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Cruise News: The Top 12 Cruise Stories of the Year

Cruisers ready for Cuba, China ready for cruising, rivers keep on rolling, and more

It was a dynamic year for cruising. In 2015, new brands broke out, like Richard Branson’s Virgin Cruises. Technology took a quantum leap—cruisers can now keep up with their social channels and even stream video mid-ocean. Cuba and China dominated the headlines. All destinations became a more prominent part of cruise lines’ focus, as they extended port stays and curated more experiential excursions (bye-bye bland bus tours, hello market shopping with the chef). In a major environmental advance, LNG-powered cruise ships are in the works. Here are the highlights.

Gearing up for Cuba

With more liberal U.S. policies toward the island that’s just a few hours’ sailing time from South Florida, lines began promoting people-to-people cruises. These highly structured programs comply with U.S. rules for qualified travelers. There will be interactions with artists, musicians, historians, students, doctors, and farmers, and opportunities to explore some of the island’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. All this, however, is still pending the approval of Cuban authorities.

Big, new ships head to China

With outbound leisure travel booming, it’s no surprise the Chinese are discovering cruising. That’s thanks mainly to lines sending some of their biggest and best new ships, such as Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas, now based out of Shanghai. Princess Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line are tailoring new builds for Chinese tastes, and even the most mainstream brand, Carnival Cruise Line, is going in with a pair of Fun Ships.

 Virgin ventures into cruising

Richard Branson vows to “shake up the cruise industry.” His Virgin Cruises burst out with an order for three “boutique” ships, the first to begin sailing from PortMiami in early 2020. Carrying more than 2,800 passengers each, they’re pretty big for “boutique.” But that’s a thousand or so fewer than what the major lines’ vessels typically carry now.

Viking takes to the seas

Well-known Viking River Cruises launched Viking Star, the first in a series of ocean-going ships for its new Viking Ocean Cruises. CEO Torstein Hagen is daring to be different by going midsize (930 passengers) and pledges his line will be known for enrichment, destinations, and “no nickel and diming.”

Crystal Cruises embarks on huge expansion

Under new ownership, this highly rated luxury line has grand-scale, multi-billion-dollar plans. It’s going to build a trio of big, posh, ice-class expedition ships, while branching into yacht, river, and private jet travel. The expansion has begun, with the yacht Crystal Esprit just inaugurated in the Seychelles. Next up: five river vessels for Europe.

A new “social impact” brand

Fathom is courting people who want to travel with purpose and make a difference in the places they visit. Passengers will take part in multi-day volunteer programs, from making water filters to teaching children English. This 10th brand in the giant Carnival Corp. family is set to begin sailing to the Dominican Republic and Cuba in Spring 2016.

River cruising roars

Driven by the breathtaking growth and big advertising budget of Viking River Cruises, this style of travel has become wildly popular. Brands like AmaWaterways, Uniworld, American Cruise Lines, and, new to the scene, Emerald Cruises and Scenic Cruises, are steadily building, too. Plus, Crystal River Cruises is about to launch. River routes range from the Mississippi to the Mekong, and France’s Bordeaux wine region is one of the hottest new destinations.

More inclusive pricing

Bundling a choice of beverage packages, gratuities, shore excursions, Wi-Fi, and other onboard purchases into the up-front fare became a widespread promotional practice. Cruisers who choose to pay more upfront often get savings compared to making these purchases on the ship. Could the shock of big bills at the voyage end become a thing of the past?

Affordable, high-speed Wi-Fi

Dramatically faster Internet service at dramatically lower prices finally became a reality at sea. Thanks to new lower-orbit satellites and hybrid systems that harness satellites, land-based antennas, and Wi-Fi from port connections, scores of ships are helping cruisers stay better connected. On some, users can even stream video—unheard of until now.

Longer stays, more overnights in ports

That’s the mantra of destination-focused Azamara Club Cruises. But many lines, from Viking to Oceania Cruises to Celebrity Cruises and beyond, are stretching their stays in port, giving passengers more hours to experience the destinations. And overnights allow for indulging in dinners, concerts, and other cultural events ashore—some curated exclusively for the ship. Plus, cruisers can savor the nightlife that makes places like Ibiza and Monte Carlo famous.

LNG cruise ships

In what will be a huge leap on the environmental front, Carnival Corp. inked a contract to build four ships powered by super-clean-burning liquefied natural gas. This will drastically cut harmful exhaust. Two of the ships are for Italian brand Costa Cruises and two for Germany’s AIDA Cruises.

Turnover at the top

Leadership changes at major lines—Carnival, Cunard, Costa, and Norwegian, among them—followed the 2014 turnovers at Holland America, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean. This brings fresh thinking to the industry as new presidents make their marks. There’s more diversity at the top, as well, with leaders who are (variously) women, African American, and openly gay.

Anne Kalosh doesn’t count the cruises she’s taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she’s on top of the latest cruise developments as the long-time U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review.