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Ultra-Luxury ships - Alaska In Retreat - Hapag-Lloyd's Air Cruises and a Non-Stop Sailing - Cunard Joins The Overnight Stay Lines

by Mark Tre' - "The Cruise Examiner"

This week, we look at initial reviews for the Seabourn Odyssey while we await those for Silver Spirit, delivered more recently. As well, we have news of a retreat on Alaska's head tax, air cruises and a one-time voyage from Singapore to Nice from Hapag-Lloyd and overnight stays for Cunard's Queen Elizabeth.


Feedback for the Seabourn Odyssey and Silver Spirit

So far, the Cruise Critic has accumulated a dozen reviews for the Seabourn Odyssey, which has been in service since last summer, but just one so far for the Silver Spirit, which has only been in service for three months.

Of the dozen for the Seabourn Odyssey, five, or just under half, award the latest Seabourn ship five stars plus and three award five stars, accounting for three-quarters of the feedback so far. What is surprising, however, is that she has earned three scores of only four stars and one of just three. Review sites are notorious of course for producing complainers, but these account for a quarter of the reviewers. As the ship's best reviews came from her initial Mediterranean cruises and the poorer reviews once she had moved over to the Caribbean, one must wonder about that as well.

The majority of the initial reviews were full of praise for Seabourn, something one would expect from a line whose followers are so steadfast in their praise and their loyalty. A number of reviewers, even critical ones, aid that they would return to Seabourn or bought future cruise reduction certificates on board, but it's also worth looking at some of the disappointments.

One comment is that the Seabourn Odyssey's standard suites have become quite narrow, at 9.5 feet, one reviewer describing them as "tunnel-like," as the ship is much wider than the traditional Seabourn ship. Some complained that the service had suffered, something that hopefully Seabourn will overcome once the new ship is bedded in. This may take some time however as the second and third in the series are delivered. One peculiar observation made by a couple of reviewers was that the movement of the Seabourn Odyssey made them feel seasick, but both these comments came in the Caribbean.

Overall, there is no question that the three new Seabourn ships will totally change the product. Instead of a trio of 212-berth yacht-like vessels that suffer from a genuine shortage of verandas, the new ships are each more than twice the size of the traditional Seabourn ships, and it is interesting to see the number of Regent clients who seem to be trying her out now that Seabourn has more or less joined the big ship league. If Seabourn decides to keep the traditional ships as well as the new trio, they will have more than tripled their berth inventory in a very short period.

The Silver Spirit has only received a single review so far at Cruise Critic. Although it only awarded four stars, such a sample is too small to be representative even if it was written by a travel professional. Further review will have to wait but one interesting observation is that this ship has television screens that appear and disappear into a mirror.

Meanwhile, there is no question that the new ships have brought Seabourn, and to some extent, arch-competitor Silversea into the next rung up in terms of size. Others have compared the new ships to Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' Europa, which has now been sailing for ten years with the world's top cruise ship rating. The new ships also remind one of Royal Viking Line, whose initial trio of ships were limited to 550 passengers. Ironically, however, if one compares the new ships with Silversea's last generation, the Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper of 2000/01, the new ships actually have lower Passenger Space Ratios:

Ships of 610 to 650 feet were normal-size ocean liners in the past and the upmarket lines are trying to bring the exclusivity of the small ship experience into a larger platform. They will in all likelihood succeed, as they are now back to ship sizes that were common with the likes of Norwegian America Line and Swedish American Line in the past, as well as the newly-born Royal Viking Line of 1972. None of the latter survive today, but as the cruise market has now grown enough to support the four larger 40- to 60,000-ton ships of Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas as well, this will now mean a fleet of a dozen large ultra-luxury ships sailing under five brands.

Whether all those brands will survive may be the next big question, but with lines such as Oceania and Azamara Club Cruises following close behind the trend is good that consumers will not be stuck with just mammoth ships carrying 5,000 and more people, as have been developing recently in the mass market. The likes of Seabourn, Silversea, Regent, Crystal and Ocean and Azamara will give people plenty of opportunities to trade up if they wish to escape the madding crowd.


Alaska In Retreat

At Seatrade last week, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell and the cruise lines that are suing the state came to an agreement whereby the cruise lines will drop their suit if Alaska cuts back its head tax by 25%, from $46 to $37.50. Alaska will lose 140,000 passengers in 2010 because of this levy, which after another $4 to cover "ocean rangers" riding cruise ships, comes to $50 a head.

Governor Parnell was quoted as telling a luncheon meeting last Friday that "In an audience of thousands, I heard our state singled out for its costly fiscal and regulatory environment. No other jurisdiction has a head tax as high as ours."
The present session of the Alaska state legislature ends April 18 and whether the new law can be passed by then is not yet known. Whenever it is passed, it will take immediate effect so the tax cuts would be felt right away.

In the last few months, it has been announced that more expensive ships such as the Crystal Symphony, Disney Wonder and Oceania's Regatta will be sailing into Alaska in 2011. But it will take some time before Alaska can see the sort of volumes they did in the past from the main market lines, who are now committing to their 2012 itineraries.

Meanwhile, while Alaska has been busy trying to extract more money from cruisers, Celebrity Cruises, who have been big there for some years, have committed to putting three "Solstice" class ships in Europe in 2011 and have recently confirmed that 40% of the line's business now comes from outside the US. And Royal Caribbean is planning to deploy ten ships to Europe in 2011.

Hapag-Lloyd's Air Cruises and a Non-Stop Sailing Singapore to Nice

In an innovative move for its German-speaking clients, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises have outfitted an Airbus 319 with 42 Club Class seats for a series of air cruises to points of interest. The plane, which has been named "Albert Ballin" after the inventor of cruising, will offer a variety of 3-, 12- and 21-day air cruises, with 3-day air cruises to Luxor and Marrakech, a 12-day itinerary to Hong Kong, a 21-day itinerary to the Silk Road. Other departures will take discerning travellers to South America and Australia. The first air cruise left Hamburg on January 27, 2009, using a Boeing 737 with 52 seats under command of Capt Erik Olsen and First Officer Sebastian Franz. In future, Hapag-Lloyd may consider using the aircraft to offer a special option to connect with cruises by its ships as well.

Hapag-Lloyd has meanwhile turned a problem into an opportunity, for some travellers at least. Their 420-guest five-star-plus Europa has developed a problem in one of her four engines and three cruises that were part of her world cruise have had to be cancelled. Instead, she will be offering a real rarity, a non-stop liner voyage from Singapore to Nice, between May 4 and 21. The 17-night voyage with no stops is being offered from Euros 7,990 per person, with flight out to Singapore from Frankfurt, and there will be no single supplements. The voyage is to bring the ship back to Europe so that her defective engine can be replaced.

Cunard Joins The Overnight Stay Lines

With the delivery of the new Queen Elizabeth later this year, Cunard Line will join the ranks of cruises lines such as Crystal Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Rewgent Seven Seas Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Voyages to Antiquity who now include overnight stays to their cruise itineraries. With the fleet returning to three ships since the sale of the QE2, Cunard is takingthe opportunity to add overnight stays at ports such as Venice, St Petersburg, New York and Amsterdam.

It is becoming an increasing mark of the quality lines that they are willing to allow their guests time in port overnight at interesting destinations so that they can enjoy the local cuisine and entertainment options rather than sailing at 6 pm and opening their casinos to all takers. Generally, the upmarket lines tend not to rely as much on board spend, which for more main market lines is now approaching 30% of their overall revenues.

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