Investment in new vessels is increasingly directed towards larger ships, mostly for reasons of cost-effectiveness. Jim Banks talks to NCL’s Crane Gladding, Disney's Karl Hotz and Cruise Europe’s Jens Skrede to discover what this trend means for costs, itineraries and port infrastructure.
Every year there are new reports about the building of bigger and better cruise ships, with more accommodation and leisure facilities than ever before. There is no doubt the industry is upsizing - one need only look at some of the ships that have recently gone into service or are under construction to find proof of these trends.
Take, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line's (NCL) Norwegian Epic, which has a gross tonnage of more than 155,000t, is nearly 330m long and can accommodate up to 4,100 guests. NCL believes the ship has some of the most innovative and flexible accommodation ever, including studios for the solo traveller and private villas. Furthermore, over 20 different dining options offer guests a huge choice.
Disney Cruises is also focused on bigger vessels, such as the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy; the latter is scheduled to come into service in 2012 and continues the pattern established by the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder. The Disney Dream has 14 decks, 1,250 staterooms and enough capacity to cater for more than 4,000 passengers and 1,458 crew.
It aims to blend classic, early 20th-century design with state-of-the-art technology, including the first water coaster at sea, AquaDuck.Royal Caribbean has released details of a 220,000t Genesis-class ship that can accommodate 5,400 passengers. The line already has the largest cruise ships afloat, thanks to its Oasis and Freedom-class vessels, but Genesis ships will be nearly 70ft longer.
"Building larger cruise ships gives us the ability to enhance the guest experience by offering a broader range of onboard amenities and stateroom variety," says Crane Gladding, senior vice-president of revenue management and passenger services at NCL. "With the increased number of guests, the operational efficiency improves. Even though the ship is large, fuel efficiency is enhanced.
Cost-efficiency underpins mega-ship design in many ways. For example, Disney's new vessels have a smart heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system which optimises heating and cooling systems, so staterooms self-adjust when unoccupied and return to the desired temperature when occupied. They also have a more hydrodynamic design and a low-resistance hull coating to increase fuel efficiency.
For some lines, larger ships are an integral part of expanding itineraries, as well as an opportunity to provide ground-breaking new facilities and services. Disney's new itineraries for summer 2011 included Alaska, the Mexican Riviera and Europe, and in 2012, new services will run out of New York, Seattle and Galveston, Texas.
"Combined with our panamax-sized ships Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, having two larger ships gives us more diversity," says Karl Holz, president of Disney Cruise Lines and new vacations operations. "This flexibility allows us the opportunity to explore new destinations and offer even more guests a variety of itineraries.
"The size of our new and larger ships has given us the opportunity to devote more space to each age group within the family - including children's areas and spaces exclusively for teens and adults - and more space for families to enjoy together, ultimately giving our guests more choices for how to enjoy their cruise."
The question of how larger ship sizes will affect itineraries is of interest to passengers, operators and the ports themselves. Larger ships will tend to serve the biggest markets, but both popular and emerging ports will need to invest in order to accommodate new mega-ships and the huge influx of guests they bring.
"One of the biggest challenges is making sure the port can handle the volume of passengers the larger ships bring," says Gladding. "We value our guest experience, so we are careful which ports we select for the larger ships to ensure they offer the best guest experience. Some ports may not have the infrastructure to handle larger ships, so we are unable to call in those ports."
So, do cruise lines see ports rising to this challenge?
"It depends on the port," he says. "Some have prepared well in advance. If there are ports that cannot accommodate the new larger ships, they are missing out on the future growth in cruising. For example, we have just invested $25m in Great Stirrup Cay, in the Behamas, our private island, to improve the tendering and security process, and expanded the beach and island amenities so it can accommodate a larger volume of guests. Bermuda created Dockyard so it can accommodate two larger ships.
"Another example is Nassau, Bahamas. They dredged the channel and put in mooring balls to accommodate the larger vessels," adds Gladding.
Disney's Holz also sees improvements: "In Port Canaveral, Florida, several enhancements were made to accommodate the newest and largest Disney Cruise Line ships. We worked with the port to make enhancements, including an expanded dock area and terminal facility, along with the construction of a new, multi-level parking garage connected to the terminal by a sky-bridge walkway."
Jens Skrede, managing director of Cruise Europe, sees many ports in Europe preparing for larger cruise ships and investing in new infrastructure. Tallinn, Estonia, for instance, has ordered a design of the new cruise pier to combat congestion on busy days.
Echoing many other destinations, however, it admits the real issue is cooperation with the town itself to host a larger number of passengers, particularly through working with shore excursion companies to plan visits.
Across Europe, big cities including Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen are generally well prepared to welcome bigger ships. Terminal facilities are in place to handle greater passenger numbers and there is enough space to buffer buses and taxis.
Nevertheless, Amsterdam reports that the challenge will be handling more than two turnarounds a day, which will require the relocation of one ship to an alternative berth, meaning passenger terminal capacity will be stretched to the limit. The port authority has already dredged the turning basin in front of the terminal so that ships up to 340m can turn, and discussions are underway with KLM and Schiphol Airport to streamline luggage transfer to the airport.
There are many small cities that are growing rapidly as cruise destinations. Le Havre in France and Stavanger in Norway have both doubled their figures for the number of calls and guests in the past three years. The challenge will be to maintain this growth, which will be partly driven by larger vessels.
"They are more frequently facing the demand for triple calls," says Skrede. "The challenges include the number of guides available who speak the right language, the availability of coaches and security in the pier area."
Le Havre is addressing these problems through collaboration with local, regional and national operators, including agents, coach companies and tour operators, as well as the municipality and chamber of commerce, to ensure that when the port handles two turnarounds at the same time, as it will next year, the planning and infrastructure is in place.
"The port often acts as the economic engine for the community," says Gladding. "The local vendors work closely with the both the port and the cruise line to help bring in the increased volume of passengers."
Yet Skrede also reports that there are concerns about the impact larger vessels will have on the economies of some destinations.
"Several Cruise Europe members have mentioned the fact that with the high fuel prices, cruise ships tend to spend less time at each destination. This will lead to more congestion, and maybe also the sale of fewer shore excursions. If you cut a call from ten to eight hours, this will have a negative effect in several ways," he says.
Larger cruise vessels are inevitable, this much is clear, so in the future competing destinations may be defined by how well they can accommodate the mega-ships.