By Alfred Borcover
As cruise lines continue to refine their offerings to meet 21st century lifestyle changes, vacations at sea are attracting a new generation of passengers - the GenXers
As one savvy travel agent put it, "Younger travelers don't want their grandparents' experience. We can steer them away from that. They want more adventure in their lives."
Rob Clabbers, owner of a Cruise Holidays agency in Chicago's Lincoln Park area, said he was booking a young couple on a January cruise to Antarctica. "They're both in their early 30s, well traveled - they'd already done the Arctic - and wanted a cruise to Antarctica. They'd done their research online and were ready to make a deposit."
Now a cruise to Antarctica is not a cheap ticket, and Clabbers, without disclosing much for confidentiality reasons, noted the couple was not all that affluent. "It all depends on what you want to spend your money on," he said.
Clabbers, whose agency handles about 500 to 600 clients a year, said he'd booked a Caribbean wedding cruise for a couple in the 25-to-30 age range who thought it would be a lot more fun than renting a hall or a ballroom.
While the GenX market is growing, the average age of cruisers is 50, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, the marketing arm for 21 cruise lines.
Antarctica and wedding cruises aside, Clabbers said the hot destinations for this summer are the Eastern Mediterranean, specifically cruises that combine Greek islands with Istanbul and the Turkish coast, the Western Mediterranean, with stops in Italy and Spain, and the Baltic, whose ports include St. Petersburg, Russia, and Stockholm. His clients also are interested in Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, especially the walled city of Dubrovnik. Domestically, he said, a lot of younger cruisers are going to Alaska, where they can indulge in more adventuresome shore excursions - helicopter-hiking, dog sledding, kayaking and even snorkeling.
For autumn, he said, clients are opting for the Caribbean, shorter Panama Canal cruises (those that go through Gatun Locks into Gatun Lake, turn around and head back to the Caribbean), and New England and Eastern Canada.
Nancy Kelly, president of Kelly Cruises in Oak Brook, Ill., echoed Clabber's view on European cruises this summer.
"Europe is bigger than ever. There's a lot of pent-up demand for anything from 7- to 10-, 11-, 12-day itineraries." She said the Baltic is her hottest destination, especially St. Petersburg, where passengers can spend two or three days in port. Turkey and Greek Isles are popular as are Italy and Spain.
"Alaska," said Kelly, "continues to be amazing. "
For autumn sailings, Kelly noted that the Caribbean is soft until late October and early November, after the hurricane season. Many ships that cruise the Caribbean are staying in Europe longer, not returning to the Caribbean until November or December.
CLIA has projected that 12.6 million people will take cruises this year, a 4.1 percent increase over last year, and also predicts a banner year for the European market.
Here's an update on some other things happening in the cruise industry to keep passengers happy:
_"Exotic" ports, hot and not so hot. If there's one really hot port for the adventurous cruiser, it's Dubai, said Kelly. "People want to see what the place is all about. It certainly is a place for an especially arranged shore excursion." At the moment, only Costa, Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea lines call there. In the "not hot" category of "exotic" ports are Beirut, torn by last summer's Lebanese-Israeli conflict, and ports in Libya, since the country barred entry to Americans.
_Departure points. New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, has seen the return of ships from Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean lines, each with a schedule of departures to the Western Caribbean. And San Diego has become a popular departure point for Baja California and other Mexico cruises.
_Staying in touch. Passengers at sea can remain tethered to home through their cell phones, laptops, BlackBerries and shipboard Internet cafes as cruise lines supply more access. Cell phone costs range from $1.99 to $4.99 a minute based on international roaming charges, but you must have a cell phone that works outside the U.S. Ship-to-shore satellite phone calls, which can be made via stateroom phones, can run from $5 to $25 a minute. Many ships have installed Wi-Fi, largely in public areas, for Internet access.
_Dining. Aboard any ship, you can still stuff your face from today to tomorrow. But aware of a more health-conscious clientele, cruise lines are serving healthier meals and giving passengers more dining options other than first- and second-seatings in big dining rooms. Carnival Cruises led the fleet when it began eliminating artery-clogging trans-fats from its menus in 2005. Crystal Cruises recently rid its menus of trans-fats. Other cruise lines are following. Celebrity chefs - Georges Blanc, Michel Roux, Ettore Bocchia, Piero Selvaggio and Todd English - are among the culinary experts who put their touches on cruise line cuisine. Passengers, too, can eat in niche restaurants, but at a price - from $10 to $35 a person.
_Shore excursions. There's hardly an activity that's not available. Yes, you can still board a bus and listen to a tour guide drone on, but passengers looking for excitement can go white-water rafting, rappelling, zip-lining, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, heli-hiking - you name it. But there are alternatives to cruise line shore excursions. According to Kelly of Kelly Cruises, passengers, through their travel agents, can book "one day over-the-top excursions" that can make all the difference in the world to their trip. These outings, available in virtually every port, can give passengers an in-depth experience, whether it's spending a day viewing art with an expert at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or a day with a naturalist in Alaska's Denali National Park.
_Entertainment. From Las Vegas-style productions to doo-wop music to karaoke clubs, passengers can choose from a variety of offerings. Depending upon the line, options include ballet, opera, celebrity entertainers, Disney characters and Second City performers.
_Expert lecturers. You probably won't find Al Gore lecturing on global warming, but today, cruise lines are keenly aware that passengers want to learn more than napkin folding. Today's enrichment programs include Shakespearean acting taught by alumni of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; language classes by Berlitz and lectures by guest authors such as Richard Reeves, prominent journalists such as Walter Cronkite, geographers, naturalists and wellness experts.
Alfred Borcover: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007, Chicago Tribune.
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