MSC Cruises fifteen years ago was a small European cruise line operating a fleet of aged former ocean liners, but it represented Italian hospitality, diverse on-board entertainment and destinations and a generally well-packaged cruise experience at competitive prices in interesting parts of the world, such as Brazil, South Africa and of course the Mediterranean.
The cruise line also recently entered the North American cruise market, offering winter Caribbean sailing from Florida aboard MSC Divina. In just over a decade, the cruise line has grown dramatically, funded in large part by parent company MSC Shipping, one of the largest commercial shipping companies in the world. At the time of writing, the cruise line operated 12 ships, with four cruise ships in each ‘class’ (Lirica-class, Musica-class and Fantasia-class, the largest).
According to data compiled by Cruise Market Watch, MSC Cruises are the 6th largest cruise line in the world by number of passengers carried, accounting for 6.3% of the 21.6-million cruise passengers forecast for this year. However, like Royal Caribbean, they’re investing heavily in their fleet, which may have a dramatic impact on the cruise line leader board in years to come. By 2022, it is certainly expected that MSC Cruises will be the largest cruise line in Europe (by passengers carried), a title currently held by Carnival Corporation’s subsidiary Costa Cruises. MSC Cruises has made no secret of its ambitions. “Today, MSC Cruises adds the last piece to its new industrial plan that will allow us to double the capacity of our fleet by 2022,” Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises, said recently when they cruise line’s new Seaside-class of ships were announced. “With the arrival of the new ships we will reach a capacity of about 80,000 passengers a day.”
MSC Cruises in the past few weeks has announced four new cruise ships are to be built, each capable of carrying more than 5,000 passengers. The new Seaside-class, which are to be built by Fincantieri in Italy, however, are the most impressive, even though they are slightly smaller than the 167,600-gross ton giants being built by STX Europe. Each shipyard will be build two ships for MSC Cruises, although the cruise line has confirmed that its contract includes an option for two more 167,000-gross ton cruise liners and one more 154,000-gross ton Seaside-class ship. The name of this new cruise ship type is what really indicated how it will be set apart from other ships in the global cruise fleet. It features an entirely unique design, with a wide hull and significantly slimmer superstructure, allowing for wide promenades near the water that will reportedly feature cafes, shops and cruise ship cabins. It really is an entirely new style of cruising that turns the cruise ship into a floating apartment building on a retail and entertainment base.
This may not be to everyone’s taste, and indeed many of the more ‘traditional’ cruise passengers in South Africa (an important market for MSC Cruises where they enjoy a monopoly) may be horrified by the new design. However, it is a clever move on MSC Cruises part to distinguish their product and provide passengers with what they want (there is an insatiable demand among most cruise passengers for greater outdoor areas, more seaviews and a more intimate connection with the sea). “Seaside is a futuristic prototype because of its structure, shape and versatility,” says Pierfrancesco Vago, Executive Chairman of MSC Cruises. “Working closely with Fincantieri we are getting ready for the new and compelling challenge that the construction of these ships represents. It will be a real revolution in the world’s cruise market, an excellent product for its unique and innovative architectural features and cutting-edge technology.” Apart from the unique superstructure, the new cruise ships will also feature expansive bay windows that suggest a huge multi-level central atrium, as well as perhaps a dining room or public lounges forward on the promenade deck. Panoramic lifts on the exterior of the ship will be another defining feature of this new class.
Funded with the support of the insurance and financial company SACE, the two ships will be delivered in November, 2017 and May 2018. Each will have a length of 323m and will accommodate 5,300 passengers, double that of the Lirica-class ships MSC Lirica and MSC Sinfonia and Opera that operate in the Arabian Gulf and South African markets. The two Seaside-class ships are part of a US $6.8-billion investment in the fleet by MSC Cruises that includes the two additional 167,600-gross ton cruise ships being built by STX Europe, and the total refit and rebuilding of the four Lirica-class cruise ships, which are the smallest in the fleet. The two new Seaside-class cruise liners will be deployed to “the most sought-after warm weather destinations in the Mediterranean, South America and Caribbean”, according to a press release from the cruise line, ruling out a roundtrip Dubai cruise in the Arabian Gulf or a South African cruise season, but does suggest that MSC Cruises plan to take on industry giants Carnival Cruises and Royal Caribbean, the long-standing leaders of the Caribbean cruise market, the most competitive in the world.
Asked about the rapid growth plan being funded by MSC Cruises, Carnival Corporation’s CEO Arnold Donald told Seatrade Insider he wasn’t overly concerned. “It’s four ships. We have 102. In the scheme of things, you’re looking at a tiny percent impact, depending how they’re positioned in the market.” However, Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan recently suggested that MSC Cruises’ positioning of MSC Divina in the Caribbean had played a significant role in forcing down cruise fares in the world’s most important cruise market. If this is where MSC Cruises has gotten to over the past 15 years, Cruise Arabia & Africa cant wait to see what the next five will bring.