The rise of cruise holidays: 'I vowed never to take one... now I've taken four in 12 months'
National Cruise Week
Sarah Marshall thought cruising was dull... before she took her first cruise. She sorts the myths from the reality.
There was a time when I vowed never to take a cruise holiday: too restrictive, too pedestrian and far, far too dull. Yet, in the last 12 months alone, I've been on four seafaring holidays and I already have a couple more planned.
Spending 14 days on a 'floating shopping precinct full of bored retirees' is still not my idea of a holiday, but the reality is that this type of cruise holiday is... well, quite far from the reality.
With new ships, new itineraries and a new-found willingness for tourists to set sail, such cliches about the cruise industry are rapidly disappearing.
In light of National Cruise Week, which runs until September 27, new research commissioned by ABTA, the UK's largest travel association, shows that cruising is growing in popularity. In the last 12 months, one in 10 (10pc) of British holidaymakers took a cruise - an increase from 7pc in 2014.
There are few stats for Irish cruisers, but recent years have seen both Royal Caribbean and MSC launch .ie websites, Royal Caribbean has hired an Irish PR agency, and Sunway has added a dedicated cruise section to its website.
So what's changed?
Part of the growth is down to returning passengers: 80pc of people who have been on a cruise said they'd like to go again. Proof that once they've dipped their toes in the water, most tourists appreciate the variety of possibilities for ocean or river-based breaks.
"In recent years the cruise market has expanded outside the traditional Mediterranean and Caribbean destinations and now offers an incredible variety of voyages, including Scandinavian cruises, Arctic cruises and European river cruises," says ABTA chief executive Mark Tanzer.
"The industry has also responded to customer demand for ships of varying size and scale, catering for every budget and taste."
For my own part, it's the accessibility of hard-to-reach locations that's brought me into the cruising fold. Admittedly, I'll never be a mainstream cruiser, but the choice of expedition voyages now available means I'll probably be spending a quarter of my time overseas, at sea.
How else would I get to see elephant seals battling on the beaches of South Georgia, or polar bears struggling to eke out a living on the rapidly declining sea ice around Svalbard?
The extended choice of cruise holidays has also attracted new markets. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of passengers are aged over 65 (13pc of that age group surveyed by ABTA took a cruise in the last 12 months), but they're closely followed by 25-34 year olds (12pc of this demographic had taken a cruise last year).
Regardless of age, the majority of travellers (77pc) are attracted to cruise holidays because they value the opportunity to visit multiple destinations.
Of course, there is still the option to travel on 6,000-passenger palaces such as Oasis of the Seas if that, ahem, floats your boat, but the experience is hardly the garish nightmare imagined.
Slick West End shows, restaurants guided by gourmet chefs and spas souped up beyond five-star standards, make these voyages a delight for many.
So, although I still struggle to admit I'm going on a cruise (I prefer to use the term "expedition"), I'll happily confess to being a convert to holidays spent at sea.
Pól Ó Conghaile adds:
As Irish holidaymakers get to know their cruises, more and more ships, itineraries and operators are expanding their options. Our colleagues here on Independent Travel offer cruises, MSC (msccruises.ie) and Royal Caribbean (royalcaribbean.ie) now have dedicated Irish websites, and you can check John Galligan Travel (jgt.ie), e-travel (e-travel.ie) and Sunway (sunway.ie/cruise) among others.
More cruise stories:Celebrity Equinox: A cruise of a lifetime on the Mediterranean Cruise ships ban captains from shaking guests' hands (but fist bumps are OK)