Vernon Buxton's Cruise News & Views

Aug 1, 2007
Author: Vernon Buxton

Hi, and welcome aboard again,

As ever, my further comments in each story are in red.

Aaron McCourt from Durban sent me a mail last week thus.

As a regular reader of your column and after reading your thoughts on bullfighting, thought you might enjoy this…!
Aaron McCourt

Aaron attached a power slide show of a bull in a Spanish bullring. It shows a short sequence of pictures of the bull leaping right over the surrounding fence and b-a-n-g into the crowd. You can see the fear written over everyone’s faces…and the third picture shows two men holding on to their cups of beer for dear life…never mind the danger to their own lives!

Thanks Aaron, pity there isn’t a picture showing a few hundred people being gored! I would feel absolute stones!

So, I gather you cottoned on to the fact that I don’t like bullfighting then, Aaron?

The new face of sea cruising!

So, okay folks…we’ve established that balcony cabins are de rigueur on all cruise ships today! And yes, Spa suites and garden villas are also looming as essential offerings…never mind separate decks with butler and concierge services. Class divisions (read ‘wealth divisions’) are back in vogue…a la the old QUEEN MARY, NORMANDIE and FRANCE, et al.

Then too, flexible dining options, indeed numerous alternative dining options are also now required in order to keep apace with the pack. Entertainment as well must amount to a lot more than ‘crew-participation’ …indeed, Cunard’s QUEEN VICTORIA will significantly raise the bar entertainment-wise with its Royal Court Theatre, a triple-level affair offering, if you please, its own private boxes! Talk about upstaging the opposition?

Can one imagine Kenneth Branagh doing ‘Hamlet’ hither? Hamlet at sea…that would be a first! Or, picture attending a play starring Maggie Smith or Judi Dench? Phwoar! Or, p’haps Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion in concert? Phwoar! Phwoar!

Or Jason Pritchett! Jason who? Read all about one Jason Pritchett below…another international star in the making?

Of course, entertainment apart, the big cruise lines are now expected to offer so much more…rock climbing, ice skating, tenpin bowling, shopping promenades…the whole catastrophe! These extras will have to become the norm on all modern liners that wish to remain competitive.

And so, it has come to pass that Royal Caribbean – which runs the world’s largest cruise liners – is only now waking up to the need for flexible dining. (Helloo-oo RCI?) About time too, one imagines…because it appears that’s what passengers WANT these days…even though RCI is still in the “testing” stage…

Royal Caribbean to ‘test’ Open Seating!

Royal Caribbean is the latest line to be considering “open seating” in its main dining rooms.

RCI will test its initial concept on FREEDOM OF THE SEAS from October through December.

The operator insists that the move “didn't come as a result of competitive pressures” (…Whatever?), but rather they've noticed a marked increase in usage of the Windjammer (buffet) at dinner.

This, according to a PR release, indicated that many passengers “were desiring a more flexible dining time than Royal Caribbean's two
fixed seatings in the main restaurant currently allow.

“Passengers who seek the traditional product can have it if they want it,” according to the blurb. “However, passengers who choose Open Seating will be required to pre-pay their gratuities, since it's unlikely they will have the same waiter twice during their time aboard.”

It’s surprising that Royal Caribbean has been so slow catching on to flexible dining? Talk about ‘kicking and screaming into the 21st century!’

So, all too soon Norwegian Cruise Line’s pioneering ‘Freestyle Cruising’…meaning dining when you want, where you want, with whom you want…will have been emulated by every cruise line and NCL will have to come up with something new. It’s called competition.

The winners are the passengers, who now have at their disposal an unbelievably sophisticated and exciting way to enjoy a holiday. You can be involved in high-intensity activity topside until you’ve had enough…and then you can head below to your cabin to rest up until you are ready for more. This is one of main reasons why cruising is soaring in popularity.

A modern cruise liner is a giant resort, a pleasure palace for hedonists…and it moves…it can move far, far away in just 24 hours…and that translates into a lot more excitement that you can expect in any land-based resort hotel.

It’s all very, very interesting…is it not?

Watch Jason Pritchett become a household name!

Jennifer Hudson, now an international star following her sensational role in the movie ‘Dreamgirls’, is proud of the fact that her professional background included a stint as an entertainer in the production shows aboard Disney Cruise Line.

She left from there to go to her audition for American Idol. Even though she didn't win (or even come in second), after her appearance in the competition, her career exploded.

Now there’s another name that’s bursting to become famous. He is one Jason Pritchett, currently the lead male production show singer aboard CARNIVAL SPIRIT. Jason was a finalist on this year's edition of NBC's surprise hit show, ‘America's Got Talent.’

"We strive to find truly talented vocal performers for our production shows, which are a highlight of the cruise vacation experience," said Roger Blum, Carnival's VP of cruise programming. "Jason certainly personifies the exceptional talent our guests can look forward to when sailing with us, and all of his friends here at Carnival have been cheering him on."

This is one of the requirements cruise lines will have to concentrate on to stay competitive. Top-notch entertainers will be essential for keeping ahead of the pack. Jason Pritchett’s name has only just come into my awareness, but he sounds good enough to make one want to cruise on CARNIVAL SPIRIT just to see him perform.

I agree with the abovementioned Roger Blum…entertainment is at the top of the list of just about every cruiser’s requirements. You’re paying for a fantasy experience, away from the pressures of daily life…and production shows, cabaret or vocal entertainment is the distraction you seek most.

Besides getting laid, that is.

There’s big trouble in paradise!

NCL America’s Hawaii programme is putting parent Star Cruises under severe financial pressure.

As a consequence, gambling magnate KT Lim has reduced his effective ownership in Star Cruises following severe losses by Star's NCL America brand in Hawaii, according to news in from Fairplay.

Resorts World, which is controlled by Lim's Genting Group, announced that it would sell a 14 percent stake in Star to investment group CMY Capital for two billion Hong Kong dollars. (US338 million), payable in cash immediately.

Previously, Resorts World had owned 34 percent of Star Cruises. Resorts World said the sale was a "strategic decision to mitigate its exposure to the volatile earnings of the Star Group", adding that the disposal "is in the best interest of Resorts World".

The decision follows a $156.2 million loss by Star Cruises in 2006, then a further $79 million loss in the first quarter of this year, stemming from NCL America’s troubled Hawaii programme.

This is sad news indeed! Star Cruises – the world’s third largest cruise line - was doing so well until the Hawaii programme was stretched to include several newbuilds for offshoot company NCL America.

It goes to show how easily big strategic decisions can turn on you. Clearly, a very urgent and clear-cut strategy – starting with the abovementioned sell-off - will have to be taken about the Hawaii programme…not least of which could be the deployment of a couple of brand new ships – PRIDE OF ALOHA (77,000 tons) PRIDE OF AMERICA (81,000 tons) or PRIDE OF HAWAI’I (93,000 tons) to completely new waters?

It is understood NCL America came up against unexpected competition in the region, as well as operational obstacles, and bookings have not met target numbers.

Star Cruises was founded in 1993 by the Malaysian businessman Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong and his family. Tan Sri Lim is Malaysia’s sole casino operator and owns extensive tourist developments, including those in the Genting Highlands near Kuala Lumpur.

Under his guidance, Star has become the biggest multi-national company in Malaysia, and has made him the world’s fourth wealthiest shipping magnate.

By 1996, the success of Star Cruises in the Asian market was so great that the company confidently stated its goal was to become one of the world’s top five cruise lines. In the same year, Star ordered from the German shipyard Meyer Werft the two largest passenger ships to be owned by an Asian shipping company. The 75,000-ton SUPERSTAR LEO and SUPERSTAR VIRGO were delivered in 1998 and 1999 respectively. With the arrival of these mega-ships, Star was able to expand operations throughout Asia.

After a long, vociferous battle, Star acquired full control of the world’s fourth large cruise company, Norwegian Cruise Line, in 2000. This takeover has made Star Cruises the joint third largest cruise company in the world, and provided the company entry into the lucrative US cruise market.

Soon after, SUPERSTAR LEO was seconded to NCL, and became NORWEGIAN SPIRIT. There have been numerous newbuilds added to the rapidly growing fleet.

SUPERSTAR VIRGO and SUPERSTAR GEMINI operate regular departures from Singapore. The former is very much a ‘gambling’ ship, whilst the smaller GEMINI is particularly popular with western cruisers.

The day this correspondent boarded SUPERSTAR LEO in Hong Kong the heavens opened…but once inside this luxurious enclave, I set about enjoying the 10 restaurants and many other fine features. It is now NCL’s NORWEGIAN SPIRIT.  CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE

This correspondent has sailed on SUPERSTAR LEO, SUPERSTAR VIRGO and SUPERSTAR GEMINI, as a guest of Star Cruises, and Triton Cape Sea Travel.

The LEO and VIRGO are both beautiful ships, with 10 restaurants each. I would have great difficulty finding fault with either vessel, and I remember the food as some of the best I have ever had at sea.

The atrium is high and spacious and, as you can see, the décor cannot be accused of being dull!

The 19,000-ton SUPERSTAR GEMINI disappointed me somewhat – not because it isn’t a very well run ‘hotel’, but inevitably I compared it with same-size CROWN ODYSSEY (later NCL’s NORWEGIAN CROWN, and soon Fred.Olsen’s BALMORAL…which we feature more about next week!)

In the meantime, we wish Star Cruises every good wish with its new strategies in Hawaii.

A typical Japanese sushi offering aboard the LEO, indeed any of Star Cruise’s vessels…s-c-r-u-m-p-t-u-o-u-s!

A shore excursion goes fatally wrong!

Four passengers from SUN PRINCESS were killed last week when the small plane from which they were sightseeing crashed in rugged terrain in Alaska.

The accident is going to have an impact on the sightseeing options for passengers visiting Ketchikan on most cruise lines.

The two couples had booked the Misty Fjords flightseeing excursion through Princess, although it was actually operated by Taquan Air.

A massive search operation resulted in spotting the wreckage about
35 miles northeast of Ketchikan at an elevation of about 700 metres. The state police were able to reach the site and found no survivors. The cause of the crash has yet to be established.

The accident was already having an impact on most (if not all) cruise lines in Alaska. Princess immediately announced that would suspend all flightseeing excursions operated by Taquan. Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean have followed suit, at least until the investigations are complete.

A wider path between the seas

Last week, the Panama Canal Authority awarded the first construction contract for the project to dig another set of locks alongside the Panama Canal.

Ten international companies submitted bids for the first project, which is for one of five dry excavation projects which will create the new Pacific Locks Access Channel. The contract was awarded to a Panamanian firm, Constructora Urbana, for about 41.million US dollars.

It was the low bidder of the ten international companies tendering.

Overall, this expansion project will build a third set of longer and wider locks alongside the existing two, and this will double the tonnage which can pass through the Canal, and make it possible for longer and wider ships (such as QUEEN MARY 2 or FREEDOM OF THE SEAS) to transit.

This particular phase of construction is working on the Pacific Locks Access Channel that will link the third set of locks on the Pacific end of the Canal with the existing Gaillard Cut (the narrowest stretch in the Panama Canal).

Completion of the entire Canal expansion project is targeted for 2014, an ambitious date for all that work, but now, with the first construction contract awarded, it really seems like it's going to happen.

Have you read ‘The Path Between The Seas’? I bought this fascinating story about Panama Canal in the QE2’s bookshop. It really is the definitive read about the whole incredible saga. As it is not that recent a publication, you may be able to get it through Worthwhile read, I promise!

The new canal project will surely come with its own share of drama, challenge, setbacks…and death!

All’s well that ends well

Celebrity’s gremlin-beset 90,000-ton MILLENNIUM finally made it to Barcelona for the 24 July cruise…and was thus able to continue its programme after two cancelled departures.

The ship had sustained damage to its propellers during the June 30 sailing and experts flown in from several places around the world ran into situations they had never encountered before. This led to the ship being dry-docked in Palermo.

However, Celebrity, having decided to cancel an one cruise, knew it was coming up against a time limit for the next departure, as most passengers for that sailing were coming from North America. Many would be going to Venice a day or two early to rest up and sightsee, meaning they would be leaving to fly to Venice on overnight flights on Monday for Thursday's sailing.

So Celebrity tried to make an early call to cancel but, despite the best efforts, about 80 people didn't get the word before leaving home. (Most had left earlier for lengthier pre-cruise stays in Europe, and there wasn't too much Celebrity could have done about them.)

On arrival in Venice, Celebrity provided them with one night's hotel and E75 for meals and incidental expenses. They also assisted them with travel plans to either go elsewhere in Europe or to go home.

There was a happier ending for about 20 people who were able to be rebooked on Royal Caribbean ships in Europe.

The cost, including the compensation paid out to passengers on the two cruises, came to about .8 million, by (parent company) Royal Caribbean's estimate.

We hope MILLENNIUM was able to sail off into an MGM sunset…to begin recouping nearly 30 million dollars-worth of losses. Ouch!

However, what any astute reader of this column will have picked up is the new hazard American cruise lines have created for themselves by operating away from American shores. In the event of a problem that puts paid to one or more cruises, you have several thousand American passengers that have to be sent home halfway across the world, and who will demand to be pacified financially…or they’ll sue you to your shoes!

RCI and Celebrity used to sail only in the Caribbean, remember?…meaning that in the event of a setback, getting folk back to Miami was ‘small potatoes’. Now they’re pushing into Europe, which is all very entrepreneurial and all that, but boy-oh-boy, the day something goes wrong you’ve got a whole new pack of problems to deal with. And, as MILLENNIUM has shown in stark relief, your accounts had better be in the black to the tune of 30 million dollars minimum.

Indeed, rival Carnival Corporation’s Costa, Cunard and Holland America brands are all just as vulnerable whilst in European – or Baltic – waters…are they not? The QUEEN MARY 2 has already had a taste of what I’m referring to, when its one propeller pod was damaged whilst leaving a harbour quite recently. It cost Cunard/Carnival big bucks all round.

Which is something all American cruise operators will no doubt be taking into consideration if they plan to lure North American cruisers into any waters far distant from the United States.

And…a cruise liner’s propellers – normally very weighty chunks of solid metal - have suddenly become very, very fragile appendages indeed! Captains will have to be super, super-cautious about how or where they steer…or they’ll be former captains quick enough!!!

Tune in for another exciting episode next Wednesday,

in Johannesburg



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