Cruise Line Focus

Cruise line focus: MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises is a major Italian cruise brand that has exploded into the mainstream in the last 15 years through an ambitious newbuild program and the cornering of emergent cruise markets like South Africa and the Middle East.

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MSC Cruises is the largest independently owned cruise line in the world. It ranks in fourth place behind Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line in terms of passengers carried annually, but its growth story is remarkable.

The Italian cruise giant comes from very humble beginnings, and had a very rocky start. In the 1960s, MSC Shipping, the world’s third-largest container shipping company, decided to enter the cruise business. It did so with two former ocean liners, Achille Lauro and Angelina Lauro.

As these names suggest, the cruise line was known as Lauro Lines back then. Both ships would face infamy during their cruising careers.

Angelina Lauro caught fire in the port of St. Thomas in 1979 and the Achille Lauro was hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, with one disabled American passenger killed during the incident.

Following these PR disasters, Lauro Lines found itself unable to sell tickets and filed for bankruptcy.

It was bought in 1989 by MSC Shipping, who renamed it StarLauro Cruises. With a major re-branding, new owners and a new marketing plan, the cruise line found its feet, especially in the Mediterranean and South African cruise markets.

But, in 1994, the Achille Lauro caught fire and sank during a re-positioning cruise from South Africa to Italy. Another re-branding was called for, and in 1995 MSC Cruises was born.

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Achille Lauro in Star Lauro colours prior to the purchase by MSC Cruises.

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MSC Cruises carved out a place for itself in the highly-competitive cruise market by homeporting its ships in under-served regions with high demand for cruising, such as Brazil and of course South Africa, while also cruising in its home waters of the Mediterranean.

Between 1995 and 2000 the fleet expanded to include a number of former ocean liners, such as MSC Monterey, MSC Symphony, MSC Rhapsody and MSC Melody. At the turn of the century, however, MSC Shipping decided it was time to invest some proper money into its cruise division.

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MSC Lirica alongside in Abu Dhabi. She was MSC’s first ever newbuild.

MSC Cruises ordered a pair of brand-new 58,000-ton ships — the very first new-builds in the company’s history.

In 2003, it took delivery of its first-born, MSC Lirica, the first step in an epic fleet expansion that has been unrivalled in the modern cruise industry.

MSC Cruises is now the fourth largest cruise line in the world, and the second-largest operating in Europe, after just over 15 years.

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MSC Sinfonia departs Cape Town. In 2018, she was replaced in the South African cruise market by the larger MSC Musica.

MSC Cruises destinations and itineraries

Despite this growth, and a renewed effort to capture more of the North American market with its Seaside-class cruise ships, MSC Cruises has remained loyal to its niche cruise markets.

Every year, MSC Sinfonia sails roundtrip from Durban and Cape Town during the South African cruise season. In 2018 she has been replaced by the larger and more modern MSC Musica.

In the Middle East as well, MSC Cruises has captured a large part of the market, with MSC Splendida offering a floating resort concept in the Arabian Gulf.

She will return to Dubai for a series of roundtrip cruises during the 2018/19 cruise season, but will be replaced next year by the much larger MSC Bellissima, the largest cruise ship ever to homeport in Dubai.

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MSC Bellissima is one of the largest cruise ships in the world, and the largest ever to cruise roundtrip from Dubai.

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MSC Cruises has also set its sights on China: MSC Lirica made its homeport in Shanghai in May 2016, initially for two years. In 2018, she will be deployed in Dubai, cruising roundtrip to India during the winter.

It also ventured into Cuba, basing MSC Opera there in 2015 and MSC Armonia in November 2016.

MSC Lirica, Opera, Armonia and Sinfonia are all the same class of ship, the smallest in the MSC fleet, but they were all comprehensively refurbished and refit in 2016 and 2017, with all four vessels cut in half and stretched in a major upgrade program.

While it has reinvested in its existing fleet, MSC Cruises has also continued its massive expansion into the new decade.

The 5,400-passenger World-class cruise ships, slated for delivery in 2022, 2024, 2025 and 2026, are being built in the same shipyard as the line’s Meraviglia ships — STX France — and will be the biggest vessels ever built by a European cruise line.

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Galleria Meraviglia shopping promenade aboard the massive Meraviglia class cruise ships.

MSC Meraviglia is second only to Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class in terms of passenger capacity and spent the 2017 summer and 2018 sailing in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

In early 2016, the line announced an even bigger version, Meraviglia Plus 1. Due for delivery in October 2019 and September 2020, the two new Meraviglia Plus ships will have a capacity of nearly 6,300 passengers plus 1,700 crew.

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Then there is the Seaside class, a trio of planned cruise ships built to an entirely new design at Fincantieri.

The first of the 160,000-ton, 4,134-passenger ships, MSC Seaside, was launched in 2017 at a cost of €700 million, while the second will be delivered in May 2018. There’s also an option for a third ship, which would launch in 2021.

MSC Cruises describes the new design as “revolutionary” with new features that include a sea-level promenade that circumnavigates the ship with outdoor spaces, shops and restaurants, as well as Miami condo-style balcony staterooms wrapping around the stern, the longest zip-line at sea over the pool deck and a glass walkway that curves out over the stern.

MSC Cruises on-board experience

While these designs are innovative and push the envelope in the cruise industry, some aspects of MSC Cruises remain deliberately traditional.

Meal times are one example. There are set dining times and seatmates, and a handful of optional eateries that include sushi, a buffet and an Italian restaurant aboard all ships.

The larger vessels, of course, have a much greater array of specialty dining venues.

Fellow passengers aboard MSC Cruises come from all corners of the world, so be prepared for long public announcements, as each is made in several languages (generally Italian, French, Spanish, German and English).

The international passenger mix, with a strong European influence, is also reflected in the onboard entertainment, which while eclectic and unique, caters primarily to Italians and Germans. There are dance lessons aplenty, classical concerts in the piano bars, Cirque du Soleil-esque aerobatic shows and even jazz.

Types of MSC Cruises passengers

Caribbean sailings are geared more obviously to North American travellers, while it’s European cruise itineraries are dominated by Italian, French, German and British passengers.

Its efforts to cater to families during the summer and school holidays mean there are lots of kids at those times.

MSC’s more classic vessels — which lack state-of-the-art kids’ facilities and sail on longer, more exotic itineraries — are tailored to older travellers.

In all its niche markets, Brazil, South Africa, China and the Middle East, people from those regions make up a strong proportion of the passengers.

Cruise ships in the MSC fleet:

MSC Armonia

MSC Divina

MSC Fantasia

MSC Grandiosa

MSC Lirica

MSC Magnifica

MSC Meraviglia

MSC Musica

MSC Opera

MSC Orchestra

MSC Poesia

MSC Preziosa

MSC Seaside

MSC Sinfonia

MSC Splendida

Due in 2019: MSC Bellissima

Due in 2019: MSC Seaview

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