Walking up to the Norwegian Star is a dizzying experience. The cruise ship, or the “floating resort,” as Norwegian Cruise Line executives refer to her, is of incomprehensible size.
Docked recently at the Haifa port for the first time ever, the white of the ship’s exterior shone in the sunlight. Many of the ship’s 2,300 passengers had disembarked for the day, taking advantage of the stopover to visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And while the Singapore- bound vacationers jumped ship, a small group of journalists hopped on board to see what all the fuss was about.
The cruise industry is one of the strongest players in the global vacation game. More than 20 million people embark on cruises each year, reaching destinations throughout the globe. These cruises vary in length, luxury level and itinerary, offering travelers endless options when it comes to sailing the seas.
Norwegian Cruise Lines was founded in 1966 as the Norwegian Caribbean Line. Over the years, the Miami-Dade County-based company has grown to include three brands, Norwegian, Regent and Oceania, each with its own distinct market. Today, NCL controls 8% of the international cruise market and is known for its free style approach to cruising.
“We want our guests to feel free,” says Francis Riley, senior vice president of international sales, marketing and operations. “We offer an à la carte cruise option, which means that you can choose how you want to spend your money on board. That can go towards shore excursions, Internet or the kids’ club.”
A great example of how the cruise line puts choice at the center of the experience is dining, Riley says.
“You can eat with whomever you like whenever you like in any of the ships many restaurants,” he says. “For guests, that is a very big deal. And what we’ve learned is that if you get the dining right, the world is 99% happy.” Aside from the general dining hall, the Star boasts a number of restaurants including an American-style steak house, a sushi bar, a French bistro and an Italian tavern.
Riley, along with Nick Wilkinson, senior director and general manager of North Africa and the Middle East, are well-traveled British men, well versed in sailing lingo and feel at home on board the Star.
It is rare for them to meet however.
They each flew in, Riley from Miami and Wilkinson from London, to witness NCL’s first docking in Israel.
Riley and Wilkinson head for the ship’s theater, where guests see Broadway productions like Rock of Ages and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
The Norwegian Star is currently home to a cabaret show called Paradis, a mash-up of show tunes and acrobatics. “We have a problem with Priscilla,” laughs Wilkinson, “the guests always insist on seeing it twice. But seriously, our shows are Broadway level. They are the full productions, with amazingly talented singers and dancers.
Entertainment is right up there with food in terms of importance.”
As part of the intensified focus on Israel, NCL has recently opened a Hebrew website, where guests can book directly on one of the 14 ships of the NCL fleet (until now, all cruises were booked through local travel agents).
The Israeli patron is fond of all-inclusive deals, which NCL sees as its direct competition.
“Israelis love cruises,” says Wilkinson. “This year, we hosted 12,000 Israeli guests. We are hoping to increase that number to 25,000 in the coming years. What we see with the Israeli market is a multi-generational customer group that likes to book spontaneously.”
Kosher meals are available on all NCL cruises but must be ordered at least one month before departure.
The Israeli initiative is part of the company’s reinvestment in marketing and guest-satisfaction.
“We have the youngest fleet afloat,” explains Riley. “All of our ships are either new or have been gut refurbished in the past few years. We have just put $50 million into making our ships look and feel modern. We have launched a major global expansion.
We have a few new ships on order, the Norwegian Joy, which will hold 4,200 guests and will be headed to China, and the Norwegian Bliss, which will be christened in 2018 and will sail for Alaska.”
Beyond the decks of the fleet, NCL has invested an enormous sum in cultivating its own destination.
This is the new trinket of the cruise industry. Rather than fuel the economies of foreign countries, major cruise lines have begun tailoring their own ports.
The implications of this trend are problematic in many ways, one of them being the environmental concern.
“We have our own island in the Bahamas called Harvest Caye. We dredged a mango swamp in order to make it. All of the construction was done in a green manner. The island allows guests to continue the on-board experience while on a shore excursion,” says Riley.
For now, Israel will stay as a port of call and not a departure point.
“For many reasons, we don’t plan to depart from Haifa at any time in the near future,” says Wilkinson.
Meaning Israelis will have continue to fly to Europe or further afield in order to get on board.