Cruise lines are competing for passengers with themed voyages and excursions that cater to every interest

KETCHIKAN, ALASKA, IS A POPULAR port of call for cruise ships travelling along the Alaskan panhandle and B.C.’s northern coast. Mountains, waterfalls, and totem poles emblematic of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures are the main attractions. Some visitors lace up their hiking boots. For others, the footwear of choice is less conventional: running shoes.

“Locals in the area host us and bring us outside of where the normal excursions go, and we get to run,” says Jenny Hadfield, co-owner of Marathon Expeditions, which, as the name suggests, offers cruises tailored specifically to runners. Her company, run jointly with husband John Bingham, offers running trips annually to Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean. “Last year in Ketchikan, we were at a bridge in the middle of the trail and all of a sudden someone yells, ‘Bear!’ There was a mama bear and a cub crossing the stream near the finish line. It was amazing.”

It’s not exactly the stereotypical image of cruising. Marathon is Exhibit A in the ongoing reinvention of the cruise experience. Or, depending on your perspective, the reinvention of running, golf, motorcycling, concert-going, wine-tasting, Christmas-market shopping — in short, for virtually every land-based activity, there is, or soon will be, a themed cruise itinerary tailored to it. “People are cruising for all different affinities,” says John Mast, the Vancouver-based senior director of global cruise marketing at Expedia CruiseShipCenters. “While that’s always been true, as the industry has matured, organizers are getting far more sophisticated.”

Irish spring: As golf cruises gain popularity, courses like Glashedy Links in the north of Ireland join the itinerary

Irish spring: As golf cruises gain popularity, courses like Glashedy Links in the north of Ireland join the itinerary

Themed cruises — or “affinity cruises,” in biz lingo — are on the rise because the cruise industry on the whole is booming. Total passenger volume grew 24 per cent from 2013 to 2018, reaching an annual total of 26 million travellers, with 27.6 million passengers forecast in 2020. At the industry’s biggest annual trade show in 2018, Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., called it a “golden age.” At least 30 new ships were launched worldwide in the past two years, and Mast says that’s expected to continue at the rate of one ship a month, on average, for the next decade.

A recent report by Deloitte says affinity cruises and a greater emphasis on land-based activities are important parts of this growth story. Cruise travellers —especially gen-Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) — are increasingly less enticed by opulent vessels and more interested in learning about locations they visit and taking in experiences that “delight them.” “As millennials embark on their first cruises, they have an appetite for heightened personalization and customization as compared to prior generations,” the Deloitte report says. Offering smaller affinity cruises that appeal to individuals’ interests—rather than cookie-cutter trips on 5,000-passenger vessels—is one way for operators to win those new customers. “If the old way of competing was with a better [ship and contents], the new way of competing focuses on the experiences that happen on or near the vessel.”

Hadfield and Bingham founded Marathon 13 years ago. As co-owners of a running training program and a race-production company in Chicago, they wanted to get like-minded people vacationing together. “It was a bit of a challenge getting started because runners at that time weren’t necessarily cruisers,” says Hadfield. “But little by little, we’ve gained some attention.”

Themed river cruises are growing in number, especially on European rivers like the Danube

Themed river cruises are growing in number, especially on European rivers like the Danube

Marathon doesn’t operate its own ships. Instead, it books groups — typically 100 to 200 runners — onto larger cruise ships from established lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. Its itineraries include off-ship 5- and 10-kilometre races and, in the case of its Hawaii trip (from US$3,000), a half-marathon on the legendary Kona Ironman course. “Everybody just loves the bragging rights on that: ‘I ran the Ironman course,’” says Hadfield.

Other affinity cruises feature different kinds of off-ship activities. Golf lends itself well to cruise-based travel — instead of building a vacation around a road trip or spending a week anchored at a single resort, passengers can visit an array of coastal courses. Ditto for lovers of markets, music or wine: Tauck, one of North America’s older tour companies, offers voyages that visit historic Christmas markets in Germany, concert halls along the Danube and renowned wine-and-food locales in Paris, Lyon and Provence. Tom Armstrong, Tauck’s corporate communications manager, says these themes are a response to passenger demand. “The cruise industry has become much more segmented in recent years, and the growth in themed cruises — or those otherwise targeted to a particular group of travellers — reflects that trend,” he says.

Another popular, albeit grittier, option is ETA Motorcycle Cruises, whose primary destination focus is islands in the Caribbean. “They load all the Harleys on the ship and then at each port they unload them and go riding,” says Expedia’s Mast, who clarifies that these aren’t biker gang affinity groups. “These are dentists and accountants — the baby boomer bikers.”

Unmuddying the waters

Among the items a growing number of cruise-ship passengers can expect to find in their cabin welcome kits these days are refillable stainless-steel water bottles. Their deployment is just one policy of many — including low-carbon fuel use, local food sourcing and proper waste management — that reflect a growing industry-wide emphasis on sustainability. According to Deloitte, green practices have gone from being “niche” to a “basic demand.” Other examples include:

→ adding sulfur scrubbers to ship exhausts
→ building new ships with cleaner LNG (liquefied natural gas) and/or electric hybrid systems
→ using electric shore-power technologies to eliminate engine idling
→ eliminating single-use containers
→ developing biodegradable lubricants that can be ingested by fish
→ creating dedicated environmental officer crew positions
→ adopting tracking tools and protocols to avoid marine wildlife collisions