Why even bigger cruise ships could follow Icon of the Seas

Icon of the Seas is currently the world’s largest cruise ship
Icon of the Seas is currently the world’s largest cruise ship - Getty Images

Few people can have missed the banner headlines proclaiming the blaring arrival of Icon of the Seas – the latest floating leviathan to claim the crown as the world’s largest cruise ship.

Towering up 20 decks and topping an immense 250,000 tonnes, this multi-coloured behemoth swept noisily into Miami for its glitzy naming by footballing icon Lionel Messi watched by the world’s press, who assiduously reported the world-beating statistics that have guaranteed this hefty debutante its place in the record books.

More floating resort than cruise ship, Icon of the Seas is no shrinking violet, its bold – some could say garish – line-up of flashy attractions prompting a Marmite-like split between devotees and detractors.

Icon of the Seas
Icon of the Seas - Getty

Yet even those quick to damn this as a gaudy monument to excess cannot write off the extraordinary feat of engineering and ingenuity it represents, begging the question: just how much bigger can cruise ships get?

When owner Royal Caribbean International (RCI) launched Icon’s sister ship, the slightly smaller Oasis of the Seas, in 2009, it was regarded as a pivotal moment of pushing cruise ship architecture to its limits both in size and style.

Icon’s arrival nearly 15 years after the first Oasis-class ship has shifted the boundaries yet again, and it is being followed by similarly-sized sister Star of the Seas in summer next year and a third as-yet unnamed Icon-class ship in 2026.

Nonetheless, RCI bosses are keen to play down talk of going even bigger, citing logistical issues with ports unable to cope with ever more gargantuan hardware.

Yet maritime experts agree that when it comes to giant cruise ships, the sea’s the limit.

Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, one of the leading three companies that construct ships for mainstream cruise lines such as Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises and MSC Cruises, confirmed there was no specific ceiling on the maximum size of such craft.

However, a spokesman conceded there could be logistical constraints governing the size of the shipyard dry dock where it would be built and the lifting cranes that play such an essential part in the construction process.

But the spokesman confirmed there were no engineering restrictions to building mammoth ships, particularly on aspects such as manoeuvrability, adding: “This can be achieved simply by increasing the power of the thrusters and the propulsion system.”

Ship designer Markus Aarnio, chief naval architect for Finnish ship design and engineering company Foreship, said the cruise industry was “not even close” to approaching technical limits for ships, but he cautioned that a safety risk came from having such a large number of passengers on a single vessel, thus raising the stakes in the event of a serious accident.

“The more people there are on board, the more stringent the damage stability requirements,” he added. “Maybe the biggest obstacles from such a large vessel size come from the ports they can access. The longer the ship, the fewer ports it can enter due to space reasons, while the width and height can also limit access.”

The 330m-long MSC Virtuosa
The 330m-long MSC Virtuosa - PA

It’s a point reiterated by Allan Jordan, associate editor of US-based specialist shipping journal The Maritime Executive, who pointed out that bridges, power cables and other potential obstructions restrict access to some ports for ships exceeding certain heights.

“Size also limits where cruise ships can dock and where they can be maintained, with only a handful of dry docks big enough to handle these massive ships,” he said. “Other challenges come from handling things such as embarkation and disembarkation in daily service. Ports like Miami have problems with traffic jams and lack of parking for all the cars coming and going to the ships. This is the port Icon of the Seas is sailing from and it has had to build new terminals to handle these giant ships.”

Patrick Atack, transport editor of online B2B site Ship Technology, countered that the size of future ships could rest with consumer tastes.

“Essentially, it seems the technical specifications are not the challenge, but the market might be, especially post-Covid,” he said. “With much of the travel sector we are seeing a slight change of direction in what customers want. It used to be that bigger was better, but when you look at aircraft such as the Dreamliner and the A380, customers want comfort rather than size.”

Royal Caribbean’s Bahamian private island Perfect Day at CocoCay
Royal Caribbean’s Bahamian private island Perfect Day at CocoCay - Shutterstock

The main reason Airbus’s giant 550-passenger A380 was a commercial failure, going out of production after 12 years, was that airlines regarded it as uneconomic. But another factor was that the A380’s bulk meant it could only land at certain airports, which needed to be fitted with more expansive gates to accommodate its larger proportions.

It’s been a similar scenario for cruise ports with RCI’s Oasis-class ships – and now its new Icon class – only able to call at specific destinations such as St Maarten, St Thomas and St Kitts whose port facilities have been upgraded to cater for them.

The issue is not just docking logistics, but the prospect of vast numbers of passengers going ashore, potentially swamping destinations and inflaming the very real and sensitive issue of overtourism.

Offering a potential solution is Royal Caribbean’s Bahamian private island Perfect Day at CocoCay, which has been transformed in recent years and features in every single itinerary for Icon of the Seas – handily saving on port fees, while keeping the extra cruise spend of passengers within company coffers.

Disney Cruise Line has announced plans for a new ship to launch next year
Disney Cruise Line has announced plans for a new ship to launch next year - Joe Bryant

The use of private islands like this, as well as increased sea days that turn the ship into the main attraction, “seems to be the trend”, according to Foreship’s Aarnio. “It means passengers spend more money on board (albeit without shore excursions and similar mean income too) and reduces port fees.” He added: “But not all passengers just want to see the ship. They want to see different ports as a lot depends on the itinerary with the Caribbean being very different to Alaska or the Mediterranean.”

The Maritime Executive’s Jordan agreed: “Travellers are looking for experiences these days and destinations are important. The mega-ships are limited in ports and operations as the lines have to fill them up, so they stick to proven, basic routes while new destinations and access to exclusive events come from smaller, luxury ships.”

While Royal Caribbean has led the industry with its “big is beautiful” approach, competitors are hot on its tail.

Italian-style line MSC Cruises has unveiled similarly-sized vessels with its World Class ships at nearly 216,000 tons and holding more than 6,700 guests, while Disney Cruise Line has announced plans for a new 6,000-passenger 208,000-ton ship which will be based in Singapore from next year. There are also reports that the giant Carnival Corporation, which owns brands including P&O Cruises, Cunard and Carnival Cruise Lines, is close to sealing a deal for four 200,000-ton ships with Fincantieri.

Yet while the march of the mega-ships continues apace, underpinned by the technical capability to push limits even further, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite among the main protagonists to go all-out for extra tonnage – at least not for now.

As Jordan surmised: “Some of the other brands behind Royal Caribbean are likely playing catch up with their own new big ships, with most of them topping out now at around 6,000-passenger capacities, but I think we are at a size plateau for the foreseeable future.”