As the biggest ship ever is unveiled, are floating cities really the future of cruising?

Icon of the seas Royal Caribbean largest cruise ship in the world

In a world battered and battered by a pandemic, economic turbulence and growing environmental fears, it would follow that the era of large and bombastic leisure projects is over. Supersize looks a bit old-fashioned in the current climate. The cruise industry, however, has other ideas and Royal Caribbean has just unveiled what will be the world’s largest cruise ship, Icon of the Seas, set to sail in early 2024.

The ship will snatch the crown from its sister Wonder of the Seas (which itself debuted only in February) of only 11 feet, a small but important margin, which guarantees that its arrival will be met with the greatest fanfare. But make no mistake, he is a colossus. With space for 7,600 passengers – or 18 jumbo jets worth – its size is hard to understand, eclipsing most mega resorts on the mainland.

To help passengers navigate the 20 decks, the ship will be divided into eight themed neighborhoods, including Thrill Island, which will house the largest water park on the sea and a bungee jump that dangles the daredevils 154 feet above the waves, as well as to the verdant “Central Park”. ‘which will be littered with New York-inspired restaurants (the ship will have more than 40 dining options in total) and winding routes.

Icon of the royal seas of the Caribbean

Icon of the royal seas of the Caribbean

This is a ship that deals with superlatives. It will boast the largest swimming pool by the sea, the first suspended infinity pool (plus 14 more) and the highest water slide, 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 “row house” complete with letterbox and white picket fence, evoking a simpler era when cruise ships didn’t look like floating cities.

However, for all its swagger, the decision to launch this mega-ship now – even though it is true that it has been in the works for five years – collides with noise from other parts of the industry, which has attempted to shake off a bad one. environmental reputation and winning over cruise snobs with an emphasis on smaller, swishers and, in theory, more sustainable vessels.

Lines like Hurtigruten, Ponant and even Silversea, Royal Caribbean’s high-end stable mate, are choosing to highlight more experiential journeys with exclusive trips to the likes of the Galapagos and Antarctica. Buffets are being phased out in favor of a la carte options, with an emphasis on authentic local flavors. Indeed, on board some Silversea ships, a restaurant changes the entire menu every evening to reflect the cuisine of the destination where it is docked. In short, quiet luxury is within.

Many tourist hotspots prohibit large cruises

Meanwhile, with worries of excessive tourism returning after a brief pandemic hiatus, there is growing pressure from popular destinations to deliver large ships to the dustbin of history. After a decade of loud protests, last year Venice finally banned ships heavier than 25,000 tons (the icon is more than 10 times larger) from its lagoon while Barcelona plans to introduce a cruise passenger tax after a councilor declared them “a plague of locusts”.

There have also been movements such as Mallorca, Bruges and Dubrovnik to limit the perceived impact of large ships, with the Croatian city limiting the number of large ships docking a day with a combined total of 5,000 passengers to two. So there’s definitely no room in the inn for Icon of the Seas, although that won’t bother Royal Caribbean as the ship’s focus will be on Caribbean cruises from Miami.

Royal Caribbean seas icon

Royal Caribbean seas icon

In many minds then, these large belching vessels should be retired, but are they receiving unfair press? Given increasing government regulation and pressure from society, it’s not possible to launch a ship these days without a nod to sustainability, and Royal Caribbean is keen to highlight Icon’s eco-credentials. It will be the cruise company’s first ship powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), the cleanest marine fuel that is increasingly being adopted in the industry, and with features such as shore power and waste heat recovery systems, the new ship it will – says the owner – be the most sustainable to date. The company has 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 contradicts the drive for greener cruises. “We believe smaller ships are the future of cruises and especially expedition cruises,” says Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of the Hurtigruten Group, known for its long voyages to Patagonia and the Falklands.

“I think many intuitively understand that smaller ships have less impact in and of themselves, and I don’t think we could move as quickly as possible to implement green technology, battery upgrade and energy optimization with amusement parks with five thousand seats in our fleet, ”he added.

Variety Cruises is another small ship-focused line that seems serious about sustainability, being the first cruise brand to participate in Tourism Declares Climate Emergency, an industry initiative that seeks to halve industry emissions by 2030. The Its CEO, Filippos Venetopoulos, takes a more nuanced approach, arguing that size isn’t the only measure that matters.

“The environmental impact of the single passenger could be worse for smaller ships”

“While it would be easier to place small ships on an eco-friendly pedestal than larger cruise ships, it would be misleading, depending on the many variables involved. Regardless of the size or capacity of a ship, the carbon footprint and sustainable (or unsustainable) practices can vary. “

However, he is concerned that the sector is already affected by the climate crisis. “As a small boat cruise company dating back to 1949, we are alarmed by the rapidly unstable weather conditions studied in the Mediterranean and beyond, by our records and reports. Weather conditions in the past affected our small boats mainly during the summer midseason, but we are finding that these conditions are expanding throughout the season, affecting our itineraries ”.

The 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 and that comparisons are “inherently problematic as they oversimplify both cruises and the concept of sustainability. “.

Royal Caribbean seas icon

Royal Caribbean seas icon

He explained: “Let’s say we have a large ship, which is powered by LNG, sails at low speed, anchoring for many hours only in a couple of ports using land-based energy, while passengers use trains or buses as a means of transport. transport to the turnaround port. If we compare this to several smaller ships, which burn crude oil, sail to different destinations with no shore power, and their passengers have to take short-haul flights to reach the port, it becomes apparent that the environmental impact of the individual passenger may be worse for. smaller ships.

It also indicates “rising energy costs, stricter regulatory standards and public opinion in different regions” that push the cruise industry in a more eco-conscious direction as a whole.

More super ships are in the pipeline

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

So what is the future of the cruise: boutique or giant? Some cruise experts believe it is both and that we will see a polarization in the industry, with midsize vessels being the last losers as they may not be able to compete on price or luxury.

“I expect a trend towards larger and more competitive vessels in terms of price, accompanied by a side fleet of smaller, expeditionary and / or exclusive vessels,” predicts Dr Papathanassis.

He does not see the declining giant ships soon. “The mega-ships reduce the cost per passenger and offer more options to generate 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 ”.

Royal Caribbean seas icon

Royal Caribbean seas icon

This is evidenced by Wonder of the Seas’ offer of a 14-night transatlantic sailing from Barcelona to the Bahamas for around £ 50 per person per day at the end of this month. It is difficult to imagine this value replicated ashore or aboard a smaller ship.

“In the future and to remain popular while keeping costs at bay, cruise ships will also need to go ‘green’ alongside ‘mega’. They can become more environmentally friendly and there is a compelling business rationale for doing so, ”she concludes.

It could therefore be seen that the cruise industry looks set to mirror society, with extremes increasingly entrenched and the core slightly hollowed out. Good news for people who want a plethora of water slides, all-you-can-eat buffets and trips to the man-made Caribbean islands for under £ 100 a day, or for the super rich after £ 10,000 a month’s trips in Antarctica with caviar breakfasts. But for those looking for a middle ground, the options may soon become more limited.

Reservations are now open for the first Icon of the Seas departure in January 2024; royalcaribbeanpresscenter.com

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