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When Hapag invented the pleasure cruise

Vacations on a ship - 125 years ago that was considered revolutionary. What many don't know is that the modern cruises already started 1891 - on a Hapag ship.

06 January 2016

On a cold January morning, nearly 125 years ago, nobody could have guessed that the idea would turn into such a success story. In any case, on January 22, 1891, it seemed as if all of Cuxhaven had turned out to marvel at the group of “intrepid travelers” ­ making their way up the gangway of Hapag’s flagship, the “Augusta Victoria.” They were venturing off to new shores aboard one of the largest and most modern steamships in the world: on a two-month pleasure cruise around the Mediterranean.

Excursions were planned in 13 port cities. Transport, accommodation, first-class service and a topical animation program were provided by one single operator: Hapag. January 22, 1891 was not only the date of departure for the first modern cruise trip, it also marked the start of the world’s first all-inclusive package tour. This was the first organized vacation set up from one single source and the start of a tourism product that today is booming more than ever before.

Albert Ballin, Hapag’s young Director General, also stood on the pier in Cuxhaven, and he must have been particularly tense. This tour was his idea, his very personal project. He had campaigned for it and overcome considerable resistance. After all, the unanimous opinion at the time was: who would voluntarily spend weeks on a ship?

The "Augusta Victoria" just before entering the port of New York.

Yet the world at the close of the 19th century had for the first time grown closer together thanks to modern modes of transport. The far ends of the earth had become accessible and society had produced an affluent clientele who wanted to discover these worlds – albeit without enduring the perils and hardship they had previously faced when traveling under their own steam. At the time, none of the travel bureaus, no railway company and no hotel possessed the capability of offering travel arrangements, accommodation and a tourist program in one convenient package. A ship was the only way of combining all three.

Only 33 years old at the time, Hapag’s young Director primarily owed his success to his extra­ordinary intuitive powers, paired with his ability to not only seize on trends but also to implement them profitably. Ballin saw his opportunity precisely where Hapag had a problem: during winter the company’s prestigious flagship, the “Augusta Victoria,” lay idly at anchor. No traveler was willing to brave the tempestuous North Sea during the stormy season. Ballin proposed to the board of directors that they send the steamship to the Mediterranean for the winter – as a “pleasure cruiser” for leisure tourists. The tour would take in the Orient, Europe’s dream destination and the fashionable escape for affluent travelers. Ballin’s colleagues had long grown ­accustomed to his unconventional ideas. However this time, he seemed to have gone too far. These gentlemen belonged to an era when nobody took to sea without good cause, when an Atlantic crossing was still likened to a “prison sentence with the prospect of drowning.” And now Ballin was proposing a sea journey purely for pleasure?

A poster advertisement for a future voyage on the ­“Augusta Victoria” that sailed on her first cruise in 1891.

Their response was unequivocal. Ballin came to the sobering ­realization that “even in my closest surroundings there is no shortage of people who believe I am quite mad.” The Hapag directors felt certain that nobody would spend money on such a venture, and certainly not such a vast amount: priced between 1,600 and 2,400 gold marks, the classless tour, offering only first-class service, cost twice or even three times the annual income of an average worker. But Ballin prevailed and very soon his calculations were proved right: Even the first offer of an “excursion” met with an international response that exceeded all expectations. There was nowhere near enough space to accommodate all of those who showed an interest. In the end, Ballin, who accompanied “his” premiere as host, welcomed 174 Germans, Britons and Americans on board in Cuxhaven, among them only 67 females, for the most part adventure-seeking British ladies.

It was to be an historical journey, and Ballin, who also had a natural talent for public relations, not only invited journalists from leading newspapers but also one of Germany’s most famous illustrators, Christian Wilhelm Allers, on board. With his help, he created another innovation: the ship’s newspaper.

The first leg of the voyage proved laborious as storms in the Bay of Biscay badly affected the passengers. However, once the ship reached calmer seas in the Mediterranean, the trip of the “Augusta” turned into an unmitigated triumph. The 145-meter long and 17-meter wide ship, the largest vessel ever to have called at ports in this region, was officially welcomed and enthusiastically received everywhere. The mood amongst the travelers could not have been better, and even their appetites left nothing to be desired.

Christian Wilhelm Allers provided ­illustrations of the first cruise, among them Master Barends.

While below deck the stokers toiled away, and while Master Heinrich Barends and his 245-man crew contributed just as much to the success of the voyage as the tireless musicians, it was Albert Ballin who took it upon himself to take care of virtually everything. Whereas life on the “Augusta Victoria” was very organized, the long excursions ashore often turned into veritable adventure trips. At the time, foreign lands were still very outlandish and had only partially been developed for tourists. Hapag relied on the services of the British travel agency Thomas Cook & Son. Their refreshment tents were very popular in the desert, however, the travel arrangements to get there proved rather problematic. One particularly adventurous group of gentlemen from Hamburg nearly fell victim to a snowstorm in the Lebanese mountains. Ballin forced the ship to wait in Beirut until the unwitting survival tourists made it back on board.

The “Augusta” returned to Hamburg in March to a triumphant reception. “Everything was jam-packed on shore,” wrote the illustrator Allers. “In many places, they waved bed sheets and table cloths as handkerchiefs were deemed too small,” he went on. The ­success of the trip had proven Ballin right: he had discovered a market niche. And it was one which Hapag would from thereon develop consistently. The company began regularly and successfully organizing cruises and in 1905 acquired the most eminent travel agency in the German Empire, Carl Stangen’s Reise-Bureau in Berlin, continuing the business under the name “Reisebüro der Hamburg-Amerika Linie” (“Travel bureau of the Hamburg-America Line”). The Norddeutsche Lloyd followed suit and soon the two major shipping companies became Germany’s largest tourism operators.