When the Costa Concordia struck rock off the west coast of Italy in January, leaving 32 people dead, so sank the heart of the cruise industry. The constant images of the sinking ship helped prolong what had already been a slow year for the industry.
Now, cruise lines are trying new ways to bring travellers back on board. Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of the popular website Cruise Critic, takes us through some of them. She was reached by phone on a cruise off Turkey.
How has the industry changed since the sinking of the Costa Concordia?
The industry is, at least publicly, paying much more attention to safety. It used to be that cruise lines would say, "Come to the muster [safety] drill." But they wouldn't really tell you what they would do if something goes wrong. Now they are being much more specific about the efforts to ensure that you are as safe as possible. They have to do that because after the accident, people were afraid to get back on ships.
The second thing is, they really are taking it more seriously, and the passengers are too. I just got back from a muster drill and everybody was there, everybody was on time. They were quiet and listening. They weren't drinking beer and snapping gum and saying hello. Every ship, according to international standards, has to do a muster drill within the first 24 hours on board. But one of the things that has changed is that [many cruises] now do it before people leave the dock.
So the Costa Concordia sent a shiver throughout the whole industry?
It sent a huge shiver.
Has this affected the tastes of travellers? Are more deciding to skip the Mediterranean this year?
2011 was a disappointing year for cruises, and 2012 was supposed to be the comeback year. But, really, in the first couple of months following the accident, everybody was freaked out. People who have cruised before understand that it was very unusual. They get that it was a bizarre, once-in-a-lifetime scenario and haven't let it distract them from booking, and [those] people have gotten the best deals we have seen since the recession in 2008 and 2009.
It's been more damaging in the new-to-cruise market – people who have never cruised and might have been thinking of one. Those people are definitely not on the fence any more. That was a big loss for the industry. Those folks, I don't think, have come back.
Who do those massive, multistory cruise ships cater to? First-time cruisers?
I think so. We've done some polls [on our website] and have asked, 'If you haven't cruised yet, what's keeping you back.' People don't want to be confined, they don't want to be claustrophobic. They want to have 25 different restaurants – I may be exaggerating a little bit, maybe 15.
For the more discerning cruisers, what is trendy now?
First of all, European river cruising: hot, hot, hot! All the major cruise lines are designing brand-new ships. You can just pull up to Vienna, go on into the city and stay overnight. [It's] a great way to see parts of Europe you will never see on the big ships.
Hot places to go? The Baltic is hot: Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki and St. Petersburg being the marquee stops. It's always been the step-sister to the Mediterranean. We're seeing a really big jump in popularity there.
And North American river cruising is rebounding.
There are two lines operating on the Mississippi this year. You've got the St. Lawrence Seaway. You've got the ones doing the inland coastal Chesapeake Bay, and one in Oregon doing the Columbia River.
This interview has been edited and condensed.