Are Cruise Ships Getting Too Big?

Carnival’s next class of ship, the ‘Helios class’ (2020 onward), will be around 180,000 gross tonnes and carry a maximum of 6,600 passengers (all berths). The Carnival’s cruise brands: Carnival, Costa, AIDA and P&O (Iona) will be getting them. Although the ‘Helios’ class is not bigger than Royal Caribbean’s ‘Oasis’ class in terms of gross tonnage, ‘Helios’ will supersede ‘Oasis’,  in terms of passenger capacity. In fact it will be a world record.

However, this record will be broken, when the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) introduces their next design of mega-ship,  the ‘World Class’, enters service in 2022, carrying up to 6,850 passengers.

It is hardly surprising  that one of the biggest concerns* about today’s leviathans is just how well will they cope with the huge number of passengers 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.  Just imagine the pool deck on a sunny day.

Big ships tend to be taller and wider, but there pool decks are not proportionately bigger to their passenger numbers. The pool decks may even accommodate water-chutes, climbing walls, Go-Kart tracks and other ‘gimmicks’, reducing pool and sun lounger space.

There are also concerns about the embarkation, disembarkation and the effect all those people will have on the ports of call, especially  on the Caribbean islands, where most of these big ships will be operating.

The Myth

There is a myth that I must ‘bust’: Big ships do NOT necessarily feel more crowded on-board, that smaller ones. It’s all to do with the passenger-to-space ratio. Some big ships have more space per passenger, than some smaller ships. The passenger flow on-board a mega-ship is based the concept that not everybody will be in the same place at the same time: this is why they have multiple dining rooms and multiple entertainment venues.

If you are dining in Oasis’s main dining room, for example (which must accommodate over 2,000 passengers) cleverly you are only really aware of the tables and people around you. At no time do you feel that you are eating in a mess hall.

The “not everybody will be in the same place at the same time” principle can work very well, until embarkation/disembarkation and at the ports of call, when every passenger does need to travel in the same path on or off the ship, normally via a cruise terminal.

So how do you get 6,000+ plus people on and off a ship without unparalleled grid-lock? Already ports like Southampton UK, which is a city and not a small island, can struggle when three or more big ships are in port. Some commentators suggest that the existing cruise terminal buildings are no longer big enough for the new mega-ships, the number of check-in desk and security scanners has become inadequate, the baggage handling staff are overworked, the car parking spaces have become too few and the local roads are now inadequate, which are of course shared with the likes of IKEA etc.

For those that have not cruised on a mega-ship, it can take over half a day to fully disembark all of the passengers and about the same time to embark the new compliment.

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Mergaviglia, maiden cruise June 2017, disembarkation, Barcelona. (Source Unknown)

It is hard to imagine how one of the popular Caribbean islands will be able to cope if two ships carrying 6,600 tourists arrive simultaneously.  Even if you built a suitable infrastructure to cope with that many people, would it not spoil these island paradises and turn them into mini-Manhattans? Some people feel this has already happened.

Traditionally if a ship could not dock,  possibly due to lack of available berths or large size of the ship, passengers were “tendered” ashore in small boats.  The biggest ship of them all, RCI’s ‘Oasis’ class is too big to berth in many of the world’s smaller ports and tendering that many people is simply impossible. This serverly limits her itineraries.

Then there is the question of shore excursions. One commentator put it very 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 6000+ 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’ becomes ‘too big?’ The ships that we considered too big ten years ago (Carnival Destiny, Grand Princess etc.) are now looking medium sized and have generally been accepted as standard. As another commentator said : “It seems that with each 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, we should also take a look at the positive aspects of these very large ships. I have enjoyed cruises on the biggest ships and some that are very small. Big ships offer a range of facilities including a vast variety of dining, entertainment and sports facilities, that could only have been dreamed of, fifty years ago. The staterooms (cabins) have become more luxurious, are often larger, and often with private balconies. Fares should be competitive due to the ‘economies of scale’ of running one big ship instead of several smaller ones.

A number of factors drive the  demand for ships of ever increasing size. The cruising masses certainly love them. According to NCL’s former CEO, Colin Veitch, “The thing that’s attractive about bigger ships is you have more choice and variety on board,” he said. “We make a lot more money on them. Ticket revenue and on-board revenue is dramatically higher on larger ships than on smaller, older ships.”

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P&O Britannia and Marco Polo (Image Courtesy of Karen Bradbury – click to enlarge )

The global cruise market is continuing to grow, so the cruise lines are simply responding to the Kevin Costner 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 cruise ships are not a new phenomenon, they just happen to be getting even bigger each time a new one enters service.  Many of the most popular ships in service today exceed 100,000 gross tonnes and  carry over 3,000 passengers. 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 on-board organisation 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.

The major 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, RCI’s ‘Oasis’ class ships have proved that it is possible to embark, disembark 6000+ people efficiently, if the supporting infrastructure is in place. This means large berths, no tenders, bigger/better terminals, superb crowd control systems and adequate roads.

Although I the sight of 20 of buses lined up on the dock, to take hundreds of passengers on excursions,  is not a pretty sight or very environmentally friendly, once again thorough careful planning the negative impact can be minimised.

However in total contrast, to everything that I have said above, we are also seeing a ‘boom’ in smaller ship construction. However theses are mainly exclusive  ‘Expedition’ vessels, carrying 100-200 passengers, operating in remote locations,  with vary high fares to match.

Some smaller cruise lines that rely on buying/operating second-hand ship are fining that each time they are in the market to buy a new ship, those available are bigger than their past vessels.  For example, there was once many older ships in operation at 30,000 gt or less. Now the smallest tend to be between 45,000-70,000 gt.

Conclusion

A non-cruiser once asked me what was the difference between the big-ship and small-cruise ship experience. I answered that the former is like a busy/high-energy floating shopping mall/state-of-the-art resort experience, with all the positives and negatives that it brings. The latter is more sedate/intimate/friendly and in many ways more nautical. A small ship has a much better connection with the sea.

Back to the opening question: “So are cruise ships getting too big?”  It is of course a very subjective question. The cruising masses don’t seem to think so – much of  today’s cruise growth is being driven by very big family-friendly resort ships.

For example, RCI and NCL have stated that their biggest ship are their most profitable yet.  This should not be surprising,  as the new big ships are full of alternative dining, sports and entertainment options, many of which carry a surcharge. Many of the cruising public obviously think “big IS beautiful”. 

So when will the race to build bigger and bigger ships end? Personally I believe that the limiting factor for ships size is necessarily a technical one or a logistical 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.

Malcolm Oliver


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So is ‘Oasis of the Seas’ too big?  See My review: HERE

*(You will notice that I did not even discuss the safety and logistics of evacuating 6,600 people into lifeboats, as it does not bear thinking about).

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8 Responses to “Are Cruise Ships Getting Too Big?”

  1. Malcolm Oliver Says:

    Hi butch, they certainly do look top-heavy. However the hulls are steel and the heavy stuff: engines, generators, fuel, water and provisions are stored low in the hull. The upper decks are often made of light aluminium. Technically they are NOT top heavy, the majority of the weigh is low down – well that’s the theory!

    As for Costa Concordia, putting a big hole in any ship is not good news.

  2. Butch Says:

    They’re way too top-heavy, and in constant danger of rolling over, trapping hundreds below decks.
    These too-tall monstrosities are disasters in waiting.
    Stay away from them!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I think that one important element is how well the ship handle the crowd and how easy it is to navigate, on my oasis of the seas cruise, the design of the ship made that i couldn get lost and after 5 year, they refined all the little bug the ship might have. Some smaller ships i went werent as well design and i felt like i was on a bigger ship that its actual size, but personally, my favourite class of ships are the solstice class and vista class from holland america and cunard. I see them as best compromise for ships size and one that can visit many port and have a good space to crowd ratio

  4. Alan Says:

    They will keep building them bigger until nature reminds them of reality.

  5. Malcolm Oliver Says:

    Hi Thomas, sea views are in short supply onboard Epic!

  6. Thomas Says:

    I still prefer mid-sized ships to the giant leviathans such as the Norwegian Epic or Oasis of the Seas. I love the idea of being at sea as opposed to being on a floating resort in which the sea is nothing more than an incidental!
    Good article!

  7. Malcolm Oliver Says:

    Thank you Sandra.

  8. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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