This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a closer look at the exciting news from the Norwegian Cruise Line.
NCL Joins the Club
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) recently announced that it has signed a contract with Aker Yards to build two 150,000gt cruise vessels, with an option for a third. The total value of the two vessels is reported to be $1.9 billion (€1.5 billion) and the ships will be built at Aker's recently acquired shipyard in Saint Nazaire for delivery in 2009 and 2010.
So, it seems that NCL has decided to join the relatively exclusive "Mega-ship Club" by the end of the decade. When the first of the new ships is delivered, NCL will join existing members; Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Cunard and MSC. MSC (the Mediterranean Shipping Company) is not a member today but by the time NCL's first ship appears, MSC will already have accepted the first of its two 133,500 tons ships scheduled for delivery in 2008 and 2009.
All four of the NCL and MSC vessels are being built in the former French Chantiers de l'Atlantique yard, where the Queen Mary 2 was built in 2004. This is particularly ironic in NCL's case, because it is where the much loved SS FRANCE was built, which is about to be scrapped.
NCL's two 150,000 gross ton vessels currently know as 'Project F3' (for 'Freestyle') will have 2,100 passenger cabins and carry up to 6,400 people including crew. All outside rooms will sport balconies. In total, the ship will offer more than 1,470 balcony staterooms and suites.
Quite impressive, but many seasoned cruisers are well aware that 'bigger' is not always 'better'. It seems however, that this attitude is in the minority as the mass-market of cruise passengers just can't seem to get enough of big ships. The increasing passenger demand for more onboard amenities drives the race for size, and the cruise lines are able to enjoy the 'economies of scale' which it brings. In short, it is cheaper to build and operate one 150k ton ship than two 75k ton ships. In addition to the operating benefits, these big ships seem to capture a the media's attention every time one enters serviced and the resulting publicity is worth millions.
All top cruise lines have a 'gimmick'- or should I say 'unique selling point'. For NCL it is concept of 'Freestyle' cruising. For those not familiar with the concept, here is a brief explanation: In short the NCL fleet feature a multitude of dining venues, unlike more traditional ships with one large main dining room and two set evening meal times. The freestyle restaurants offer a range of different cuisines and flexibility. Passengers can choose to eat when they like (between core hours) in which dining room they like, and sit with whom they like, subject to table availability. They can choose to be formal or un-formal. Although many traditionalists were rather sceptical of this system at first, those that have actually tried it, tend to like it. However, there are still the occasional negative comments about long waiting times for tables on occasions.
We do not know much about the design of NCL's proposed mega-ships as yet. However, they will probably be an evolution of their Libra Class newbuilds, which will make them very exciting ships indeed. I just hope the itineraries are equally as exciting. Mind you though, for many the 'ship' itself is rapidly becoming the itinerary.
The Libra class vessels are externally very different from all other cruise ships. For one, they all feature NCL's unique Hull Art, which looks a bit like a graffiti artist has tagged the ship. These painted designs on the bow of each ship, incorporates a variety of themes, including: dolphins, the Statue of Liberty, a large Hawaiian Lei and the Star Spangle Banner. Love it or hate it, it certainly does give the ships a very distinctive look. (I wonder if the proposed mega-ships will have hull art too?)
Internally, the Libra class are modern, lively and very colorful, without being over the top. They also feature NCL's innovations such as the Garden Villas, which are a bit reminiscent of the SS France's patio cabins. Each villa offers a living room, three penthouse bedrooms, outdoor private garden with hot tub and private rooftop terrace to provide 5,350 sq. ft. of secluded spaciousness.
In the past five years, NCL has gone through a series of dramatic changes, not the least of which was being purchased by Star Cruises, the Asian shipping giant. Probably the biggest contribution of the Star acquisition was the addition of much needed capital, which has allowed NCL to embark on an aggressive new-build programme. Their current fleet of twelve vessels has been expanding almost on a yearly basis and is scheduled to continue doing so for a while.
Another big change was the creation of NCL America. NCL America is a dedicated brand that allows NCL to provide unique itineraries of the Hawaiian Islands on three American crewed ships: Pride of America, Hawaii and Aloha. Although early customer feedback was mixed, NCL America seems to be finding its stride and an increasing number of cruisers are starting to consider a Hawaiian Islands cruise as a fresh alternative to an increasingly over exploited Caribbean itinerary.
NCL have evolved from being a mediocre cruise line to become an exciting and innovative one with a young state-of-the-art fleet. By the end of the decade they will be definitely be playing with the 'big boys'. They may be in third place at present, but they now have the market leaders firmly in their sight.