According to the latest figures I can find (for 2013), just over 1.7m British people went on a cruise in 2013. That includes both ocean and river cruises, with any line, presumably booked through one of the CLIA (UK) companies, and embarking anywhere in the world. That represents a penetration rate of 2.8%.
For a long time the UK’s position as the second-largest cruise market in the world has been unchallenged, but in recent years the German market has boomed. The most recent figures I can find (again for 2013) suggest that 1.64m Germans went on cruises that year. That’s up significantly – as recently as 2011 the figure for German passengers was just 1.39m, so it rose by about a sixth in just two years, and I’ve seen a figure suggesting an 80% increase over 5 years. In comparison, the figure for UK passengers has been static at just about 1.7m for several years. CLIA (UK) announced a ‘record-breaking’ year for 2014, but in truth the increase over 2012 (and 2011) was very small – just a few thousand.
So it seems likely that the figures for German passengers will overtake the figure for UK passengers very soon (it may have already, in fact, but we don’t have figures for 2014 yet.) The penetration rate for Germany is just 2.1%. Assuming that their market grew to the same penetration level as the UK’s (2.8%), the numbers for Germany would rise to about 2.25m.
So what has been fuelling this growth? Well, there has been a significant increase in capacity. There have traditionally been a few small, high-quality lines in the German market – Hapag-Lloyd and Phoenix Reisen, for example. However, these are small-scale operations: Hapag-Lloyd operate the Europa and Europa 2 ships (very high quality but small) plus a couple of very small expedition ships, and Phoenix Reisen have three ships: Albatross, Amadea and Artania, all of them quite small. (I may be wrong, but I’ve generally though of Phoenix Reisen as a German equivalent of Fred Olsen – Albatross is even a sister ship to Black Watch and Boudicca.) What’s changed in recent years has been the dramatic expansion of two other lines, AIDA and TUI Cruises. AIDA do have some history – ten years ago they’d have looked quite like the German lines mentioned above with a small number of small ships – but from 2007 to 2013 they commissioned 7 new ships, one a year. All medium sized at around 70,000 tons and each holding just over 2000 passengers, they collectively made for a huge increase in capacity. AIDA took a break in 2014 but this year they are due to take delivery of a new big ship, AIDprima: 124,000 tons and about 3,200 passengers. A sister ship to her will follow in 2016. So by the end of next year AIDA’s capacity will have increased from 3 ships carrying about 3,500 passengers, to 12 ships carrying more than 25,000 passengers. That’s dramatic.
They’ve been joined by TUI Cruises, a new venture jointly owned by Royal Caribbean and TUI, the biggest travel agent in Germany. They started in 2009 with a Celebrity hand-me-down – Galaxy, 76,000 tons, just under 2,000 passengers and dating from 1996. (She’s quite similar in size and capacity to Oriana, and in fact they were built in the same shipyard pretty much one after the other.) TUI named her ‘Mein Schiff’ (My Ship) but in 2011 had to rename her ‘Mein Schiff 1’ when she was joined in the TUI fleet by her own sister-ship Mercury which had also sailed for Celebrity. Imaginatively, TUI named the new arrival ‘Mein Schiff 2’. Both these ships had a huge refit after leaving Celebrity – I’ve seen a figure of $50m mentioned for each ship. Since then those two older ships have been joined (in 2014) by a new build (yes, ‘Mein Schiff 3’) of about 100k tonnage and a passenger capacity of 2,500; there’ll be a sister ship later this year (you can guess the name, I’m sure); there are firm orders for a further two (yep….); and options for two more after that. So TUI Cruises will have also gone through a decade of explosive growth from 2009 to at least 2017, perhaps 2019, starting with a single medium-sized ship with a capacity under 2,000 passengers and possibly ending with 8 ships and a passenger capacity of 18,500.
As far as I can gather the policies on these two lines differ somewhat. I’ve read a review (from a few years ago) of an AIDA ship that commented that while the ship itself was very good, service was (deliberately) less full than what UK passengers may be used to; e.g. just once a day cabin refresh, and the included dining took the form of a buffet. The food was good, and was accompanied by complimentary beer and wine, but it was a buffet-style main dining room with open seating. This did lead to one problem: because of the free alcohol diners tended to stay at the tables after they;d finished eating, and as a result it could be difficult for those arriving later to find seats, particularly if there was a group. Possibly as a result of these policies, AIDA seems to attracts a younger crowd. TUI is more traditional – indeed, given that their first ships were two older Celebrity ships on which traditional service was core to the cruise experience, that was probably inevitable.
So that’s the current picture – German cruising seems to be booming, and at least in the case of AIDA is providing a cruise experience which is rather different from that which UK cruise passengers would expect. I can’t help wondering which came first, the capacity provision or the demand. Unfortunately I think I’m unlikely to cruise with any of those lines, as I gather that the on-board language is German, with little allowance for other languages. I’m not complaining about that – after all, the on-board language on P&O ships is English, with just as little allowance for other languages – but it does mean that cruising with AIDA or TUI as a non-German speaker would be quite hard.