Can cruise ships get any bigger? Industry heads say yes, to keep up with demand

Can cruise ships get any bigger? Industry heads say yes, to keep up with demand
Cruise company executives Pierfrancesco Vago, left, of MSC Cruises, Frank J. Del Rio of Norwegian Cruise Line and Donald Arnold of Carnival Corp. discuss the cruise industry at a conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Seatrade Cruise Global)

Some of the cruise industry's top execs got together to talk shop Tuesday at Seatrade Cruise Global, a mega-convention that brings together more than 11,000 participants annually in Southern Florida.

The executives discussed the challenges of 2017, when 17 deadly hurricanes swirled through the Atlantic, wreaking devastation on communities and destroying ports.


They also talked about what a great year 2017 was in terms of the cruise line successes.

More than 25 million people took cruises in 2017, and the number is expected to grow to 27 million in 2018, according to the Cruise Lines International Assn.

"If this were Christmas and you were Santa Claus, I'd ask for nothing this year," said Frank J. Del Rio, president and chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.

Del Rio was addressing the audience and Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor, who was moderating the conference's keynote panel, "State of the Global Cruise Industry."

Other top execs on the panel were Arnold W. Donald, president and chief executive of Carnival Corp., Richard D. Fain, chairman and chief executive of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., and Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises.

Del Rio's Christmas gift comment brought laughs from the audience and reflected the strong growth the industry is currently undergoing.

Cruising is becoming so popular that most lines are ordering new ships to accommodate the growth; more than 80 new ships are in development, with 27 expected to launch this year alone.

According to Fain of Royal Caribbean, "We are no longer a niche player, and I think you are seeing that in the U.S., beginning to see that in Europe, see it in Australia, and in due course will see that in China and other parts of Asia. That's why we're beginning to do so well."

China is the one sour note in the picture. Cruise lines built new ships in the last few years specifically to appeal to Chinese middle-class travelers but acceptance has been slow in coming.

The recent boom in cruises to Cuba, however, has paid off. Norwegian's Del Rio said ships to Cuba are full, at “very high prices.”

The Obama administration loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba in 2015 while keeping the embargo against the island nation in place.

Donald, of Carnival Corp., agreed. "Cuba's fantastic," he said, noting that tighter regulations from the Trump administration last year haven't affected sailings. Another plus: "We think it's great for normalizing relations."

What about the future?

The sky's the limit, speakers agreed, and cruisers can expect to find an increasing number of unusual features on ships, said Del Rio. He credits his 10-year-old grandson with the idea for adding a racetrack to ships. A two-story racetrack will debut on Norwegian Bliss, set to launch this spring.


“No idea is absurd anymore," Del Rio said. "These ships are big. Anything can fit on them, and they are only going to get bigger.”