Is Cunard Retaining It’s Distinctiveness Within Carnival Cruise Lines?

Is Cunard Retaining It’s Distinctiveness Within Carnival, The Major Cruise Conglomerate?

Cunard Three Queens Southampton Queens Jubilee. Photo: Nigel_Brown

Many Cunard fans were dismayed when the massive Carnival Cruise Company bought Cunard in 1998. They believed that this would mean that the heritage and “Britishness” of the Cunard line would be “Americanised”. They feared that Cunard would be harmonised and standardised into a more bland and generic cruise company.

This would, though, have defeated the reason for adding the Cunard line to the growing portfolio of brands that Carnival was accumulating. Mickey Ariston, who created Carnival and was the CEO when Cunard was purchased, was looking to meet different needs and attract different types of cruise passengers by having different styles and types of cruise brands. Brands that would offer different experiences and pricing. If he had wanted a harmonised and standard cruise offer he would have no need of buying up brands.

The Queen Mary 2 – Proof Carnival Was Positive For Cunard?

Probably the biggest indication of this is when Carnival set about investing in developing and building the Queen Mary 2. This was the largest cruise liner when it was launched in 2004. Like the Queen Elizabeth 2 this was a once off and unique ship design, not a generic and standard cruise ship format.

The Queen Mary 2 was designed and built to be an ocean liner, versus a cruise ship. Most cruise companies use a similar cruise ship design. A design that is more suited for cruising around the relatively more calm Caribbean or European Mediterranean Seas. However both the Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2 were designed more a Liners. Ocean liners have hulls shaped and made stronger to be able to sustain the battering from the North Atlantic route.

The Queen Mary 2 was used to reinvigorate the Cunard line.  It also meant that the ageing and dated QE2 could be retired off in 2008 after 40 years of service, and Cunard could still offer the flagship Transatlantic Crossing that makes Cunard so distinctive and unique.

The resources of Carnival has meant that Cunard has been able to invest in marketing and expanding. No doubt the merging and leveraging of back office facilities and purchasing will have driven down costs for Cunard.The Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth being launched in 2007 and 2010 respectively.

Cunard Queen Mary 2 : Photo by Str1ke


Many critics fear that over time the Cunard distinctiveness is being reduced and watered down by Carnival. They point to factors like:

1.    Both the Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth are using the more standard cruise ship Vista Class hull design used by many of Carnival Company ships. They are not “Liners” and while the decoration and decor is Cunard, the ships are standard. They would not be able to sustain regular Transatlantic runs.

2.    Use of the US $ as the on-board currency despite the ships being and playing up the “Britishness” of the line.

3.    The sale of the Queen Elizabeth 2 to Dubai, rather than finding a way to enable the ship to be in Southampton or Liverpool which are the traditional homes of Cunard.

4.    By 2012 all of the Cunard ships were registered in the Bahamas, and now show “Hamilton”, which is the Capital, on the Stern of the ships versus “Southampton”. It is the first time that Cunard has no ships registered in the United Kingdom. It was claimed that this was largely driven to enable Cunard to be able to marry people on-board, but most believe the tax and less onerous regulatory environment will have been the main driver. The ability to offer weddings at sea being a nice marketing side benefit.

5.    On-board experiences and activities becoming more like regular cruise ships with the multitudes of on-board promotions and sales, like the chain by the inch and so on.

What do I think?

In my view, many of the changes are likely to be driven by the economic realities of running a cruise line and the demands of passengers.

Cruising is becoming more mainstream as a holiday option, and with that you are also likely to get more mainstream demands and expectations. The ownership by Carnival has certainly meant that Cunard has survived and is growing as a cruise line. It is less clear if it could have survived as an independent or within a broader travel company.

Cunard does still have features and elements that are distinctive and they seem to focus on building and developing these. Some of these include:

1.    British Royal Family Connection. All the Cunard ships in service, as well as previous flagship ships,  have been named by a member of the British Royal Family. Most of them by the Queen herself. The Royal Family will often pay visits to one of the ships at high profile events related to an anniversary or celebration.

2.    Scheduled Transatlantic Crossing Service. They are the only cruise company with a scheduled passenger transatlantic crossing service. Others may have one or two crossings a year when they repositioning the ship for the Caribbean or Mediterranean seasons, or as part of a world cruise leg.

3.    RADA on-board. They have a company from the famous London based Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts on the ship performing classic plays. In addition to the more usual singers and dancers company that most cruise lines have that perform “West End/ Las Vegas” style production shows.

4.    Enrichment Program. Although now many cruise lines will have speakers on board, the Cunard program has a long heritage and can attract many famous personalities and celebrity speakers and guests. The program is especially active on the Queen Mary 2 Crossings where they may have anyone from Sir David Frost to Rolf Harris or John Cleese or even the London Symphony Orchestra Performing.

5.    Choice of the Rich and Famous. In the 1930s right through to the demise of crossings due to jet liners, Cunard was the choice for the rich and famous to travel between New York and the UK. Today Cunard ships are full of black and white images of them aboard ships like the Queen Mary. This is still true today. Although primarily this is linked to the flagship Queen Mary 2 Transatlantic or World Cruise, Cunard still attracts the rich and famous. Crossings will often have famous names ranging from Rod Stewart, John Cleese, Una Thurman through to high profile trips by politicians like President George Bush (2011 Crossing), Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.


So while many loyalists and purists fear that Cunard is becoming more mainstream, or more “Americanised” through the ownership by Carnival, it is also likely that it has survived because of that ownership. The flagship and unique Queen Mary 2 or a ship like it would possibly never have been built without the resources of Carnival.

As long as there is the demand from travelers for the “Britishness” and style of Cunard, I believe that it will flourish. For if it does start to water that down and let it drift towards other cruise lines, it will start to lose its place in the cruising world. I think Carnival should be astute enough to understand the principles and need for having a portfolio of brands that offer different things to different people. In fact, having a portfolio makes it easier to keep it distinctive – since they have other offers to meet the mainstream need.

What do you think?

Next in my series about Cunard: The importance of Transatlantic Crossings in Cunard’s history and position

Other articles on Tips for Travellers about Cunard:


Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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1 Response

  1. Maggie says:

    Hi Gary, i am enjoying your website. We recently enjoyed our first cruise ever, just a 3 night quickie from Melbourne to Sydney via Burnie (Tasmania) on Queen Elizabeth. We are now well and truly hooked! I deliberately chose Cunard because of the “Britishness” and romance of a bygone era when the sun never set etc… P.S. you might want to remove Rolf Harris’ name from the post.

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