As the greatest ship of all time is unveiled, are floating cities really the future of cruising?

Icon of the Seas Royal Caribbean, the largest cruise ship in the world

Icon of the Seas Royal Caribbean, the largest cruise ship in the world

In a world bruised and battered by a pandemic, economic turmoil and growing environmental fears, it would follow that the era of grand, bombastic leisure projects would be over. Supersize just feels a bit dated in today’s climate. The cruise industry has other ideas in mind, however, and Royal Caribbean has just unveiled what will be the world’s largest cruise liner, Icon of the Seas, due to set sail in early 2024.

The ship will snatch the crown from her sibling Wonder of the Seas (which itself only debuted in February) by just 11ft – a small but significant margin, which ensures its arrival will be met with maximum fanfare. But make no mistake, it’s a juggernaut. With space for 7,600 passengers – that’s 18 jumbo jets – its scale is hard to imagine, dwarfing most land-based mega-complexes.

To help passengers navigate the 20 decks, the ship will be divided into eight themed districts, including Thrill Island, home to the largest water park at sea, and a bungee jump that dangles daredevils 154ft. above the waves, as well as leafy ‘Central Park’ which will be dotted with New York-inspired restaurants (the ship will have over 40 dining outlets in total) and winding paths.

Caribbean Royal Icon of the Seas

Caribbean Royal Icon of the Seas

This is a ship that deals in superlatives. It will have the largest swimming pool at sea, the first suspended infinity pool (plus 14 more) and the tallest waterslide, as well as the largest ice rink in the line and its first frozen cocktail bar. Rooms, meanwhile, span 28 categories, the largest of which will be a three-story family “townhouse” with its own mailbox and white picket fence – reminiscent of a simpler time when cruise ships didn’t look like to floating cities.

Yet for all its bluster, the decision to launch this mega-ship now – even though admittedly it has been in the works for five years – is met with noise from elsewhere in the industry, which has tried to shed a bad environmental reputation and win over cruise snobs by emphasizing smaller, louder and, in theory, more sustainable ships.

Lines such as Hurtigruten, Ponant and even Silversea, Royal Caribbean’s premium stablemate, are opting to highlight more experiential travel with exclusive trips to the Galapagos and Antarctica. Buffets are being phased out in favor of a la carte options, with an emphasis on authentic local flavors. Indeed, aboard some Silversea ships, a restaurant completely changes its menu every night to reflect the cuisine of the destination where it is moored. In short, quiet luxury is in order.

Many tourist hotspots ban large cruises

Meanwhile, with concerns surrounding the return of overtourism after a brief pandemic pause, growing pressure from popular destinations to send big ships to the dustbin of history. After a decade of vociferous protests, Venice finally banned ships over 25,000 tonnes from its lagoon last year (Icon is more than 10 times larger) while Barcelona plans to introduce a tax on cruise passengers after councilor declared them “a plague of locusts”. .

There have also been moves in Mallorca, Bruges and Dubrovnik to limit the perceived impact of large ships, with the Croatian city capping the number of large ships docking per day at two with a combined total of 5,000 passengers. So there’s certainly no room at the Inn for Icon of the Seas – although Royal Caribbean won’t mind as the ship will focus on Caribbean crossings from Miami.

Icon of the Royal Caribbean Seas

Icon of the Royal Caribbean Seas

In many minds then, these belching big ships should be retired, but are they getting unfair press? With increasing government regulations and societal pressure, you can’t launch a ship these days without a nod to sustainability and Royal Caribbean is keen to highlight Icon’s green credentials. It will be the cruise line’s first ship powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), the cleaner marine fuel that is increasingly being adopted in the industry, and with features such as dockside connection and waste heat recovery, the new vessel will – says the owner – be the most sustainable to date. The company is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, so you can expect future ships to have even more measures in place.

For many, however, the very nature of large ships belies the push towards greener cruising. “We believe that small ships are the future of cruises and especially expedition cruises,” says Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten Group, known for its long voyages to Patagonia and the Falklands.

“I think many intuitively understand that smaller ships have less impact on their own, and I don’t think we could move as quickly as possible on implementing green technology, battery upgrades and energy optimization with five thousand bed amusement parks in our fleet,” he added.

Variety Cruises is another line focused on small ships that seems serious about sustainability, being the first cruise brand to join Tourism Declares Climate Emergency, an industry initiative that aims to halve the sector’s emissions. 2030. Its CEO, Filippos Venetopoulos, takes a more nuanced approach. approach, arguing that height isn’t the only measurement that matters.

“The individual passenger’s environmental impact may well be worse for smaller vessels”

“While it is easy to put small ships on an eco-friendly pedestal compared to larger cruise ships, it would be misleading, depending on the many variables involved. Regardless of a vessel’s size or capacity, the carbon footprint and sustainable (or unsustainable) practices can vary.

However, he raises concerns that the industry is already affected by the climate crisis. “As a small cruiser since 1949, we are alarmed by the rapid instability of the weather conditions studied in the Mediterranean and beyond, according to our records and reports. The weather conditions affected our small boats mainly in the middle of the season summer, but we find that they extend throughout the season, affecting our routes.

Industry expert Dr. Alexis Papathanassis, professor of cruise management at the University of Bremerhaven in Germany, agrees that it is too simplistic to say that small ships are superior to large ones and that comparisons are ” inherently problematic because they oversimplify cruising and the concept of sustainability.”

Icon of the Royal Caribbean Seas

Icon of the Royal Caribbean Seas

He elaborated: “Suppose we have a large LNG-powered ship, traveling at low speed, anchored for many hours in just a few ports using shore power, while passengers use trains or buses as a means of transportation. at the turnaround port. If we compare this to several smaller ships, burning crude oil, sailing to several destinations without shore power and their passengers having to take short-haul flights to reach port, it becomes clear that the environmental impact of the individual passenger can well be worse for small ships.

It also points to “rising energy costs, stricter regulatory standards and public opinion in different regions” pushing the cruise industry in a more environmentally friendly direction as a whole.

More super ships are in the works

Beyond environmental concerns, there’s a reason big ships remain in demand and why Royal Caribbean has two more 200,000-ton ships in the pipeline. In a review of the current Wonder of the Seas record holder, travel writer Ed Grenby described the ship as a “floating kids’ club for adults” and observed “if you step 10 paces out of your cabin, you’ll stumble upon some form of entertainment.” Pair that excitement with the competitive price that comes from large capacity and it’s not hard to see why they remain so popular, especially with families.

So what’s the future of cruising – boutique or juggernaut? Some cruise experts believe it’s both and that we will see polarization in the industry with mid-sized ships being the ultimate losers as they might not be able to compete on price or luxury.

“I expect a trend towards larger, more price-competitive vessels, accompanied by a secondary fleet of smaller, expedition and/or exclusive vessels,” predicts Dr Papathanassis.

He doesn’t see the giant ships in decline anytime soon. “Mega-ships reduce the cost per passenger and offer more options for generating revenue on board. This allows for more competitive prices and is partly the reason for the popularization of cruises as a form of vacation in recent years.

Icon of the Royal Caribbean Seas

Icon of the Royal Caribbean Seas

Witness Wonder of the Seas’ offer of a 14-night transatlantic crossing from Barcelona to the Bahamas for around £50 per person per day at the end of this month. It is hard to imagine this value being replicated on land or aboard a smaller ship.

“In the future and in order to remain popular while controlling costs, cruise ships will also have to go ‘green’ alongside ‘mega’. They can become more environmentally friendly and there is a compelling business case for doing so,” he concludes.

You could then see that the cruise industry seemed poised to mirror society, with increasingly entrenched extremes and a slightly hollowed-out middle. Good news for people who want a myriad of waterslides, all-you-can-eat buffets and trips to man-made Caribbean islands for less than £100 a day, or the super rich after £10,000 month-long trips to Antarctica with caviar breakfasts. But for those looking for something in between, the options may soon become more limited.

Bookings are now open for the first departure of Icon of the Seas in January 2024;

Would you book a trip on a mega cruise? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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