This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver examines apparent lack of innovation when it comes to new cruise ship design.
Send in the Clones
In the golden era of the great Ocean Liners, the many great vessels were not just ships, they were flagships of nationalism - 'Ships of State'. Each major country built its own very unique and opulent vessel which represented their nation's finest achievements in engineering and craftsmanship. Great Britain had the very regal Cunard Queens, Mary and Elizabeth (..my top lip is quivering with patriotism at the very thought). France had the gastronomic delights of the Normandie and France. America had the thoroughbred race horse of the seas, the United States.
Today's cruise lines are truly global organizations. Although I find it difficult to contemplate, many of the once national cruise lines such as the British Cunard and P&O, and the Italian Costa line, are now owned by the American cruise giant Carnival Corporation. The ships are now built in shipyards located around the world and rarely in a county where the cruise line is based. For example, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 was built at Scotland's Clyde Bank in 1969. However, in 2000 the Queen Mary 2 was funded with American money, designed by a Brit and built in France. Her crew are drawn from some 30 different nations.
Although I applaud the success of the Carnival Corporation - the control 48% of the world's cruising market - it has serious repercussions. For example, Carnival is now providing many of their cruise-brands, with their 'Vista Class' design of ships. I bet when Henry Ford invented his 'assembly line' technique of mass production, he never thought it would be applied to products as big as cruise ships.
Carnival Corporation brands, Carnival, HAL, Costa, and P&O all have Vista-Class vessels today and so will Cunard will join them in 2007, with the addition of the Queen Victoria. All of these ships will have different décor and slightly modified internal layouts but they will be built on a common hull design and general deck layout. The onboard service, menus and entertainment will of course be tailored to the particular clientele (target market). However, essentially they are all the same ship. The only visible differences will be in the exterior paint jobs and funnel design to help maintain the brand differentiation.
Not only have P&O now got a Vista Class ship (Arcadia), they will be getting a Princess style 'Grand Class' vessel in the future. With a further blurring of the boundaries, Carnival's interior designer, Joe Farcus, famous for his mind-blowing 'over the top' entertainment-architecture now designs the Costa ship interiors. These were originally classically Italian and designed by Italians. The Costa fleet is now rapidly becoming a European version of the Carnival 'fun ships'
Now I'm sure that the Vista Class ships are very comfortable modern ships and will all provide an excellent cruise experience. If the cruising public are onboard having a great cruise, why on earth should they care that there is another ship a few hundred miles nautical away which is almost identical? I suppose it is at this point where we meet the divide between the ship enthusiasts and Joe public.
I prefer the ships of the world's different cruise-line fleets to be unique and to have their own design and character. After all, different nations have different cultures and tastes. This even extends to the ships public rooms; apparently us Brits like them small and intimate, but American's like them bigger and bolder. For example, we Brits do not normally require big Casino's, but the American's love them.
If I cruise with Costa I expect an Italian experience, right from the décor and entertainment, through to the food. If I cruise P&O I expect a British experience.
However there are now only three major players (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Star/Norwegian Cruise Line) in the cruise industry, who control 82% of the world market via their various brands. It is inevitable that there will be a homogenization of the product. Only the smaller independent cruise lines will be in a position to offer us something different.
Living in the UK I will be facing some interesting consumer choices in the future. Do I cruise from Southampton on P&O's Arcardia (Vista class) or Cunard's Queen Victoria (Vista class). Do I cruise on P&O's 'Ventura' (Grand Class) or Princess' Cruises 'Golden Princess' (Grand Class), as the latter visits our shores each summer. Or maybe I will take a fly-cruise on one of Vista Class ships of Carnival's, HAL or Costa? Faced with 'Hobson's choice' I may no longer choose my cruise by brand, I may simply look for the lowest fare?