Cruise operators are seeking to attract a younger, thriftier generation of passengers by designing packages that emphasise value for money. In order for the cruise industry to thrive in the long-term, it can’t just rely on its traditionally older customer base.

Alcohol deals are seen as one way to appeal to a younger demographic, yet this strategy is not without its risks and consequences.

In July, the now notorious brawl erupted on the P&O Britannia off the coast of Norway. Six people needed medical attention, amid reports of plates being smashed and chairs being used as weapons.  Journalist Richard Gaisford was onboard and tweeted “there was blood everywhere”. A man and a woman were later arrested when the ship arrived at Southampton.

Early reports that the incident started due to someone being dressed as a clown were dismissed by police, with many pointing to excessive alcohol consumption as a result of drinks packages where passengers could pay £40 per person for up to 15 alcoholic drinks a day.

Does the cruise industry have a drinking problem?

According to principal lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton Dr Clare Weeden, a noticeable change in passenger behaviour has taken places on cruises in the last decade, largely caused by operators trying to appeal to younger consumers.

“When I took students on a P&O cruise in 2009, it went from Southampton to Lisbon and back again along the coast of France,” she says. “We had a fabulous time. They had the formal nights still, not every night, but formal dining. It was what you might expect from a cruise.”

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“Fast-forward to 2018, I took students on a P&O cruise to Bruges. Now, given that it was only a two-night cruise, it was like a booze cruise. It was such a different clientele, I was shocked. It was fascinating for the students, but we had hen parties, stag parties. Big groups of females, big groups of men, a much younger profile, much louder, and you could really see the interface between the traditional cruiser and the new cruiser who’s taking short cruisers.”

“Tourist behaviour notoriously changes when they’re away from home.”

It is common knowledge that people act differently when they’re on holiday and may end up consuming more alcohol than they normally would as they see it as part of the vacation experience.

“Tourist behaviour notoriously changes when they’re away from home. It’s the same thing. We lose our inhibitions, we do things on holiday we would never dream of doing in our own hometown,” adds Dr Weeden.

“They’re on a cruise and it’s like a bubble. It’s not real life, it’s a simulation of real-life and anything goes. It’s a bit like what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas. It’s the same for cruising.”

Richard Ward is a lecturer in hospitality at the University of Bournemouth and has written about how alcohol changes behaviour. He believes that inclusive drinks packages are encouraging people to consume more alcohol, which can often lead to negative behaviour and even violence.

“People feel: ‘I’ve already paid for it, I’m going to consume as much as I possibly can in order to get value from it’,” he says.

“Even between people that know each other, scuffles are quite common in all-inclusive. And that’s because people will overindulge, people will over-utilise. And therefore that sense of what’s right goes out of the window. People forget that they can’t make rational decisions when they’ve consumed that amount of alcohol. Therefore, violence erupts because people can’t control the anger within them and you get all measure of negative behaviours.”

Are inclusive drinks packages to blame?

Inclusive drinks packages are separate from all-inclusive cruise holidays. While some all-inclusive holidays do offer a set amount of drinks per day, specific drinks packages will almost always provide more alcohol. These packages are not generally offered for voyages lasting under two days, as the likelihood of excess alcohol consumption tends to increase on shorter trips.

Typically, drinks packages have to be either bought before departure, or within the first couple of days of the cruise. Most lines require the same package to be purchased by every adult sharing a cabin.

Another part of their appeal is they allow passengers to better budget their spending and avoid being hit by a hefty bar bill at the end of their trip.

“People would traditionally say ‘cruising is too expensive’ because they would see the overall price and think it doesn’t really compare well with a land-based holiday. So the industry has started to break it down into 24-hour prices for them, so people can compare quite easily to an all-inclusive resort,” says Weeden.

“People very rarely on their cruise ships actually drink to the amount that would make the drinks package not a revenue generator.”

In the terms and conditions for P&O’s £40 for 15 alcoholic drinks a day deal, it states that each drink can have a maximum value of up to £6.95 and the company reserves the right to refuse to serve anyone who is visibly intoxicated.

It is not just P&O offering these deals, a number of other operators also provide them. Carnival Cruise Line’s package includes beer, wine, cocktails and soft drinks. Prices are $51.95 a day in advance or $56.95 when onboard.

MSC Cruises has three alcoholic drinks packages available on set routes and must cover the duration of the holiday. Its Premium Plus package offers ‘unlimited’ drinks by the glass and costs $79 per person a day.

Another operator offering ‘unlimited’ drinks is Oceania Cruises with its Prestige Select package. Costing $59.95 for each person per day, it includes premium spirits, beer, wine and champagne.

TUI Group-owned Marella Cruises also offers drinks packages. In response to questions on whether inclusive drinks deals can lead to binge drinking on cruises, TUI Group press officer Jordan Grant said: “We operate a responsible drinking policy onboard that encourages guests to be sensible with their alcohol consumption. We also reserve the right to refuse service should we suspect someone to be drinking irresponsibly.”

However, Dr Jenni Holland does not believe that drinks packages make a dramatic difference in alcohol consumption on cruises.

“People very rarely on their cruise ships actually drink to the amount that would make the drinks package not a revenue generator,” says Dr Holland, who worked in the cruise and tourism industries for almost two decades. Her thesis was on consumer decision-making on cruises and how the perception of risk influences this.

“They’re really great for cruise lines because very few people would actually drink 15 drinks a day, for example.  You have to drink about seven alcoholic drinks a day to break even on the spend,” she adds.

“Generally speaking, it doesn’t really change their behaviour in that they have maybe an extra drink or two a day. The drunken brawl on the Britannia is very rare. It was shocking, truly.”

Are security measures on cruise ships sufficient?

Cruise vessels must follow the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code under SOLAS, which comprises a comprehensive set of rules, intended to ensure the safety of everyone travelling onboard.

Ships are required to have a designated security officer onboard to monitor people’s behaviour, using equipment such as CCTV, bodycams and even breathalisers on certain cruises. Bar staff are also ordered to not serve customers who are clearly drunk.

“Cruise lines have experienced, well-trained security staff and protocols in place to protect passengers and crew.”

“In terms of security onboard, cruise passengers are protected by a comprehensive system of security. Security staff onboard and onshore are well-trained and experienced; some are former law enforcement officers and full-time security personnel are on the job 24/7,” says Cruise Lines International Association spokesperson Charlotte Humphrey.

“While precise security details for each vessel are confidential and vary based on size, configuration, passenger demographics and other factors, cruise lines have experienced, well-trained security staff and protocols in place to protect passengers and crew, including closed-circuit cameras to monitor ship activity.”

Although a quick search for ‘cruise brawls’ on YouTube brings up several results, Dr Holland suggests that fights aren’t as prevalent on cruises as other holiday environments.

“I think it’s much less likely for these brawls to occur on ships than, say, in some of the Spanish resorts, because it’s an enclosed environment instead of going from bar to bar down the street. So there are fewer controls in place there. I think cruise ships do a great job in terms of preventing these things,” she says.

Consequences and the dilemma of deterrence

What makes cruises different from other resorts is that troublemakers may find themselves being punished more harshly than they would for land-based misdemeanours.  Unruly passengers may be detained in a secure cell, before possibly being kicked off at the next port and forced to find their own way home, which is all stated in the passage contract they sign before boarding.

“Cruise ships run like all ships where they run like a naval hierarchy and the captain is in charge. He is the judge and jury on that ship, so any endangerment to life is taken very seriously,” explains Dr Weeden.

“Cruise lines are not going to pay their bartenders and waiters decent wages but will keep tethered to a tip/gratuity system.”

“They will confine you to a cabin and escort you off at the next stop. They’ll leave you there because you’re endangering other people and staff. There are very serious consequences, which people don’t realise because we live in a world where we think we can do what we like. You’ll find yourself in the Faroe Islands or Venice and have to pay for your flight home, possibly with an international charge on your head. Financially, there will be penalties.”

So, has the cruise industry done enough to curb excess alcohol consumption? US-based maritime lawyer Jim Walker doesn’t think so.

“No, alcohol sales are a key component to the cruise industry’s business model. Cruise lines are not going to pay their bartenders and waiters decent wages but will keep tethered to a tip/gratuity system,” he says. “Cruise lines are also not going to hire additional security personnel who are not tip employees.”

Ultimately, the easiest way for cruise companies to deter heavy drinking could be to increase prices for alcohol. However, this goes against the strategy of attracting new customers by emphasising value for money and also then risks denting revenue. Yet if many more brawls occur on cruises in the next couple of years, the industry may be forced to act.