The Middle Way - A Return to Medium-Size Ships?
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The Middle Way - A Return to Medium-Size Ships?

In the head-long rush to build ships that carry 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 people that give cruise lines the economies of scale that allow them to keep fares down, and with a proliferation of small ship deliveries, the medium-size cruise ship has been largely neglected. There will soon be fifty ships above 100,000 tons, of which half a dozen will exceed 150,000 tons and three will be above 200,000 tons.
As the many "Cape" size and Panamax cruise ships have been delivered over recent years, the Handysize fleet has been aging. However, the 2000's have also shown the first signs of a resurgence in delivery of medium-size ships carrying between 500 and 1,500 passengers.

The Luxury Market

For many years, it was considered that the luxury market could support only relatively small ships, starting with a pair of Sea Goddesses in 1984 at 112 passengers, the first pair of Seabourn ships in 1988 at 212 guests and then the first pair of Silversea ships in 1994 at 296 berths. Even Radisson Seven Seas limited itself to ships of between 160 and 354 berths.

The only exception in the luxury business was Crystal Cruises, formed in 1988 by NYK to build the 940-berth Crystal Harmony, delivered in 1990 (and transferred to parent company NYK in 2005) and sister ship Crystal Symphony in 1995. For many years, while the mainstream lines kept producing larger and larger ships, Crystal offered the main choice for those seeking new ships in the up-to-1,000 berth range.

Renaissance Cruises

Then, in the upper premium market, along came Renaissance Cruises in the late 1990s with plans for eight 684-guest ships for delivery in France between 1998 and 2001 (the latter ships of this series could carry a few more). Unfortunately, Renaissance went out of business in 2001, but the hardware they had created survived. This was not the first group of eight ships Renaissance Cruises had produced, as it had earlier had eight 114-passenger ships built in Italy, backed by Norwegian shipowner Fearnley & Eger.
With the bankruptcy of Renaissance Cruises in 2001, the whole fleet was laid up and for a while a whole string of theses ships could be found laid up one behind the other at the French port of Marseilles, their builders having taken repossession. Eventually, these ships all found new employment and today three each can be found with fledgling Oceania Cruises and veteran operator Princess Cruises, while the remaining two now sail for the newly-formed Azamara Cruises.

Mid-Size Luxury Ships

Meanwhile, there has been a slow resurgence of mid-size vessels. First, in the luxury market, Regent Seven Seas Cruises entered the game. Starting with their 490-berth Seven Seas Navigator in 1999, they then introduced the 732-berth Seven Seas Mariner in 2001 and the 714-berth Seven Seas Voyager in 2003. These were soon followed in 2003 by the Crystal Cruises, with their 1,080-berth Crystal Serenity.

More recently, Apollo Management's 2007 takeover of both Oceania Cruises in the mid-range and Regent Seven Seas in the upper range has made more funds available for the construction of new medium-size cruise ships. Oceania has ordered two new 1,260-berth ships in Italy for delivery in 2010 and 2011, with an option for a third, and there is speculation that Regent Seven Seas may soon resume their own newbuilding program.

Elsewhere, Seabourn have ordered two new ships in Italy with an option for a third in the new 450-berth Seabourn Odyssey class, the first two for delivery in 2009 and 2010, and Silversea have ordered a 540-berth vessel, with option for a second, also in Italy, with the first, the Silver Spirit, for delivery in 2009.

The Future?

All very well say some, but these newbuildings, with the exception of those to Oceania, are all for delivery to luxury lines.

Nevertheless, because a number of older medium-size ships are due to be retired in 2010 they will no longer meet Safety of Life at Sea requirements, some European mid-market operators, including Fred Olsen Cruises Lines and Saga in the UK, Club Cruise in the Netherlands, Phoenix Reisen in Germany and Louis and easyCruise, have all investigated the possibility of building new medium-sized cruise ships in yards in France, Italy, Greece and South Korea.

To date, because of restricted credit markets, the only orders placed have been those for Oceania. But the designs exist and there is certainly demand from those that can afford to pay more than most mass-market fares and would prefer to travel in hundreds rather than thousands.
The whole experience in the large new ships is more geared for the young new holiday-maker than the experienced cruiser. Port congestion and crowding alone can be a serious drawback with today's mega-ship crowds. And just like "premium economy" as opposed to "club class" on the airlines, there are many people willing to pay a little bit more but not a whole lot more.

While a return to medium-size ships may seem a bit like a vision of things to come, there is no doubt that it will occur, especially as the world market grows beyond 20 million cruisers and cruisers seek more than that mass-market experience.

(Source: By Mark Tré -

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