Is Thinking Small a Good Move for Cruise Companies?
Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International
Does size matter? It’s the age old question, and it applies to cruise ships as much as anything else. Royal Caribbean International just upped the ante again when it recently launched the latest vessel that has the title of "world’s biggest cruise ship" — the new Harmony of the Seas — but it's only one of the extremes. There are trends toward smaller ones as well, whether they be riverboats, expedition ships or boutique vessels.
Here’s a fun game to get us started comparing two modern designs: the aforementioned Harmony of the Seas and a Viking River Cruises Longship. The Harmony is 1,188 feet long, 215.5 feet wide and 18 decks tall. A Viking Longship — indicative of the size of most European riverboats — is 443 feet long, 37 feet wide and 4 decks tall. Assuming an average height of eight feet per deck and if each vessel was perfectly squared off (which they are not, so take this as a loose estimation), just how many Longships would volumetrically fit within the Harmony? Well, that would be a staggering 70 riverboats. That’s the kind of scale difference that exists between the largest and one of the smallest cruise ships sailing today.
Interestingly enough, Viking River Cruises has 46 Longships currently sailing, and at the rate the line launch new ones annually, it’s not far off from having a fleet that amasses comparable size to the Harmony of the Seas.
While scale paints a dramatic picture, it's often the more intimate number of passenger capacities that matters most to the guest experience. Continuing with the vessels above for uniform comparison, the Harmony can hold a maximum of 6,780 whereas a Viking Longship carries 190. That’s a vast difference, and one that spreads out even further when you look at other European riverboats like Tauck’s that take only 130 or expedition ships at 120, for instance, aboard Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Discoverer.
It’s not just a situation of ocean cruises versus river cruises either. While there is certainly a trend toward building larger ocean ships, mostly because of an economy of scale, there is also a trend toward smaller seagoing vessels as well, perhaps proving that many people are willing to pay more to be less crowded. That’s why Viking Ocean Cruises, sister brand to Viking River Cruises, built its new Viking Star and Viking Sea with a capacity of under a thousand, at only 930 guests.
Also, constructing smaller in the future will be Celebrity Cruises, which is surprising, given that most other mainstream cruise lines are scaling up, especially its own corporate cousin Royal Caribbean International. Of course, by smaller that merely means smaller than its last newbuild — the 126,000-ton, 3,046-guest Celebrity Reflection. The premium line’s four planned EDGE-class ships will instead measure in at 117,000 gross tons with a capacity of 2,900 passengers.
What remains to be seen is whether or not Viking Ocean Cruises' breakout success will cause any other lines to think twice and build much smaller too. Viking has at least another four of its ships on the way, and, as top picks by both Cruise Critic and Travel + Leisure, they just might get some of the rest of the industry to think small again too.
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