Europe is no longer solely a summer cruising destination. UK-based Fred Olsen Cruises offers December itineraries to the Christmas markets of Germany and Denmark, while P&O’s cruises to the Norwegian fjords and the wider Baltic region extend well into the winter season. Elsewhere, MSC Cruises has two ships in the Mediterranean all year, and German operator AIDA this year became the first cruise line to offer itineraries departing from Germany all year round, with winter 2016/17 options including the Norwegian fjords, and the Canary and Azores Islands.

Although the Norwegian fjords and German Christmas markets might not be the perfect cruise destinations for travellers looking for their fix of winter sun, they certainly hit the spot for others, as evidenced by the growing number of year-round European itineraries being introduced across the cruise industry.

Beyond the route

While continuing cruise routes through the winter season alleviates certain challenges for operators – such as the difficulty of repositioning ships – it also brings up other challenges such as bad weather, poor accessibility to attractions and infrastructure that simply wasn’t built for year-round cruising. Strong communication between ports, destinations and cruise lines, therefore, will be crucial to the future of this fast-emerging trend.

For Gianluca Suprani, head of global port development and shore activities at MSC Cruises, this new paradigm is being driven by two factors: demand and economic considerations for operators.

“Previously, many cruise lines thought that there would not be enough demand to justify operating in the Mediterranean in the winter season due to weather conditions,” says Suprani. “The fact that we have two ships dedicated to the Mediterranean during the winter season, with two successful itineraries, is proof that traditional seasons can be extended – and this is a trend I see continuing.”

He adds that there are also operational advantages to leaving ships in one region all year round. “The repositioning of ships between summer and winter itineraries is always a challenge for cruise lines, as it causes a disruption to normal operations. When a ship moves from one region to another, cruise lines have to create a single longer itinerary. From an operational perspective, this means on-board products – such as menus and entertainment – must be altered for just one cruise, which can be difficult and time-consuming.

“It is also difficult to attract guests that will be able to book a holiday of up to 20 nights, as most guests have full-time jobs and only have a limited number of days off from work each year.”

Better together

Cruise lines such as MSC and P&O – with the likes of AIDA hot on their heels – have already demonstrated that the traditional European cruise season can be extended well into the winter, but with this comes new challenges for the sector, particularly in the northern reaches of the continent.

“These include the accessibility and range of many shore excursions, as well as weather conditions such as ice on the roads to many scenic views,” says Cruise Europe chairman Captain Michael McCarthy. “The safety of passengers on shore excursions has to be the primary consideration.” He adds that another consideration is that many attractions close for the winter, often for maintenance or to reduce running costs such as staff pay and heating.

To overcome these challenges, McCarthy believes it is essential that itineraries are planned in cooperation with ports and destination managers, and that flexibility is built into those itineraries. “Very close cooperation with the ports and attractions is key, as unfulfilled promises, cancellations or missed calls will impact the future growth and commitment from these ports to accept the all year-round concept,” he says.

Norway receives up to 14 cruises in February and March, yet some of the most popular shore excursions have limited capacity, such as dog sledding, which depends on the availability of dogs. The industry addressed this by initiating an open dialogue between the different partners involved.

“To cover demand from cruise guests, ships stay overnight to allow excursions to operate over two or even three days,” explains Cruise Norway’s managing director Sandra Diana Bratland. “It can be a challenge when more than one ship calls on the same day, but incoming agents and local operators are doing a fantastic job with the logistics, and have a good dialogue between them and with the ships.” She says that she hopes these lessons will be passed on to more ports across the country.

“Some ports have established themselves as strong winter cruise destinations and we would like to see more ports visited off-season. This requires product development, extended capacity and extended opening for some attractions, but, most importantly, early opening and foreseeable opening dates for winter-closed roads,” she says.

Infrastructure upgrades: essential

It is also crucial that port infrastructure can support year-round itineraries, particularly when ships are staying overnight.

“Bollards, fendering and gangways must be substantial enough to cater for potential winter storms and increasing ship sizes,” McCarthy explains. “Moreover, sheltered covering on access bridges as passengers transfer from ships to coaches are essential.

“Accumulations of ice or snow also need to be removed, treated or sanded to avoid slips, trips or falls; and as ships may, at times, be operating at the limit of their propulsion systems, the availability of harbour tugs to assist berthing is another crucial safety factor.”

The use of ‘tendering ports’, where a ship is not able to pull up to a pier or dock because the water is too shallow, could also be severely limited, as the transferring of passengers into tenders – small vessels that take them to shore – gets much trickier during bad weather.

“The clientele are more likely to be of an older age, due to other guest groups’ family, work and school commitments,” McCarthy notes. “It may also be possible that a ship at anchor would have to heave up and depart due to changing weather, meaning passengers tendered ashore may not have a ship to return to.”

A trend that’s here to stay

Despite the challenges ahead, all three industry experts are convinced that year-round cruising is here to stay, with destinations and cruise lines committed to making the new paradigm work.

AIDA’s newest vessel, which will offer cruises departing from Germany all year round and was designed to keep passengers entertained whatever the weather, is a great example of this commitment. Its Four Elements activity deck, which features water slides, a lazy river, a spacious sports deck and an enormous LED wall for watching sports, boasts a foil dome that can be expanded in the winter.

At the AIDA Beach Club, too – complete with palm trees and pool – guests can enjoy a relaxed beach atmosphere even in the colder months, thanks to a UV-permeable foil dome that is almost invisible to the eye, and also serves as a projection surface for a virtual starry sky or laser shows when the sun goes down.

Towns and cities, too, are putting more effort into marketing themselves as winter destinations. In Norway, for example, north-western town Bodø has been developing its winter cruise product, and now offers excursions including deep-sea fishing and ‘hunting the light’ – where guests are served mulled wine while enjoying the sight of the Northern Lights – while established cruise destination Oslo is also making more of an effort for January, February and March.

“You can learn how to ski and snowboard at Oslo Vinterpark, and all the major attractions and museums are open to the public. It is also possible to ice skate in Spikersuppa, in the heart of the city,” Bratland says.

Other new additions to Norway’s winter offering include overnight stays at Narvik’s Polar Park Wolf Lodge, a lodge in the middle of a huge wolf enclosure with windows in the roof for taking in the Northern Lights; and year-round boat trips to the marble caves near cruise port Molde-Åndalsnes. A growing number of museums and activities are also open for the whole year country-wide, further broadening the range of activities on offer.

As Suprani emphasises, it isn’t just the decision from a cruise line to extend its season in a region that will ensure a successful year-round operation; careful management of multiple stakeholders is essential. He says: “Cruise lines, ports, local authorities and tourist boards must work together to ensure that the extended season meets the needs and expectations of guests.”