ON Thursday, Bostonians will welcome the world's largest cruise ship to their harbor. But as the new 100,000 ton, $400 million Carnival Destiny steams in, her skipper will know that his ship will soon be dwarfed by yet bigger vessels, more like floating resorts than traditional cruise ships.
Seasoned ocean travelers might think the Carnival Destiny, with its four swimming pools, seven restaurants and 1,500-seat theater, is big enough.
But British architectural writer Hugh Pearman says that since the mid-1970s, when the advent of the Boeing 747 virtually killed off regular ocean-liner traffic, the shipping industry has rethought the philosophy and economics of large cruise ships.
Former niche approach
At first, convinced that the future lay in a "niche" approach, the industry concentrated on fairly small ships, offering cruises in such places as the Mediterranean, Scandinavia's Fjordland, and the Caribbean.
But it did not take long for the allure of the huge liner with a spectacular array of facilities to reassert itself. The steady aging of the population in the developed world gave the process a push.
"Lots of oldies with money to spare mean that the cruise market is growing at 10 percent a year," Mr. Pearman says.
But not only seniors are buying trips on the Carnival Destiny.
Michael Muller, managing director in Europe for Carnival Cruise Lines, confirms that many of the 3,400 passengers who each week will board the ship at the line's home base, Miami, for Caribbean cruises, are well-heeled people in their 50s and 60s. But, he notes, the average age of passengers will be about 40, and that 20 percent of passengers are families.
Muller describes the new cruise liners as "floating resorts" that can compete with, or complement, land-based vacation centers. He says many clients like to combine one week at a land resort with another week at sea.
It is this concept, together with a belief in the industry that economies of scale can be achieved by building huge cruise liners, that underlies the current surge in their construction. Operating costs for the large cruise ships can be up to 40 percent lower than for older vessels, says Ian Wild, a broker at the London insurance firm, BZW.
Sun Princess was biggest
Before Carnival Destiny was commissioned last month and headed from Venice, Italy, to Malaga in Spain, and then out across the Atlantic, the largest cruise ship at sea was the 77,000 ton Sun Princess, owned by Britain's P&O shipping group.
Two years from now P&O will launch its Grand Princess, a 104,000 ton ship that will edge ahead of Carnival Destiny in size.
But even that record will be short-lived, for in 1999 Westin Hotels, based in Seattle, will make the biggest splash of all when it launches America World City. Costing $1.2 billion and with passengers and crew totaling 8,600, it will weigh in at 250,000 tons.
Unlike Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, which hit the high seas in 1967 and drew plaudits for its elegant, razor-sharp lines, the new-style cruise ships, Pearman says, "gain bulk rather than length." The distinction "between hull and superstructure has all but disappeared."
Such considerations do not appear to bother the people who are ready to shell out several thousand dollars for a few days at sea.
Three-fourths of them - 3.6 million - are North Americans. Industry sources predict that 7.5 million people worldwide will be taking an ocean cruise each year by 2000.
Currently, says Peter Wild, managing director of GP Wild, a British firm of cruise consultants, there are about 30 cruise ships under construction around the world.
He foresees a future of intense competition for customers, "with winners and losers."
Size limit reached?
Mr. Wild says there must be a practical limit to how big an ocean liner can be, and that limit may already be close to being reached with the Carnival Destiny,
Pearman suggests that travelers aboard cruise ships of the future should not expect elegance of interior decor. The ships, he says, are already echoing international hotels with a style he calls "global nondescript," with British seafarers preferring understated wood and brass, and Americans liking opulent marble and chrome.