was a quest to create real human connection; “making a dent in the universe”, explained its CEO, Tara Russell, “should be more fun than anything out there.” It’s a shame that her audience didn’t agree.
Like all things, this is a story of balance. An unprecedented number of young people are captivated by the magic of cruising – be that extravagant decadence on the open seas, or authentic experiences on uncharted rivers – ergo it is vital that the industry understand the logic behind this shift. Yes, it is important to educate and to provide experiences that don’t leave an indelible and ugly footprint on the natural world; it is vital that deeper connections and human interaction are explored; but it’s worth remembering that a four-hand massage can sometimes outweigh putting your back into building a new road.
Experience is the new luxury and the open sea can offer unrivalled experiential extravagance – waking to new horizons each morning can inspire and rouse. Millennials have set sail, and the cruise industry is on a new course… Only the most innovative will be able to navigate these uncharted waters.
James Davidson is editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.