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Five-star hotel yachts vs luxury cruising: Who will come out on top?

The luxury cruise space is about to get more crowded with the addition of high-end hotel brands launching sleek new yachts.
Five-star hotel yachts vs luxury cruising: Who will come out on top?

Over the past decade, we’ve seen luxury cruise lines such as Silversea, Regent and Seabourn edging towards bigger and bigger ships. At the same time, a new cruising style has emerged. Superyachts that give you the yachting lifestyle without the cost of chartering your own vessel.

Scenic’s 228-passenger Eclipse was one of a kind when it launched in 2019. Then, sister line Emerald’s first yacht, Azzurra, offered a similar lotus-eating concept at a lower price point.

Now, small luxurious yachts are enjoying a moment in the sun. Last year saw the arrival of Scenic Eclipse II and Emerald Sakara. Ponant gave its venerable sailing yacht, Le Ponant, a complete refit in 2022. It attained Relais & Chateaux accreditation and raised the company’s profile in Australia with a 2023 Kimberley season. SeaDream Yacht Club, the veteran of luxury yacht cruising, has also given its two tiny ships a US$10m facelift.

The biggest ripples, arguably, are being caused by luxury hotel groups taking to the sea. The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection got off to a rocky start. Its first ship, Evrima, was delayed eight times due to Covid and shipyard issues. Now, however, a second, bigger ship, Ilma, is launching in September 2024, followed by a third, Luminara, in 2025.

Four Seasons is gearing up for the launch of its first yacht in 2025. Ultra-luxury group Aman has signed a contract with Italy’s T. Mariotti shipyard to construct a yacht for Aman at Sea, launching in 2027. Meanwhile venerable brand Orient Express has announced the 2026 launch of Silenseas. It is a 53-suite sailing yacht blending the golden age of sea travel with advanced technology.

What’s the appeal?

First, size and snobbery, as we crave personal space in a post-pandemic world, and access to exclusive ports. “Our guests enjoy the comfort of a 110-metre yacht with the ability to access the small ports,” says Judith Hainke, Emerald’s senior marketing manager.

SeaDream’s CEO Atle Brynestad agrees: “Size matters more than ever in the cruise industry. All ships are getting bigger and supersizing is also a trend within the luxury segment. You will never get the same experience or service on a ship with 1000, 500 or even 300 guests as you will get on a 100-guest yacht. Some guests come to us from other luxury lines because they feel ships are getting too big, and prefer smaller, more personalised experiences.”

For the new hotel-group yachts, it’s a matter of bringing the look and service of high-end resorts to the sea. And no expense is being spared in the luxury cruise space. Four Seasons’ first 190-passenger yacht takes inspiration in its lines from Aristotle Onassis’s legendary Christina O, still regarded as one of the most exquisite yachts at sea. It also comes with plenty of “firsts”. Not least two watersports marinas and 12 suites for guests bringing their own staff, such as a PA, minder or nanny.

The Funnel Suite will span four levels. It offers more than 898 square metres of space, including a private wading pool and its own spa. As a point of reference, the lavish Regent Suite on the new Seven Seas Grandeur, which also has its own mini-pool and spa, is 412.8 square metres.

“We are creating a unique hybrid vessel that will be unlike anything out there in the market,” says Thatcher Brown, Four Seasons Yachts’ chief commercial officer. “From its design and construction to the itinerary development to the amenities and services, we are redefining luxury at sea. More specifically, we’re spending US$4.3 million per stateroom against an industry average of approximately US$850,000 per stateroom. The yacht will have more space per guest than any vessel that exists. In fact, it will offer nearly 50 per cent more living space than our nearest competitor.”

Details of the unnamed new Aman yacht are scant so far. But we’ve been told to expect all-suite, all-balcony accommodation, an array of restaurants, a spa with a Japanese garden and a marina platform, the Beach Club. And two helipads.

What’s fuelling the growth in luxury cruising

What’s really fuelling this growth in yachting isn’t people jumping ship from Silversea or Seabourn. But an enormous and mostly untapped market of well-heeled travellers who usually choose luxury resorts. Reassured by the fact they’re going to get the same level of service as they would in, say, a land-based Ritz-Carlton hotel. Or any of the luxury brands in the Marriott empire – they’re suddenly yachting-curious. They’re also prepared to pay; a week on Evrima can cost almost double what it does on Seabourn.

One bonus in the case of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection is that guests can put their Marriott Bonvoy points towards luxury cruising.

“We estimate that over 75 per cent of our bookings include a Marriott Bonvoy member sailing with us,” says Kristian Anderson, senior vice president, global sales at The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. And why stop with a Ritz-Carlton yacht. The Marriott portfolio includes other luxury names such as St. Regis and W?

Another advantage for luxury-hotel groups is their ready-made infrastructure of luxury resorts. There are, for example, five Ritz-Carlton hotels within easy reach of Fort Lauderdale alone, which makes for a seamless pre-cruise experience for guests. Thatcher Brown adds: “Guests do not have to choose one leisure experience over the other, as there is an organic, genuine connection that exists between Four Seasons land and sea journeys. A voyage on the yacht can begin and/or end with a Four Seasons hotel. In some cases, the yacht will call on a port that is proximate to a Four Seasons hotel, in which case guests can visit the hotel as part of their shore visit.”

But where are Australians travelling?

These luxury yachts understandably tend to focus on big-hitting destinations of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. Unsurprisingly, Europe is the winner.

“Australians have shown a strong preference for our voyages in the Mediterranean, particularly enjoying Spain and the Greek Isles,” says Anderson. “Additionally, our new northern Europe itineraries have gained significant interest, with a particular focus on exploring UK heritage venues.”

For Emerald Cruises, Hainke says, the Mediterranean is ever popular. Croatia, Greece and Turkey, Italy and France are the itineraries of choice for 2024, with a new destination, the Seychelles, “exceeding expectations”. Australians looking for the superyacht experience but not the long flight now have the brand-new Scenic Eclipse II on the doorstep, arriving in April for a Kimberley season and excitingly, Antarctica in winter from Hobart and Dunedin in New Zealand.

Four Seasons’ Brown is bullish about the Australian market.

“As a source market for regional and long-haul guests, Australia is extremely valued and important. Beyond this, Australia has the highest penetration of ocean cruisers in the world, according to CLIA. With this in mind, we expect interest in Four Seasons Yachts to be robust.”

WORDS BY SUE BRYANT

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