This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver examines whether cruise ships are becoming too big.
Are Cruise Ships getting too Big?
In the summer of 2006 Royal Caribbean International (RCI) introduced the first of three 'Freedom' class vessels (158,000 gt and 3,600 guests). Since then, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)has announced orders for two 150,000-ton, 4,200-passenger cruise ships, with deliveries scheduled for 2009 and 2010. Not to be outdone, RCI responded by announcing that the first of two 'Genesis' vessels (220,000 gt, 5,400 guests, 45% bigger than 'Freedom') will enter service in 2009. Carnival Cruises has their own plan for a giant ship, called project 'Pinnacle'. In response to this explosion of tonnage, we must ask the question: "Are cruise ships getting too big".
One of the biggest concerns about these leviathans is just how well they will be able to accommodate the number of guests that they will carry. Just imagine the opportunities to join a line for the elevator or for the buffet and the possibilities of getting lost in the endless corridors and decks. More seriously, there are concerns about the embarkation, disembarkation and the effect all those people will have on ports in the Caribbean where these big ships will most likely be deployed.
How do you get 5000+ plus people on and off a ship without unparallel hassle? Already ports like Southampton UK, which is a city and not a small island, struggle when two or three big ships are in port. The existing cruise terminal buildings are no longer big enough for the mega-ships, the number of check-in desks becomes inadequate, the baggage handling staffs are overworked, the car parking spaces become insufficient and the roads become grid-locked.
It is hard to imagine how one of the popular Caribbean islands will be able to cope with 5000+ tourists from one ship, let alone other ships that may arrive simultaneously. Even if you built a suitable infrastructure to cope, would it not spoil these island paradises and turn them into mini-Manhattans.? Some people feel this is already happening.
For those that have not cruised on a mega-ship, it takes 5 hours or so to disembark all of the passengers and about the same time to embark the new compliment when the ship is docked. If the ship is too large to tie up at a berth, passengers must be "tendered" ashore in small boat. A leviathan such as RCI's 'Genesis' is likely to be too big to berth in many of the world's smaller ports, so tendering passengers ashore will be very common. From personal experience I can tell you that tendering ashore from a 2000 passenger ship can be a slow and painful process that can take half a day. How can this possibly be done in an efficient manner for a ship as large as the Genesis-class vessels?
Then there is the question of shore excursions. One of our CruiseTalk members put it concisely: "…it is going to make it twice as long to get on and off the ship reducing time people have in ports. Can you imagine all 5000 people getting off in a port and demanding taxis where the locals only have a small amount of public transport"?
However, with all of this talk about 'too big', how do we decide when 'big' become 'too big?' The ships that we considered too big ten years ago (Carnival Destiny, Grand Princess etc.) are now looking medium sized and seem to have been generally accepted. As another CruiseTalker put it recently: "It seems that with each new major increase in ship size there are people who say it won't work. Yet magically, these ships are somehow able to handle the crowds and the crowds seem to love being on the ships".
To be fair though, we should probably take a look at the positive aspects of these large ships. A number of factors drive the apparent demand for ships of ever increasing size. The cruising masses certainly love them. According to NCL's CEO Colin Veitch, "The thing that's attractive about bigger ships is you have more choice and variety onboard," he said. "We make a lot more money on them. Ticket revenue and onboard revenue is dramatically higher on larger ships than on smaller, older ships."
The global cruise market is continuing to grow, so the cruise lines are simply responding to the old adage; "if you build it, they will come". These big ships almost market themselves; 'The Biggest' always generates headlines. Let's not forget that it is big ships that have enabled the American masses to cruise in the first place, by offering affordable fares.
Big ships are not new; many of the most popular ships in service today exceed 100,000 gross tons. On any given day, it is not unusual to find half a dozen big ships, or more, berthed at a port of call. Although it is not necessarily an ideal situation - most of the Caribbean ports are certainly more crowded than they used to be - somehow it still all seems to work. This is due to the excellent onboard organization of the cruise lines in disembarking people on shore tours etc. I've seen it run like clockwork. The Caribbean is still the world's biggest cruise destination and that does not look set to change. If it was so unbearable due to crowding, I think people would simply stop cruising there, yet they keep on coming.
Most cruise lines today, have their own private island such as Disney's, 'Castaway Cay'. This helps reduces the congestion at some the more popular ports. Some new ports of call in the Caribbean are also emerging, such as 'Grand Turk'. Personally I think the ports of the Mediterranean, which are mostly cities, rather than islands, are better placed to absorb the increasing passenger numbers. However, who knows, perhaps the ports of call will become less important in the future as these 'floating resorts' become the destination and not just the means of travel. Mega-ships are making way for ultra-ships. Even the term 'ship' is increasingly becoming inadequate to describe these giant floating vacation-machines.
Despite the scepticism in some quarters, I do think it will be possible to embark, disembark and tender 5000+ people efficiently, if the supporting infrastructure is in place. This means bigger tenders, better terminals and adequate roads. I see no reason why a mega ship cannot have ten gangways, after all security is largely done by swipe-card and is computer controlled. We have been filling and emptying 100,000 seat sports arenas for quite some time. Although I agree than hundreds of buses taking passengers on excursions in not a pretty sight or very environmentally friendly, once again thorough careful planning the negative impact can be minimized.
So when will the race to build bigger and bigger ships end? Personally I believe that the limiting factor for ships size is not necessarily a technical one, it will be when the cruise markets growth slows and eventually levels out. However all predictions indicate that we have not reached the 'Pinnacle' yet and will not do for some years.
He's one final thought; within a year or two 555 guests at a time will most likely be able to fly on a giant 'Airbus A380' to their giant cruise ship. In the future, it looks like we will never be lonely on a vacation again.