The John Griff column: A life on the ocean wave – or messing about on the river?

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As a child, one of my greatest holiday recollections was of cruising the Welsh canals with my parents and our then next-door neighbours on a 55-foot narrowboat called Tallyllyn – her tiny diesel engine propelling us along past fields, railway lines, other canal users and mile after mile of undisturbed wildlife. Navigating locks to local pubs was blissful, relaxed – and quiet.

But waterborne cruising operates on a global scale which went up a notch last week. Now, there’s a new kid in town. Or on the waves. And there is currently none bigger than her.

The ‘Icon of the Seas’ is Royal Caribbean’s latest addition to its fleet. Weighing in at just under a quarter of a million tonnes (gross), she can engulf almost ten thousand passengers and crew at one time when fully occupied, being almost twelve hundred feet long, a hundred and sixty feet wide and powered by Liquid Natural Gas or any fuel distilled from crude oil. With twenty decks, seven swimming pools, six water slides and, oh yes, an open air, tree-lined park running through her central core, she is truly the behemoth that the statistics would portray.

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Based out of Miami, she was christened by footballing superstar Lionel Messi last Tuesday and departed the dockside for her first cruise around the Caribbean on Friday. With over forty restaurants and food outlets on board, passengers should have no end of options for dining or refuelling as they meander from pool to pool, lounger to lounger and back to the bewilderingly wide range of accommodation available. From exclusive two-story duplex suites and staterooms to what Royal Caribbean describes as ‘Infinity Ocean View Rooms’ – effectively cabins with powered drop-down panoramic windows that give views out over the ocean and lungfuls of sea air - every class and taste is seemingly catered for.

A rather more sedate form of cruising compared to the 250,000 tonne 'Icon of the Seas'A rather more sedate form of cruising compared to the 250,000 tonne 'Icon of the Seas'
A rather more sedate form of cruising compared to the 250,000 tonne 'Icon of the Seas'

It’s a stark difference to times just a couple of years ago. Then, with ‘Icon’ in the construction stage, I interviewed the Director of the International Cruising Association about the dire state of his industry. Desperate to stay afloat commercially, fleets of cruse liners lay at anchor in the English Channel, mothballed. Others were judged too costly to keep maintained and sailed to scrapyards in Turkey and India for an inglorious end. The pandemic had largely killed the industry, not only because of a lack of trade, but also because of how cases of C-19 spread from cabin to cabin through shared airways and people confined to their bunks. The industry then was wrestling with a problem of more than Titanic proportions, the existential iceberg being economic.

Now though, the industry appears to have either recovered, Lazarus-like, or at least be in the process of recovering – and ‘Icon’ is a part of that. Look online at the plethora of promotional videos put out by Royal Caribbean and you would imagine that not only have the boom times returned with the facilities of what is effectively a small town sailing from venue to venue, but also the financial firepower to feed the monster, with cruise prices being talked about in the $30,000 to $40,000 range for a mid-priced package of around a week, Even then though, not all your drinks and activities are covered by this. Prices vary with availability and the length of the cruise, the breathless narrator of the video gasped, his enthusiasm being delivered at the rate of a Gatling Gun on full automatic.

So will this vessel prove to be the balm for the industry? At just over one point six billion Euros to build (most of her was constructed in European shipyards with the final fitout being completed in Cadiz), it’s fair to say that Royal Caribbean has bet the farm on her. Then again, in 2022 the industry generated over thirteen and a half billion dollars – most of it coming from fare paying American citizens, keen to indulge. With a ratio of roughly four to one between clients and crew, coupled with the customer service journey and demands that the US market is renowned for, it will be interesting to see what the long term feedback is like.

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That feedback, has, of course, already begun. Reviews of Icon’s first commercial cruise are already circulating on the internet as cruisers set themselves up not only as holidaymakers, but would-be journalists and self-celebrities by virtue of being some for the first, if not exactly the few. It will take some time for things to settle down but for now it is the vessel herself who is the star of the show, regardless of whatever shows are being performed in her theatres and on her ice rink. Just the sheer presence of her as she arrives and departs at each dockside on her itinerary will be bringing headlines and turnover to local economies, thankful for their position on the planet.

I wonder though if there might not soon be something of a shift in the balance of power, or at least it’s emphasis when it comes to the cruising industry. Theoretically, the ‘Icon of the Seas’ is a method of transportation – no more - taking her passengers to far-flung corners of the world with unfamiliar destinations and sights to see, people to meet and experiences to engage with. How long will it be before local destination tour guides start offering bus trips to see the great ship arrive at the docks, disgorge her passengers for their own on shore sightseeing tours, before they reboard, ready to depart again on the evening tide? Then again, what proportion of her passengers will disembark at all, there being seemingly so many attractions already included as part of the Iconic cruising experience? Will they just stay on board while fresh stores are loaded (in gargantuan proportions, no doubt), before slipping away having seen nothing but a dockside somewhere – anywhere - to continue life aboard a 24 hour, brightly painted, brightly lit theme park floating in thirty feet of water?

Time will tell – but in many ways I think I prefer a quiet trip on a canal here, lock key in one hand, the tiller in the other, and a boatload of money in my pocket.

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