Into the 21st century, all changed again, with huge growth, investment in source markets other than the core US market, river cruise operators entering the ocean market, and developments in the expedition market as companies who made their name with chartered ships begin to build programmes of their own.
But the current plans from two completely new entrants to the cruise market are unusual, and as a result fascinating. Both Virgin and Ritz-Carlton are companies with significant brand equity of their own. Both companies must feel that through their existing client base they have a great opportunity to bring new customers into cruise. But is that really the case?
When Richard Branson took the world by storm with his new funky airline back in the 80s, he really was a 'young gun' doing something very different. But it is hard to imagine how he is going to take the cruise market by storm, given the extraordinary ships currently being built by the dominant players.
At Virgin, it's all about the 'verbiage' - a slightly edgy, but also slightly dated, off colour innuendo-filled tone of voice which has given us the 'ship-tease' countdown to reveal in October, which began with the keel-laying. "Getting laid we've heard of, but what on earth is a keel?" it says on the sparse website. A bit cringeworthy, in a dad-dancing kind of way.
The designers are top of their game in the building of super-yachts. With their shaved heads and earnest expressions, they tell us that the Virgin ship will be "like a super-yacht, but different". Starting with the funnel… "iconic, different, new". Well, we'll see. The ship will be grey, and there will be a mermaid image on the bow. So far, the only really interesting fact that emerged from the first reveal is that this will be an adult only ship. Brave move. The blurb states that this fits in with their aim to target millennials. What, millennials don't have children?
Meanwhile over at Ritz-Carlton, we are in a different arena. The company's competitive set? Is it Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal or Regent? Or is it a bargain alternative to chartering a super-yacht? As we see a move within the established ultra-luxury brands towards larger ships, those who love the smaller vessels are feeling disengaged. So Ritz-Carlton could be picking up the slack here, but at what cost? I think we must expect high per diems, which may be a step too far for regular luxury cruisers who have already seen prices soar over the last few years from averages of around £250 to around £400 per person per day, and rising.
Of course, this brings us back to the fact that cruise is the most incredible bargain in the ultra luxury travel market. If you are accustomed to taking land based holidays at a Banyan Tree, an Amman Resort, or indeed a Ritz-Carlton, then small ship luxury on SeaDream, Crystal Esprit - or indeed a Ritz-Carlton Yacht - will seem like great value indeed.
Interestingly, it looks like both Virgin and Ritz-Carlton might be aiming for the same type of moneyed client who considers that he or she is 'too cool to cruise'...