Why Cougar Cruises Proved Too Hot for Carnival

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Andy Newman / Carnival Cruise Lines / AP

The Carnival Elation departs the Port of San Diego

When cougars gather for a convention in Las Vegas next week, they'll have a lot on their vigorous plates. There's the keynote address — "Younger Men/Older Women: The Ideal Combination" — not to mention voting for Miss Cougar Las Vegas. But an equally weighty topic is likely to create as much buzz among these ladies: Carnival Cruise Line's decision not to book anymore cougar-themed groups for cruises.

If you didn't even know there was such a thing as cougar cruises, don't worry, because the first was last month, a three-day voyage on the Carnival Elation between San Diego and Ensenada, Mexico. More are planned this year for this cohort of older women who prefer younger men ("cubs") — the members of a feminist movement that's now being celebrated on network sitcoms Cougartown and Accidentally on Purpose.

So why would Carnival — which not so long ago drew the wrath of the Southern Baptist Convention for sponsoring gay cruises — suddenly back away from cougar-and-cub cruises? The Miami-based cruise company, one of the world's largest, concedes that the group's 300 or so cruisers, whose wildest event was your typical cruise-ship hot-tub party, weren't particularly loud partyers or a disturbance to other passengers. But Carnival wouldn't discuss the new ban, simply sending an e-mail statement that the line had "made the decision not to allow any future groups to be booked and marketed on our ships under this theme. It was a business decision."

Travel experts say the decision reflects Carnival's strategy to market itself as a more wholesome, "family fun" cruise line and avoid the image of a floating girls-gone-wild video. Rich Gosse, spokesman for the California-based Singles Travel Company and Society of Single Professionals, which arranged the first International Cougar Cruise, says he understands the pressure Carnival feels to build that customer base in the current economy. "They've got to do what they've got to do to survive," says Gosse, "and we're grateful they gave us the chance to start this."

Cougars may have momentum these days, but their relatively small cruise-passenger numbers thus far may have cost them the Carnival business. Unlike other groups like the gay and lesbian communities, which fully charter ships for themselves on themed cruises, the cougars have less leverage because they're just one group among many passengers onboard. Says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the website Cruise Critic: "In a contained environment like a cruise ship, if other passengers find anything potentially offensive about your group's theme, it can be a problem. That's why it's better to take the whole ship if you can."

But Gosse and others worry that Carnival's cougar kibosh could reinforce a societal double standard: that it's O.K. for older men to have nubile trophy gals on their arms, but we should cover our kids' eyes lest they see a 50-something woman kissing a young Adonis. He says that broader social acceptance is particularly important for cougars and other middle-aged single women, who "are being left out in the cold" by middle-aged men's penchant for younger women.

The current Miss Cougar America, 42-year-old single mother and Silicon Valley business consultant Gloria Navarro, who was on last month's cruise, agrees. "I'm not really worried that we're being discriminated against, because this is Carnival's marketing direction," says Navarro. "But unfortunately this could be taken the wrong way by people who don't quite grasp the fact that the day of the gold digger is over and women like me have finally come into their own." As for speculation that cougars somehow didn't fit the cruise line's family focus, she adds, "I'd bet that among the wholesome Carnival passenger families, a lot of husbands are 10 or 20 years older than the wives."

Cougars are largely an affluent, professional women's group, and they are not easily thrown overboard. They have already found other lines that aren't as squeamish about May-December cruise groups. The next cougar-and-cub voyage is slated for May, a weeklong voyage from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera on Royal Caribbean. Another is scheduled between Miami and the Bahamas next December on Norwegian Cruise Lines, and a cruise for Australian cougars is planned as well. Women like Navarro note that being able to market cruises for one's particular crowd is a way in this day and age "to show that you're being brought into the mainstream a little more."