Are Ships Getting Too Big?

MSC’s  next design, ‘The World Class’  of mega-ship will carry up to 6,850 passengers, plus crew.

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.  Imagine the pool deck on a sunny day. There are concerns about the embarkation, disembarkation and the effect all those people will have on ports, especially  on the Caribbean islands, where most of these big ships are operating.

Epic, Naples 2nd June 2011

So how do you get 6000+ 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 mega-ships, the number of check-in desks becomes inadequate, the baggage handling staff are overworked, the car parking spaces have become too few  and the roads are now inadequate.

It is hard to imagine how one of the popular Caribbean islands will be able to cope with 6000+ tourists from one ship, let alone when other ships (or two) might 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.

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

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 boat.  The biggest 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 not practical.

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”?


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

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 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 though, we should probably take a look at the positive aspects of these large ships. 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.”

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 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.

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, Oasis. Allure and Epic have proved that it is possible to embark, disembark 6000+ people efficiently, if the supporting infrastructure is in place. This means no tenders, better terminals and adequate roads.

Although I agree than 30 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 minimised.

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.

Malcolm Oliver


So is ‘Oasis of the Seas’ too big?  Review: HERE



8 Responses to “Are 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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