There is no doubt which direction cruise ship design is headed. Plans for bigger, more sophisticated vessels are steadily being turned out left and right – and major players in the industry are keen for their market share. But with the arrival of megaships like the Genesis-class and the Freedom of the Seas, the challenge for ports to adapt is huge and, in many ways, echo what airports already face with the introduction of the Airbus A380.

The question must be asked – how easy will it be to adapt and at what cost? With Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited (RCCL) due to unveil its first Genesis cruise ship in 2009, and a second in 2010, there is not much time to waste. With a capacity for 5,400 guests and measuring 1,1800ft long, 154ft wide and 240ft high, the 220,000-tonne Genesis, being built in Aker Yard in Finland, will be 40% larger than any cruise ship that came before it. In terms of megaships, it far surpasses its 160,000-tonne predecessors, Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas, which carry 3,600 passengers and were launched in May 2007.

But it’s not just RCCL – other major cruise companies are in on the bigger and better trend. Carnival Cruise Lines, the largest operator in the world, unveiled is £250m, 113,000-tonne Carnival Splendor in July of this year. Even more gargantuan vessels, the Carnival Dream in 2009 and Carnival Magic in 2011, will follow.

The only thing that limits the growing size of ships, says Maurizio Cergol, senior chief designer for Fincantieri, are the capabilities and capacity of the ports. “Theoretically, there is no technical limitation for increasing the size of the vessels,” he says.

So how will ports handle this flood of ships ever-increasing in size? The Genesis-class ships will sail in the Caribbean, where many ports already handle megaships – but some of them will need infrastructure improvements to handle a ship exceeding 5,000 passengers. In fact, most will.

RCCL plans to homeport Genesis at Port Everglades, Florida, and will reimburse the port up to £19m for the cost of expansion and related infrastructure needed to accommodate the ships. So is it worth all the trouble? A study conducted by US consultancy Martin Associates projects that the Genesis will create more than 3,844 jobs, generate £86m in personal income and £8m in state and local taxes.

In no uncertain terms, the answer is yes – but not everybody can get in on the game so easily. The Port of Miami, home to the Liberty and Freedom of the Seas, is in the midst of spending a total of £270m on a capital improvements programme, including brand new three storey terminals that will accommodate ships with up to 5,000 passengers – but unfortunately that excludes prospective business from Genesis. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami, says that though he wants his port to be competitive, the cost of adaptation is a major consideration. “You build new facilities and then the design and size of newer ships may render some of those facilities outdated,” he says. “We saw that with Royal Caribbean and the Genesis-class.

The Genesis would have required two terminals. It would have required all new gangways to accommodate it. With these things you have to look at your business model. You have to decide whether you can accommodate [a ship as big as Genesis] because all of this costs money.”

This is not to say that Miami has not made major improvements for the raft of other megaships on the horizon. New terminals have updated security screening facilities, airline counters and an airport-style conveyer baggage system. A ‘one-stop-shop’ has been created for immigration, customs and border protection. Berthing, gangways, water supply and fenders have all been modified and improved for newer, bigger ships – and must be adapted regularly, Johnson says.

Not only that, but roads and parking facilities also need to be considered when a port has nearly four million passengers passing through it, as is projected for Miami this year. Port and terminal architect Bruno Elias Ramos, of Bruno Elias Associates Inc (BEAI), says that as ports extend themselves financially to accommodate ever-larger ships, they would also be wise to consider secondary uses for the facilities.

“The key would be to allow these costly facilities to serve other uses on off days, as we have done in Quebec City, Norfolk Virginia, and are currently doing in Boston,” says Elias Ramos. “New facilities must be able to service the cruise industry’s needs while providing a secondary means of income to the port to help offset the debt.” Elias Ramos says he is not intimidated by the demands from cruise companies and their massive ships because, creatively, it makes him “think outside the box” to come up with even better solutions.

He says BEAI has been working on a split terminal design, which would mean the embarkation and disembarkation process could happen at the same time. The embarkation would be at a centralised location, consolidating several terminals into one. The disembarkation would then stay at each berth with customs control and luggage – resulting in a much more efficient facility that is not necessarily going to be more expensive. “Good design does not necessarily cost more; this is a misconception that unfortunately exists,” says Ramos.

He also believes that cruise companies need to do more to control the environmental impact of their ships. “Cruise lines not only have to do more but be more public about what they are doing. On landside facilities, our buildings are becoming more and more green and ships need to go green as well,” he says. Not only that, but with cruise ships getting bigger, where does that leave the passenger?

Joe Farcus, interior ship architect for Carnival, says that passenger flow becomes more challenging as a ship grows in size. “The number one concern is circulation. People have to be able to move through the ship in a logical manner and not be overwhelmed or have difficulty in getting where they need to go,” he says.

While bigger ships provide scope for better amenities, technology and venues – such as the waterpark, double deck pool area or luxury spa on the Carnival Splendor – “it seems obvious that a smaller ship would be able to provide a more personalised level of service,” says Farcus.

“It is cheaper to run bigger ships and from a designer’s point of view, there are many more opportunities for innovation,” he says. But that’s not to say there will not be a market for smaller, more intimate vessels.

“The biggest ships tend to bring new people to the market, but once people become devoted cruisers, they’re looking for different experiences. Experienced cruisers are probably going to be interested in smaller ships allow them to experience something completely novel.”

But Farcus reckons that whichever type of ship people prefer, big or small, the passengers will keep pouring in. “The product is so good – people see the value in that and it makes the cruise industry somewhat impervious to bad economic times,” he says. “It’s great value.”