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Classism making a comeback on cruise ships

Written by editor

One-class cruising could be bound for extinction.

One-class cruising could be bound for extinction.

If Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean International, speaks for the future of cruising, traveling aboard ship may one day be akin to flying the unfriendly skies, meaning you’ll sail by class in first, business or coach.

At a recent Seatrade industry conference in Miami Beach, Goldstein acknowledged that on today’s ships, passengers are more or less created equal whether they book an inside cabin or suite with veranda. But this is changing, he said.

“The 21st Century guests, who are prepared to pay top dollar to be in the better accommodations onboard all of our ships, do not accept that once they step outside their door, they are on the same footing as everybody else,” he explained. “They expect special treatment outside the staterooms.”

Though Goldstein dubbed this trend “disegalitarianism,” a less PC way of characterizing it is “caste cruising.” On some lines, if you pay top dollar, you can go where few others can tread aboard ship. More important, those with less exalted accommodations cannot go where you go.

Translation: You will be protected from the madding crowds.

It’s certainly not a return to earlier trans-Atlantic voyages where you booked one of three classes of accommodations and were kept separate from one another. But there are echoes of this in what Goldstein foresees.

As part of a long-standing tradition, for example, Cunard’s very British Queen Mary 2 retains a two-class status where those booking the best accommodations also dine in a restaurant reserved for them.

Another foreshadowing of Goldstein’s prediction of this upstairs/downstairs-like notion comes from Norwegian Cruise Line. Its private penthouse suites and Courtyard Villas are tucked away on the upper aeries of its ships, with facilities reserved exclusively for the top-level passengers.

The two uber-luxe suites on NCL’s ships boast accommodations larger than most Manhattan apartments (about 4,400 square feet and costing around $25,000 for a week’s cruise in the Caribbean). The 10 less costly but nevertheless spacious courtyard suites run 472 square feet and share a sybaritic Mediterranean-style courtyard laden with solid teak furniture and a commodious gazebo. The courtyard itself provides these upscale villas with a secluded pool, Jacuzzi, small gym—all covered by a retractable dome to ward off the elements. On the deck above, another private area with double tanning beds and hammocks surrounds the courtyard.

It all started simply enough.

To make money, cruise lines adopted the mantra that bigger is better. After all, economies of scale let the lines carry more passengers with only incremental cost increases and also cram more revenue-generating amenities aboard ship.

You get more options even if you have to pay for some of them, and the line makes more profit.

But for many cruisers, bigger was more a compromise than an unassailable benefit. Wealthier passengers, who appreciate the sumptuous entertainment, the variety of specialty dining options, the spacious spas and casinos associated with larger vessels nevertheless lamented the loss of ultra-pampering and more intimate settings offered on smaller ships, noted Colin Veitch, NCL’s president, at a press conference last year announcing one of the line’s newest vessels.

To wed the intimate and the abundant, Veitch invented “the ship within a ship” concept and, hence, the exclusive Courtyard Villas set apart from the rest of the vessel.

The downside of sealing off sections of a vessel for select passengers, said Jean Simpson Mallory of White Travel in Hartford, Conn., “is the re-creation of a class system, or isolationism, aboard the new ships. In days of old [30 or more years back] when … passengers sailed trans-Atlantic on Cunard Line, first-class passengers never saw—or admitted they saw—passengers in steerage [later dubbed “tourist”] class. The haves were separated from the have-nots.”

Mike Driscoll, publisher of Cruise Week, the industry bible, attributed the creep toward classism as a result, in part, of a la carte cruising, where passengers increasingly are required to pay surcharges for services once part of all-inclusive cruising.

“You can see the two-tier system more today in entertainment and dining … with more and more charges for specialty restaurants,” Driscoll explained. “Somewhat surprisingly, there’s more of a one-tier system found on the luxury ships like Regent Seven Seas [basically, all suites with almost everything included]. But the all-inclusive nature of cruising on the mass-market side seems to be sharply eroding, and that, in a sense, creates a two-tier system.”

On Holland America’s recently inaugurated Eurodam, for instance, you had to fork over $45 on port days and $75 on sea days to lounge in a private cabana in the ship’s reserved Retreat on the observation deck.

On Princess Cruise Line’s Emerald Princess, you pay extra to avoid the hubbub of the pool deck in the ship’s adults-only Sanctuary.

Not everyone, of course, reads the tea leaves the same way.

Maritime historian and writer Ted Scull holds that the growth of a la carte cruising has a bright side. By parsing the price of sailing into a menu of options, fares have remained affordable for a larger number of people. Even if you don’t book an aerie, you still get a lot for your money, Scull said.

For Goldstein and others, it’s a balancing act. As Driscoll said, “Clearly by taking this path [toward two-tier cruising], cruise lines threaten the satisfaction of the basic cruise client who wants a vacation value but does not want to feel like he or she is traveling tourist class on a ship that has a first-class section.”