MIAMI -- Months before Royal Caribbeans Freedom of the Seas could debut as the worlds largest ship, the cruise line stole its own thunder.

Royal Caribbean last week said it has placed an order for what will be the largest and most expensive cruise vessel in the world. Called Project Genesis, the 220,000-ton ship will have 5,400 lower berths and is scheduled for delivery in 2009 from Finnish shipbuilder Aker Yards. Its $1.24 billion price tag makes it the most expensive cruise ship ever commissioned.

Project Genesis is the latest example of the industry trend toward mega-megaships. Cunard Lines 151,000-ton Queen Mary 2 debuted in 2004 and will remain the worlds largest cruise ship until the 160,000-ton Freedom of the Seas unveiling in June. Many consumers are drawn to the supersized ships, while others find them crowded and lacking in service and luxury.

Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean, said that a vessel of this size is aimed at giving passengers more activities to choose from onboard.

The advantage of a big ship is having more room for our ideas, Fain said from New York last week, where the line unveiled plans to put a boxing ring on the Freedom (see accompanying story).

He also noted that contrary to concerns about the amount of fuel such a ship will consume, larger ships are more efficient. Freedom of the Seas, for example, will burn as much fuel as the Voyager while carrying 15% more passengers.  

Some travel agents were thrilled at the immediate buzz the announcement created.

People flock to these ships, said Todd Szopinsk, president of Margate, Fla.-based Buycruises.com. Many people have no intention of getting off at any ports of call. They just want the ship.

Industry concerns include the challenges such a ship presents to ports and marine terminals. Few can accommodate a ship as large as Genesis.

Royal Caribbean did not comment on Genesis possible itineraries. But executives said they were confident that by the time the ship debuts, the ports will be ready.

We will work with ports we have good relationships with, Royal Caribbean President Adam Goldstein said last week. Im sure they will make the adjustments they need to make.

Scott Lagueux, a partner at Bermello, Ajamil and Partners, a Miami-based architecture firm specializing in marine and upland facilities that support cruise operations, said that not a single port is designed to accommodate the ships 6,400 upper-berth capacity and that at 1,180 feet long and 154 feet wide, most existing channels and turning basins are not deep or long enough to handle a vessel of Genesis size.

However, he said he believes ports will negotiate with Royal Caribbean and make the necessary accommodations.

Destinations will recognize the positive attributes in welcoming a ship like that, Lagueux said.

Not every cruise line is ready to make such a huge investment. Carnival Corp. flirted with the idea of a 4,000- to 6,000-passenger megaship called Project Pinnacle. It was shelved indefinitely last year after Carnival CEO Micky Arison declared the project costs too high. He cited in part the strength of the euro against the dollar.

Carnival declined to comment on Project Genesis.

Ken Muskat, vice president of sales for Royal Caribbean, said cruises on the Freedom of the Seas are selling fast, and prices are at a premium.

Szopinsk of Buycruises.com said he is getting a high volume of calls about the Freedom of the Seas. He did, however, wish Royal Caribbean was more forthright about what is on the Genesis ship -- since many people are already calling and asking what activities it will offer.

Royal Caribbean will not say what amenities Genesis will have, but some travel agents wondered how it will top the offerings listed for the Freedom of the Seas, including the first onboard surfing pool and regulation boxing ring.

Genesis will also feature technological advances in running and sailing the ship. Genesis advanced hull will move through water more efficiently, and the ship will be able to produce its own water with an advanced desalinization system. People still wonder what new system it will use to get 5,400 people on and off the vessel.

My thought is twice as many people will mean twice as many gangplanks, Szopinsk said.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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