This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at the age old question:
Is bigger really better?
NCL Corporation announced last week that its parent company, Star Cruises, has agreed to sell Norwegian Crown to Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines effective August 2006. "Although a beautiful and well-maintained vessel, Norwegian Crown's smaller size is less suitable for Star Cruises' ambitions in Asia," said Colin Veitch, president and CEO of NCL Corporation.
How refreshing to find a ‘family run' cruise line, such as the Norwegian owned Fred Olsen, who are prepared to invest in smaller vessels. This of course is in complete contrast to the testosterone-fuelled battle between the market leaders to build the largest mega-ship.
Over the past several years, we have seen the fleets of the big three cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line) become dominated by vessels in the 90,000 gross ton range or above. Yet even these leviathans - which are twice as big as the Titanic - are beginning to be considered mid-sized. The game of "mine is bigger than yours" has clearly moved beyond the grade school locker room and has become a multi-billion dollar competition that now takes place in the board rooms of the leading cruise companies. Currently, Carnival and Royal Caribbean International are locked in a battle to build the biggest cruise ship.
Carnival took the lead with the introduction of Carnival Destiny (101,353 gt) way back in 1996. Princess responded with Grand Princess (108,806 gt) in 1998. In 1999, Royal Caribbean International upped the ante even further with Voyager of the Seas (137,280 gt) and to prove they were serious about this market they announced they would build five more sister ships.
While passengers were becoming familiar with these ships, Cunard responded with the Queen Mary 2 (151,400 gt), which entered service in 2004. Not to be outdone, Royal Caribbean responded this year with the gigantic Freedom of the Seas (160,000 gt).
At this point, you might think it was time for the cruise companies to take a break. Hardly. Both Carnival and RCI have even larger projects in the wings (‘Pinnacle' and ‘Genesis', respectively). It looks like the once inconceivable 200,000 gt barrier will be broken in the not so distant future.
This battle to be the biggest is part of what makes the Fred. Olsen approach interesting and almost quaint. To Olsen and their loyal following, small is beautiful. Olsen currently has a fleet of three vessels (Black Prince, Braemar and Black Watch) all of which are under 29,000 gross tons.
Rumour has it that the aging and outdated ‘Black Prince' (1966) will be retired before the end of the decade despite the fact that her intimate atmosphere ensures a very loyal following of British die-hards. When she joins the fleet, the Norwegian Crown, at 34,242 gross tons, will become the largest ship in the Olsen fleet although I am sure that she will be integrated into the Olsen family very nicely.