Tuesday, February 7, 2006

MIAMI — Royal Caribbean International yesterday ordered the world’s largest and most expensive cruise ship yet, a $1.24 billion vessel that will be almost as long as four football fields and hold up to 6,400 passengers.

It’s the latest step in the industry trend of supersizing ships, which delight many passengers but are too crowded for other guests.

The ship, dubbed Project Genesis, will be 220,000 gross registered tons when it is delivered to the world’s second-largest cruise operator in fall 2009 by Oslo shipbuilder Aker Yards. Gross registered tonnage is a standard way to measure a ship’s size and is a unit of volume equal to about 100 cubic feet.

The ship will weigh about 100,000 tons based on displacement — a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier comes in at about 97,000 tons.

Aker said its contract price of about $1 billion would be “the most valuable ship ever ordered in the history of commercial shipbuilding.”

The $1.24 billion figure includes all expenses for the ship — “from forks and knives and sheets to artwork and everything else,” said Harri Kulovaara, the Miami cruise line’s executive vice president of maritime operations.

The ship will be 43 percent bigger than the next-largest cruise liner, Royal Caribbean’s 18-deck, $860 million Freedom of the Seas, which will begin sailing in June and has capacity for 4,300 passengers.

That ship will overtake the 3,090-passenger Queen Mary 2 operated by Carnival Corp.’s Cunard division as the world’s biggest cruise ship. The Queen Mary 2 began sailing in 2004.

“Project Genesis truly is a remarkable ship. Its bold design, daring innovations and technological advancements will delight our existing cruisers and help us draw in new ones,” said Richard Fain, the parent company’s chairman and chief executive officer.

Mr. Kulovaara said the new ship will be more fuel-efficient than current vessels, but he declined to be more specific. He said plans for the types of onboard amenities were being finalized. Royal Caribbean has been an innovator in featuring ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls and surfing pools.

“This ship will have the same jaw-dropping awe that the newest casino-hotels in Las Vegas have,” David Leibowitz, managing director with New York investment company Burnham Securities Inc., which owns Royal Caribbean shares, told Bloomberg News. “There will be so many things on board that you won’t be able to get to it all on a seven-night cruise.”

Royal Caribbean’s ships are typically more upscale than the bargain Carnival Cruise Lines’ vessels, but they aren’t as traditional as those of luxury carriers such as Cunard. Carnival Corp. is the largest cruise operator.

Project Genesis will carry 5,400 passengers based on two persons per cabin, Mr. Kulovaara said. But because most cruise cabins can accommodate more than two people using cots or other beds, that number rises to a maximum capacity of 6,400.

Project Genesis will be 1,180 feet long, 154 feet wide at water level and 240 feet high.

The largest cruise operators are ordering larger ships as more travelers buy package vacations and spend more onboard. The number of people taking cruises jumped 5.7 percent to 8.35 million in the first nine months of 2005, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Ray Weiller, an owner of discount online travel agency CruiseQuick.com, said many of his clients are drawn to the growing size and number of amenities of ships, but others tire of waiting in long lines to get on and off the vessels. Many complain about the large ships overwhelming some ports of call with too many people trying to visit, he said.

The ship will sail in the Caribbean, where many ports already handle megaships, but ports will need some infrastructure improvements to handle it, Mr. Kulovaara said.

Shares of Royal Caribbean rose 9 cents to close at $44.39 on the New York Stock Exchange. The shipbuilder’s shares closed up 5.8 percent at $51.91 on the Oslo stock exchange.

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