WHY SMALLER IS SAVVY (Updated)

ImageThe trend towards ever larger cruise ships in the mainstream market has become something of an unstoppable juggernaut over the last decade or so. The idea of combining new, amenity laden ships awash with the ‘wow’ factor has, without doubt, been the engine that has propelled the massive success of cruising. Throw in the economies of scale inherent in building a string of similar sized fleet mates, and the logic is inescapable.

And yet…

For all the gains made in revenue and the availability of good quality, bargain cruises, the trade off has been a slide to near extinct status in ships of the 25- 45,000 ton mark. Except in the deluxe market, no new ships of this size have been put into service at all.

That special, sweet size allowed such ships to glide into the smaller, less developed spots that their larger alternatives have to bypass. And there’s no question that a more intimate, personal style of cruising has largely gone to the wall.

It is not just cruise passengers that are affected. Back in the late nineties, Bermuda’s main ports of Hamilton and St. George’s played host to a minimum of five mid sized cruise ships every week, each week from April through October. Each call lasted between two and three nights minimum. The boon to the island’s tourism was undeniable.

Now, each is lucky to get two calls a year, total. Largely, this is down to the new mega ship docks at Kings Wharf but- more crucially- this is also down to a dearth of mid sized tonnage that can thread its way into those ports, and their equivalents across the Atlantic.

The likes of Norwegian, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean sold off their mid sized tonnage to new owners such as Pullmantur, Louis and Thomson. All these ships still offer a great, value for money experience but, because they are smaller, in mid age and lacking in balcony cabins and alternative dining venues, they are now widely perceived as second class. Short of frills and rock climbing walls, they are seen as a ‘hard sell’ to a supposedly gimmick obsessed cruising public.

This in itself is a shame. But worse still is the fact that no similar sized replacement tonnage is in the mix. A handful of intimate sized ships, complete with balconies and a few restaurants, would be a welcome, profitable splash of diversity in cruising’s increasingly uniform and pedestrian portfolio.

There are, however, still a few stubborn hold outs. The five, mid sized Statendam class ships of Holland America line still continue to hold their own, as does the elegant Prinsendam.

From the UK, the mid sized ships of Fred. Olsen continue to offer a friendly, more old world kind of experience to a predominantly older age group. Itineraries are superb, and the ships offer excellent food and service at a very good price point, as well as lots of decently priced single cabins.

And… one of the big surprises that slipped right under the radar comes from Costa; a company whose name these days is synonymous with mega ships.

In a nifty little nod to its own past, two seasons ago the line snapped up the spiffy little Costa Voyager, a modern gem of around 28,000 tons. With a good, all round mix of cabins and modern styling, this ship could be the benchmark for ships of this size. She tends to sail in the Mediterranean and Red Sea but, if this is your ideal size of ship, I recommend you give her a look.

Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes, smaller is just plain smart and savvy. Cruise lines, please consider: Think big, and build small.

Update: Since this post was originally written, Costa has seen fit to dispose of the Costa Voyager.

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