The Caribbean and the Mediterranean have long been the most popular cruising destinations in the world, but many of the biggest names in the industry, including Holland America, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean have, in recent years, responded to increased demand for new destinations and introduced a range of South American cruises.

These take in vibrant cities such as Rio and Buenos Aires and offer the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica.

Cruise Holidays, the biggest cruise agency in the US, reports that South American bookings were up 23% in 2008. Peter D Thomson, its vice-president and CEO, believes that even in tough economic times, consumers are not just led by price. “Our research has consistently shown that decisions about a cruise vacation are still based first and foremost on itinerary and a particular cruise line over pricing,” he says.

Holland America will not reveal what proportion of its business comes from South American cruises but Rick Meadows, executive vice-president for marketing, sales and guest programmes, says interest in South America has been strong for quite some time and continues to grow. “Our strategy is pretty much based on what kinds of experiences our guests look for and South America is high on their destination list, especially for travellers looking for new experiences,” he says.

South American sightseeing

Many of those visiting South America are experienced cruise ship travellers and are often affluent, older passengers who have time to travel further afield.

“We include a wide range of South African destinations to meet their needs,” says Meadows. “Certainly the ‘samba beat’ of Rio is a must for many. Others may want an overnight stay in Machu Picchu. Wine enthusiasts may be drawn to Chile and Argentina because of their excellent reputations for producing some of the world’s greatest wines. Others like the remoteness of Antarctica.”

For the 2009-2010 season, Holland America is offering cruises to South America on MS Prinsendam and on its newly refurbished MS Veendam, which features a resort pool and upgraded staterooms.

Destinations include a 20-day cruise to Antarctica, taking in Chile, Argentina, Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and Uruguay, and a 17-day South American trip from Fort Lauderdale that takes in Chile, Peru, Ecuador and the Panama Canal.

“South American cruise bookings were up 23% in 2008.”

The cruise industry has been quick to take advantage of the fact that South American cruises enable them to extend the cruising season. The South American season generally runs from November to April, allowing companies to reposition liners when they finish their northern hemisphere season in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Antarctica has been one of the real growth destinations in South America. The number of tourists there rose to 34,000 in 2007-2008, up from 12,000 in 2000-2001, according to figures from the US-based International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Meanwhile, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, cruises to Chile rose by 20% in 2005 and are set to increase. It also says that the ports of Arica, Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas will see significant growth.

As South America increases in popularity, the cruise industry is opening up new destinations. In Latin America, for example, the Columbian city of Cartagena de Indias has been visited by Royal Caribbean ships and the Colombian Government is heavily promoting cruise facilities in the city, which can host at least two major cruise vessels simultaneously plus all the necessary services.

Brazil is also seeing a number of ports visited by cruise ships for the first time. Alvaro Rodrigues, director of Brazil Shore Excursions, which organises tours for cruise ship passengers, says he has seen a big increase in the number of cruise ships using ports in the country. “In the past it just used to be Rio de Janeiro, now there is a lot more activity in the southern region and we have five new ports or anchorage areas close to resorts such as Buzios, Cabo Frio and Iha Bela along the coast of Sao Paulo State,” he says.

The Amazon ports of Manaus, Santarem and Parintins have also seen increased traffic and Rodrigues notes they are prepared to cope with the growing influx of visitors. “In December we had three cruise ships in Manaus, which is only a small port, but we have enough river boats for cruises, tour guides and coaches for all guests on shore excursions,” he says.

“As South America increases in popularity, the cruise industry is opening up new destinations.”

Changing trends

Rodrigues believes that in the future South America will see a significant increase in cruise ship visitors.

“The business is still seasonal. In the past it was just from November to February but now it’s from October to June and I think that South America will become a year-round cruise destination,” he says. “That’s not just because of the attractiveness of Brazil, but basically due to the fact that there are too many cruise ships in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean is saturated too.”

However, given the increasingly difficult economic climate, that may be some way off. A number of cruise companies are changing their itineraries at short notice and are pulling out of exotic, long-haul destinations. This is being done to focus on shorter cruises, closer to home.

Celebrity Cruises, for example, is discontinuing its cruises to Australia and New Zealand, scheduled for late 2009 and 2010. “Australia and New Zealand are charming and beautiful destinations, and we’re confident we’ll return again as our brand and fleet grows,” says president and CEO Dan Hanrahan. “Currently, though, our travel agent partners and guests have repeatedly said they want more options to sail with Celebrity from the eastern seaboard, where our brand was founded and still has a large and loyal base of cruisers. We’re pleased to present some very attractive cruise vacations from that region.”

It is a trend that has hit South American destinations. In October last year, Royal Caribbean announced that it was cancelling previously planned South American cruises this year on Radiance of the Seas and rerouting the vessel with cruises out of San Diego to the Mexican Riviera with destinations including Acapulco, Ensenada, and Puerto Vallarta.

“The Amazon ports of Manaus, Santarem and Parintins have seen increased cruise traffic.”

In a statement, the company says it has announced Mexican Riviera itineraries for the 2009-2010 winter and spring seasons and that Radiance of the Seas will extend its season from San Diego, offering west coast vacationers a total of 24 sailings ranging from four to 12 nights.

“Subsequently, the cruise line is announcing the cancellation of Radiance of the Sea‘s previously planned South America cruises during the same time period,” the statement says.

While South America, with its range of sights and experiences, has attracted record numbers of cruise ships in recent years, that trend may go into reverse, at least in the short term as the worldwide economic gloom deepens.