By David Yeskel
The tale of Norwegian Joy’s return from China is a fascinating business story. And it is also testament to the flexibility of the cruise industry and to the vision of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ (Norwegian Cruise Line’s parent company) management.
The ship, originally built, designed and launched for the Chinese market two years ago — featuring the first go-kart track at sea — was a stunner. Norwegian Joy’s Phoenix bird-themed hull art and her interior spaces, featuring tea rooms, casinos, an expanded shopping promenade and multiple Asian restaurants, was meant to appeal to the newly-mobile Chinese middle class, and she arrived in her Shanghai homeport with great fanfare.
But operating in a challenging regulatory environment with an unfavorable distribution model — all further compounded by deteriorating China-South Korea relations (which affected itineraries) and low yields — proved to be an untenable combination to keep a successful business afloat. Thus, Norwegian opted to do what land-based vacation operators can only dream of: move their asset to a more favorable location, where it can flourish financially. And that’s why Norwegian Joy will be sailing in Alaska this summer, followed by Mexico and transcanal itineraries in the fall and winter. Joined by sister ship Norwegian Bliss, which sailed at capacity and at peak revenue potential in Alaska last summer, the vessel’s redeployment was a no-brainer for Norwegian.
But westernizing the ship for the North American market didn’t come cheap — or easily. During an incredibly efficient three-week drydock in a Singapore shipyard (at a cost of $50 million) and followed by final touches applied while the ship sailed across the Pacific, the vessel was completely transformed into what appears to be a newbuild. On a recent, three-day inaugural sailing, I was wowed by the results of the metamorphosis, and by how well the ship was received by media and travel agents aboard.
The refurbishment/re-imagining primarily resulted in 13 new dining, bar and lounge venues that mostly match sister-ship Norwegian Bliss, along with a redesigned pool deck, an enhanced go-kart speedway, a larger spa and fitness center, and a spectacular forward observation lounge with 270-degree views … perfect for Alaska. And, according to Norwegian President and CEO Andy Stuart who spoke during a media roundtable, every piece of carpeting on the ship was also replaced, bringing the ship’s look and feel further in line with that of her fleetmates.
Although Norwegian Joy doesn’t feature the line’s signature Studio cabins for one, Norwegian introduced a new class of service aboard with Concierge suites that include special dining and service perks. Meanwhile, the line’s signature ship-within-a-ship exclusive enclave, The Haven, is luxurious and lovely.
While onboard the three-day preview cruise, we were treated to two new impressive production shows that will roll out to other ships in the fleet. “Elements,” a high-energy dance and aerial acrobatics show that also features large-scale illusions, drew standing ovations, as did “Footloose,” an updated, Broadway-style version of the ‘80s movie, featuring a large and talented cast of 24.
Yet even with all of the impressive features and functionality that were added to the ship during its three-week drydock, one public area remained from the Chinese engagement that is evidence of the universal appeal of good entertainment. The Galaxy VR Pavilion, a massive arcade filled with more than a dozen, thrilling virtual reality experiences, is a non-language dependent hit for all guests – no matter where the ship is based.
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