Thank you, Leonardo.
The success of the film "Titanic" has cruise industry executives, like so many Celine Dions, warbling the praises of the iceberg epic and its baby-faced star, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Before the film's release, the industry was concerned the story of a disaster at sea would send the market plummeting to the bottom of the ocean. But "the romantic character of the story prevailed and had a positive effect on the public," says Francesco Di Cesare, a Venice-based industry analyst.
As a result, the wake of the top-grossing film of all time is sloshing even more money into the coffers of Europe's lucrative cruise industry. "In Europe, 'Titanic' guaranteed a 20 percent increase in the sales of cruises," says Vincenzo Zaccagnino, editor of the Italian magazine Cruises.
Sailing on this high tide of popularity, the largest superliner in the world set forth for the first time this week from Istanbul, Turkey, on a 12-day trip to Barcelona, Spain. Capable of accommodating 2,600 passengers and a crew of 1,200, Grand Princess is twice the size of the Titanic - also touted as the largest ship afloat before it sank during its maiden voyage in 1912.
Despite its tragic plot, "the film really brought to people's attention just how grand cruising can be, just how splendid a sea cruise is," says Gill Haynes, marketing manager of Britain's P&O Princess Cruises, which commissioned the Grand Princess. "Titanic re-aroused this hidden desire. Certainly among the young, who are now asking their parents to take them on a cruise," agrees Mario Martini, marketing manager of Genoa-based Costa Crociere, Italy's market leader in the sector.
Mr. Di Cesare adds that one cannot compare yesterday's Titanic to today's cruises. "One thing is transport, another is a holiday. The use and perception of ships by customers has changed significantly," he says.
The advent of the airline industry earlier this century caused a near collapse for passenger liners. But in the 1970s, interest in cruises started to grow again in the United States, boosted in part by the television series "The Love Boat."
In the 1980s, cruises also took off in Europe as the price of vacation packages decreased. "Today the US market is consolidated and has been fully exploited. Great expansion, however, is taking place in Europe," says Di Cesare.
According to the latest official figures, in 1996, 6 million people went on cruises, a 40 percent increase from 1990. Cruise ship production is mainly European.
Grand Princess is shipbuilder Fincantieri's latest creation. At a cost of $450 million, it isn't only the biggest passenger vessel ever constructed, but also the most expensive. Later this year, the Italian firm is set to break another world record with Disney Magic. The 964-foot ship, due to be handed over to Disney Cruise Lines in July, will be the world's longest.
Completion of Grand Princess was not without problems. The ship was originally due to sail May 14 from Southampton, England, to New York - the same route as the Titanic's - but the trip had to be canceled at the last minute. "We needed an extra week.... Finishing touches are very complex on a ship with its style of innovation," says marketing manager Haynes, adding that passengers were given a full refund and other compensation.
The sheer size of the Grand Princess is overwhelming: At 201 feet high and 159 feet wide it is higher than Niagara Falls and too broad to fit through the Panama Canal.
But size isn't everything. "She is the outcome of an extremely innovative design," says Fincantieri chairman Corrado Antonini. "She is a unique ship that we like to define [as] third generation - a ship for the third millennium."
Grand Princess boasts 1,300 cabins, including 28 designed for disabled passengers. The sports deck includes a 9-hole putting green and a computerized golf center. "There's an enormous range of ... innovative facilities, like the first virtual reality center and the first wedding chapel at sea," says Haynes.
Perhaps the most spectacular addition is the glass-walled nightclub suspended 150 feet above the stern and reached through a glass-enclosed "travellator."
"When you're up there, it's almost like hovering in a helicopter over the back of the ship," says Haynes. "That's when you really know you are on the world's largest cruise ship."