Smaller cruise companies on both sides of the Atlantic are joining forces in a determined bid to set themselves apart from the mass market cruise giants, whose reputations have taken a battering during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The independent lines, which operate vessels that in some cases take just a handful of passengers, are keen to carve out their own identity as an alternative to the mega-ships that have increasingly dominated the cruise industry.
The Scottish Small Cruise Ship Association, established last autumn with eight member companies that have 15 boats between them, is marking its first summer.
A leading member is The Majestic Line, which usually operates sailings through the Hebrides on four boats accommodating up to 12 passengers, two of which are converted fishing craft.
“At the moment, it’s an informal group of small ships who cruise on the west coast of Scotland, mainly from Oban, and covers a variety of operations,” said Majestic Line’s managing director Kenneth Grant.
Having been established primarily for operational co-operation, he hopes the association will become an integral part of Visit Scotland’s Coasts and Waters marketing campaign and could eventually launch its own website promoting small ship cruising in Scottish waters and containing members’ details.
Dr Grant said the beauty of cruising off the Scottish coast and among the Hebridean islands had been a hidden secret for years, but the area was gradually opening up as more lines started to operate there.
“When we first set up The Majestic Line over 15 years ago there was nothing between the Hebridean Princess [run by Hebridean Island Cruises], which carries 50 passengers, and the dive boats,” he said.
“Now there are several companies offering small ship cruises of 12 passengers or less.”
The Majestic Line chief was optimistic that there would be strong demand for future sailings despite the hit the industry has taken from the Covid-19 pandemic. The boutique line hopes to resume operations in August, and expects 2021 to be busier than ever.
“For the first time, we are getting a lot of approaches from people who say they have cruised before, but they never want to go on a big ship again and wish to try smaller boats. I’m feeling very confident,” he added.
The other members of the Scottish association are Argyll Cruising, Hebrides Cruises, St Hilda Sea Adventures, Northern Light Cruising Company, the Flying Dutchman tall ship, Gaelic Rose dive charter boat, and VentureSail Holidays.
Another grouping of cruise companies to have recently formed is the US-based Small-Boat Operators Coalition – made up of seven specialist cruise lines that joined together in April in direct response to the dramatic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on America’s cruise industry.
Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, UnCruise Adventures, American Queen Steamboat Company, Blount Small Ship Adventures, The Boat Company, Lindblad Expeditions are all members.
Initiated by expeditionary line UnCruise Adventures, its members are all US-registered and employ US crews, unlike major cruise lines which sail under so-called flags of convenience ranging from Malta to Panama.
This proved to be such a point of contention among the US authorities and the American public that companies such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Corporation, which owns brands including P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises, were excluded from President Trump’s stimulus bailout to US businesses.
However, concerns that the entire cruise industry was being tarred with the same brush prompted expeditionary line UnCruise Adventures to set up the coalition with other niche US-registered lines.
While the coalition’s key aim was to ensure that, as US-registered entities, its members could legitimately claim state aid, another was to carve out their own identity and educate consumers on the type of adventure cruises they offered.
UnCruise chief executive Dan Blanchard, who led the initiative, said the group had achieved more clout as a collective with government officials and was educating the public on the differences of small boat sailing and the different cruising experiences this brings.
“Many travellers are familiar with cruise lines, but not as many with small boat adventure travel,” said Blanchard.
“Giving the small boat coalition a voice has been fundamental in helping travellers find new options and understand the differences in the size of cruise lines and small boats.”
Their efforts appear to have paid off, with Blanchard reporting an upturn in searches and enquiries from interested consumers, proving that small boat cruise lines have not only found their collective voice – but more travellers are listening.