With pandemic at their backs, cruise lines make a splash with world cruises

When Richard Hahn, 57, and his wife Tina Hahn, 58, took their first post-pandemic cruise

When Richard Hahn, 57, and his wife Tina Hahn, 58, took their first post-pandemic cruise a year and a half ago, they were overcome with emotion.

As the ship pulled out of the Rotterdam, Netherlands port, the horn blared and they started crying, he recently recalled.

“It was like freedom,” he said, “just to be able to go out and do something normal again.”

It turns out that was just the beginning of the couple living their lives to the fullest. On Oct. 10, the Hahns, both retired electrical engineers who live in Navarre, boarded the Holland America Zuiderdam ship in Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

It’s the first leg of three cruise itineraries spanning 215 days on that ship, before finishing May 11, 2024. While they’ve been on 15 cruises, this three-part journey at sea is their longest by about 120 days.

The coronavirus pandemic completely shut down the global cruise sector for over a year starting in March 2020 due to COVID-19 outbreaks on ships. That hit South Florida’s economy particularly hard since PortMiami and Port Everglades are the two largest cruise ports in the United States.

The cruise industry has staged a strong comeback, depicting its resilience. Nearly sold-out sailings for many of the longest voyages — such as the one the Hahns are enjoying — leaving from now through early 2024 represent the final piece of the cruising resurgence. People are paying $25,000 to over $100,000 to sail around the world.

“Without a doubt, we’re seeing more of them,” said Steve Gulko, senior luxury cruise and vacation specialist at Luxury Cruise Connections. “It’s a very good money maker as they don’t have the turnover of getting guests on and off the ship.”

For the Hahns, it’ll be three consecutive cruises over six months with no rest, and each departing from Port Everglades. They are now circumnavigating Africa on a 73-day voyage with the ship stopping in 22 countries. This is preparation for the third leg, the biggie — the 128-day world voyage.

The Hahns are among millions worldwide who have resumed cruising. The long around-the-globe trips they are braving, either customized by passengers or offered by cruise companies, have gained renewed popularity.

Richard Hahn and his wife, Tina Hahn, of Navarre, left on Oct. 10, 2023 on the first leg of three voyages on the Zuiderdam. In total, the couple will be at sea for 215 days, resuming life on land in May 2024.

In addition to Holland America, Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner has a 132-day cruise for 700 passengers that is nearly sold out, said Andrea Demarco, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. It will depart from Miami on Jan. 6, 2024.

Earlier, Royal Caribbean International’s 274-day cruise, its longest ever and initial plunge into worldwide voyages, will sail from its Miami home port on Dec. 10, 2023. That ship holds 2,702 people, and 70% of the rooms were sold the first week the cruise went on sale, said Kara Wallace, the company’s chief marketing officer.

The Cruise Lines International Association “State of the Cruise Industry” report, released in September, projected 31.5 million passengers will sail in 2023, a 54% increase from 2022. That would beat the previous record of 29.7 million passengers in 2019. The growth is expected to continue through next year, with 36 million travelers anticipated aboard cruise ships.

What is driving the trend?

When cruising initially restarted in 2022, some ports weren’t ready, limiting itineraries. Now, operating world trips shows that, “cruising is back,” said Beth Bodensteiner, chief commercial officer of Holland America, a subsidiary of Miami-based Carnival Corp. Company research on people sailing since the pandemic ended last year showed many avid cruisers want to “make up for lost time,” she said.

Demarco, the leader of Regent Seven Seas, agreed.

“You are seeing trends in the luxury space where people want to travel for longer, they want to go to more exotic destinations, and they want to do it in more of an all-inclusive experience,” she said.

“There are a lot of people who have the time, who have the money, want the luxurious experience, and want to see the world.”

With the world essentially wide open for travel to many different destinations by land, air or sea, it raises a key question: What draws people to these longer cruises given the many other vacation options?

For some, it’s recent brushes with their own mortality or confronting life’s unexpected turns. These sentiments deepened during and since the pandemic.

Jocelyne Esterer, 59, from Alberta, Canada, and her husband Brent Esterer, 59, also departed Port Everglades on Holland America’s Zuiderdam ship on Oct. 10. And they, too, will be on the water for 215 days.

The Esterers are experienced cruisers — they’re veterans of 24 cruises — but never longer than 79 days.

They went all-in this year, she said, because “I feel like the world is falling apart.”

Jocelyne Esterer, of Alberta, Canada, enjoys a drink in the Neptune Lounge aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam before it leaves Port Everglades on Oct. 10, 2023 on the first leg of a three-part 215-day world cruise. Jocelyne and her husband, Brent Esterer, are making the journey.

They decided “now is the time to fill the bucket list,” she said, seated in a plush lounge on the ship where sandwiches and drinks were served.

They are both cancer survivors. Her husband has been free of the disease for two years, and she for one year. But they know there are no guarantees. So they sold a house they owned and are spending the money. “We’re living it up,” she said.

Jan Austin, 83, who lives in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, also will be aboard Holland America’s world voyage. She fell in love with cruising along with her husband. After her husband’s death, maintaining a four-bedroom house in Virginia Beach, where the two had lived, became too much work for her.

“It was just too big, too much yard, too much everything,” she said. And her social circle in Virginia was small.

So she moved 12 years ago to Lewistown, where she has a couple of friends and is much closer to her daughter and grandchildren in New York City.

On cruises, she regularly runs into friends she met on previous voyages, going back to 2007.

“We drink together at the bar at night,” and go on excursions off the ship during the day, she said, all while escaping the East Coast winters she increasingly can’t endure.

PortMiami expects passenger record

PortMiami expects the finally tally to surpass 6.8 million cruise passengers for fiscal year Oct. 1, 2022 through Sept. 30, 2023. That would be a 70% increase over the 4 million passengers during the 2021-22 season ruined by the pandemic. The port, among the busiest in the world, recorded 6.8 million cruise passengers during the 2019-2020 season before the public health crisis emerged.

Meanwhile, cruising activity at Port Everglades is bustling, too. It expects 2.9 million cruise passengers for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2023, said Jonathan Daniels, port CEO and director. That annual number would remain below the port’s high water mark of 3.9 million, but he expects to reach that volume in 2025.

Globally, the cruise sector is also thriving.

Surprisingly, this is occurring while trip prices are skyrocketing. According to Cruise Critic, owned by Tripadvisor, the average minimum cost of a 5-night cruise from the United States to the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Bermuda this December is $736, a 37% increase from December 2022. That is 10 times the 3.7% inflation rate in the United States during the 12-month period ending in September.

Stephanie Lipton, 75, was in Manhattan one block from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. At work as a corporate attorney, she saw both airplanes hit the trade center towers. Trying to get home, she rushed to the subway, but it caught fire. Fireman rescued her.

After that trauma, she moved to Montana. But the snow was too much for her. That is when she took up cruising. Today she lives in Aptos, California, near Santa Cruz, and is preparing to go on Holland America’s 128-day world voyage.

“My closest friends today are people I’ve met on the cruises,” Lipton said.

For many cruisers interviewed for this story, the appeal of cruising is the pampering the ships crew members do for passengers and the overall travel experiences.

Sandy Sneed, 82, who lives in Houston, is also about to go on her longest cruise, a 132-day 2024 world cruise. She’ll sail on the Regent Seven Seas Mariner slated to depart from PortMiami on Jan. 6, 2024. The ship will dock in 33 countries, including India and Greece, and have 66 ports of call.

“I’m a woman. And the idea that they clean my room twice a day, they shop for and cook my food, and they serve it to me,” is a huge appeal, Sneed said. “You’ve got fresh towels and fresh linens. It’s wonderful.”

Houstonian Sandy Sneed, second from right, is shown on a cruise Christmas Day 2022. Sneed will be going on Regent Seven Seas Mariner 132-day world cruise that will leave PortMiami on Jan. 6, 2024.

For others, the longer cruises’ specific itineraries are the draw.

For example, the Hahns planned on traveling to Africa when the pandemic started, and so had to put that trip on hold. They also have interest in Japan, a big part of Holland America’s grand world voyage. So they decided this cruise would be their 35th wedding anniversary present to each other.

Switching to bigger ships

Holland America and Regent have operated world cruises before at about the same length as the current trips of around 130 days. Now they see passenger bookings on a sharp rise.

Last year, Holland America started using the larger Zuiderdam which holds 1,964 passengers, 565 more than the prior ship.

A worker loads boxes of supplies on Holland America’s Zuiderdam in Port Everglades as the ship is preparing for departure on Oct. 10, 2023.

This year, the company has seen a 25% increase in passenger reservations for 25-day or longer cruises and a 117% increase in bookings for cruises 50 days or longer.

“I have never seen such increases,” said Bodensteiner, Holland America’s chief commercial officer.

Meanwhile, Regent switched from a ship that holds 500 passengers to one with room for nearly 700.

That 2024 world cruise has had the strongest launch in company history, selling out within three hours, said Demarco, president of Regent Seven Seas. And already the cruise line has scheduled an even longer 2025 world cruise for a company record 150 nights.

Royal Caribbean’s maiden world voyage

In one of most watched debuts, Royal Caribbean will offer an around-the-world cruise, totaling 274 days — the company’s longest voyage. The ship, Serenade of the Seas, will carry 2,702 passengers. Dubbed the ultimate world cruise, it will sail to 60-plus countries and hit all seven continents. Departing Miami on Dec 10, 2023, the passengers will get to visit global landmarks such as Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Great Wall of China.

“It’s a giant test for them,” said Matt Hochberg, an analyst who started the Royal Caribbean blog, which isn’t affiliated with the company.

It won’t be a typical trip for a traditional mass-market cruise line, Hochberg said.

“But I think a lot of their customers were telling them ‘We love Royal Caribbean, we’d love to go on a world cruise, and we don’t want to go on another line.’ ” And so, the company responded.

Wallace, Royal Caribbean’s chief marketing officer, said the company’s upcoming world voyage is a way to tap into the pent-up demand for travel resulting from the pandemic years.

“It was a clear opportunity for us to introduce something we’d never done before,” she said.

One couple who will be joining Royal Caribbean’s longest cruise will be Mike and Nancy Jacobs, from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although avid cruisers having taken 15 voyages, the longest one for them has been seven days. Now, they will be at sea for 274 days.

“’What are you thinking?’’ he said he gets asked a lot.

Mike and Nancy Jacobs, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, shown here on an earlier cruise, will be going on Royal Caribbean’s first world cruise. The 274-day voyage will leave PortMiami on Dec. 10.

They are at a good spot in their lives to take the trip. Their children are grown and married. Plus, the Jacobs are healthy. He plans to go scuba diving at at least eight different spots on the itinerary.

Also, they will be stepping away from a catering business they own. They considered postponing the world cruise for a few years until they retire, but a young family member’s recent cancer diagnosis made them reconsider.

“It is too easy to always put off these things until tomorrow,” Mike Jacobs said. “Life is way too short and you just don’t ever, ever know what’s going to happen.”

Challenges of long cruises

The long cruises come with their own challenges. Geopolitical events are nearly certain to change some itineraries.

While the pandemic may be over, these cruises contend with cyclone season, typhoon season, canal transits, the difficulties of navigating the Amazon River, and piracy waters, said Friso Kramer Gezegd Freher, the 46-year-old captain of the Holland America Zuiderdam, on its current trip to Africa and the second half of the grand world voyage.

“If the cruise is longer, these are risks,” he said, and so it is important for him to communicate to passengers that everything may not go as planned.

But the cruises have advantages over flying and hotel costs.

“You wake up in the morning and your hotel is sitting in a new country,” Mike Jacobs said. “You just get off the ship and go explore. You do what you want, you come back, your dinner is ready for you, your bed is made, you have a drink.”

And when the ship departs late, as in the case of Holland America’s Zuiderdam departure on Oct. 10 from Fort Lauderdale, you stay on board, swim in the pool, or play basketball on deck. Or in the case of Tina Hahn, stay on hold on the phone with AT&T, trying to get the landline service suspended back home in Navarre.

Two passengers play basketball on the court on Holland America’s Zuiderdam ship prior to departure from Port Everglades on Oct. 10, 2023.