When Dirk Bocklage launched his vegan cruise company in 2014, it was still a niche lifestyle. Back then, he remembers his friends in Germany laughing at him when he brought vegetables, and only vegetables, along to a barbecue. Seven years later, veganism still hasn’t quite hit the mainstream, but Vegan Travel, which was initially cooked up over a few German lagers with a vegan restaurateur friend, has gone from strength to strength.

The first ever vegan river cruise set sail from Cologne, Germany, in 2014 and ended in Basel, Switzerland, with only Germans on board. By 2020, before the pandemic hit, Vegan Travel was operating three to five cruises every year with 60-70% of its passengers from abroad, hailing from the likes of the UK, America, Canada and Australia. The nuances of his clientele have also evolved. On Vegan Travel’s first cruise there were only vegans on board, except for two or three meat-eaters who were travelling with their partners. Now at least one-third of the company’s customers are not fully vegan. One of its two ocean-going cruises – in Norway in 2017 – attracted 1,040 guests from around the world, many of whom were interested in finding out more about the health and environmental benefits of a vegan diet.

Sandy Pukel, who founded vegan cruise company Holistic Holiday at Sea (HHAS) ten years before Vegan Travel’s first river cruise set sail, has seen similar growth. Alongside providing three vegan meals a day, HHAS focuses on educating guests about the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle through classes and lectures.

Its first cruise in 2004 had 400 guests; now that number is in the thousands and Pukel says the pandemic has made people even more open to HHAS’s message.

This is borne out by recent statistics. In the US, plant-based food sales rose nearly twice as much as overall retail food sales in 2020, surging 27% to $7bn, according to the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and The Good Food Institute (GFI).

Meanwhile, research conducted in the UK showed than around one in five people have eaten more vegetarian or vegan food since the start of the pandemic, with a similar number saying that Covid-19 means it's more likely they'll become fully vegetarian or vegan from now on. Reasons cited included not only animal welfare and environmental impact, but also personal health and concern over the hygiene quality of meat products.

“One of the reasons our guests want to go on a vegan cruise is because they’re looking for inspiration, so we encourage our chefs to be as creative as possible.”

Dirk Bocklage

Veganising menus

To satiate this desire for plant-based cuisine, Vegan Travel and HHAS both team up with existing cruise operators to offer their vegan packages. While Bocklage has built partnerships with the likes of Tauck River Cruising, South American Australis and CroisiEurope, HHAS offers its annual Caribbean cruise in collaboration with MSC. A potential partnership with Holland America for a second voyage each year may also be on the cards.

In both cases, the vegan tour companies bring their own staff on board to work closely with the ship’s existing chefs to ‘veganise’ their menus, a process that invariably leads to the cruise line introducing more vegan dishes to their programming.

“Usually, the chefs we work with are very open-minded and they really enjoy veganising their menus,” Bocklage says. “One of the reasons our guests want to go on a vegan cruise is because they’re looking for inspiration, so we encourage our chefs to be as creative as possible.”

At Vegan Travel, many dishes are inspired by the regions through which the ships sail. One of Bocklage’s favourites is the vegan Wiener Schnitzel, offered on cruises that dock in Vienna. It’s made from celery and served with a slightly hot wasabi potato salad. “Often chefs will say they offered the vegan dishes to the crew and they loved them, so why should we offer meat all the time when we can have a nice and healthy vegan version?” Bocklage smiles. Of course, these customers are also a financial boon to cruise lines. HHAS, Pukel says, brings MSC thousands of potential clients who would never have considered cruising otherwise.

Elevated offerings

Other cruise line chefs, like Anton Egger, Seabourn’s culinary consultant and master chef, have taken the initiative themselves. The line has been serving vegan dishes for many years as part of its daily menu options for all dining venues on its ships. But Egger has recently decided to elevate Seabourn’s vegan offering, partly in response to discussions he has been having with his circle of high-profile chef friends about the growing demand for plant-based options.

At Earth & Ocean, a concept that launched on the Seabourn Ovation in 2018, guests can enjoy oven roasted cauliflower with yuzu crema, toasted panko, pomegranate vinaigrette and cauliflower puree, or Ranchero Gordon’s beans and vegetables cassoulet, fingerling potatoes, roasted heirloom tomatoes, dusty vegetable ash and micro arugula.

“I believe people, in general, very much underestimate the taste and flavours of vegan cuisine because they are not properly introduced to great-tasting and creative vegan food,” Egger says. “Once they are, then they love it and then this ‘vegan’ subject creates more awareness around the wellbeing lifestyle and helps reduce the animal products in their daily diet.”

Egger practices what he preaches and has reduced the quantity of meat in his own diet. He’s also used the pause forced by the pandemic to get even more creative with his vegan menus. His slow-braised Vietnamese inspired mushroom bolognese with preserved finger limes, Japanese ramen noodles and fresh grated vegan cheese is a twist on the traditional Italian staple pasta and tastes, while passengers on the line’s Greek sailings can now expect his Greek-style version of the French vegetable dish ratatouille.

What about the environment?

Bocklage is often asked how he reconciles the inherent contradiction of a vegan cruise. “Many vegans are environmentally conscious; that’s why they don’t eat meat,” he says. “They wonder how we can operate a vegan cruise as [some] cruise ships [can be] bad for the environment.”

For this reason, Vegan Travel only charters the newest vessels on the market, which are powered by cleaner fuels and use energy-efficient technologies. “That way, we can somehow say this is brand new, it doesn’t burn fuel all the time, it also partly uses electricity,” says Bocklage. “River vessels are very different to ocean going vessels – they don’t burn heavy fuel, they use shore power wherever possible, they’re much greener.”

In 2019, Vegan Travel also started work on a ‘green ship project’, which has been put on hold due to the pandemic. “Realistically it will take at least ten years before such a vessel can be launched,” he admits. “But it’s important to have vision.”

Vegan travel lives on

In the meantime, Bocklage is convinced that more cruise lines will begin to rethink their F&B offers, and put more focus on vegan and plant-based options. “It’s still difficult to be on a Carnival or a Princess cruise and enjoy very nice vegan food,” he says. “Especially if you’ve been vegan for some time, you might be travelling on a ship with 2,000 non-vegans and seeing what they eat and how they eat it. But I guess it will become easier. Indeed, there might be another pandemic if people don’t change their way of eating.”

Egger’s top piece of advice is to know exactly what your goal is with your new menu or dishes. “You really need to understand the topic of vegan and plant-based menus,” he says. “What is vegan and what isn’t? There is a difference between vegan and a plant-based diets. “Vegans try to avoid or minimise all forms of animal exploitation, including that of bees. As a result, most vegans exclude honey from their diets, replacing it with plant-based sweeteners, ranging from maple syrup to blackstrap molasses. Plant-based diets do not necessarily eliminate animal products, but focus on eating mostly plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.”

For Bocklage, introducing fake meat to the menu is the easy option for operators. And while it’s a great way to begin convincing cruise passengers that cutting out meat doesn’t mean sacrificing flavour, Vegan Travel doesn’t feature plant-based sausages or burgers too heavily on its menus. “For non-vegans, it’s nice and appealing and it is a good start, but there’s so much more to vegan cooking,” he stresses. Egger agrees: “There are some really good factory-manufactured vegan products on the market today that also taste nice, however, I personally prefer homemade, fresh and, of course, creative vegan or plant-based cuisine.”

Vegan Travel had planned to run two Croatia voyages in 2020, which were put on hold for obvious reasons. The excitement in Bocklage’s voice is palpable as he explains that they are finally setting sail in the coming days. “They’re not fully booked, but we are happy to sail again,” he enthuses. “It still feels unreal somehow but it’s important to show people that vegan travel is still alive.”


The percentage surge of plant-based food sales in the US in 2020, nearly twice as much as overall retail food sales.


The amount generated by the 27% surge of plant-based food sales.