Mega Cruise Ships: As More Ports Ban Them, What Is the Future of the Largest Vessels?

Versie Dortch

More than a third of Tahiti’s visitors are cruise passengers, but next year, they won’t be arriving on board some of the industry’s largest mega cruise ships.

In late September, French Polynesia’s government announced that cruise ships with a capacity greater than 3,500 passengers will be banned from making port calls in the country as of January 1, 2022. Ships with capacity of more than 2,500 passengers will be limited to calls at Tahiti and two other ports with sufficient infrastructure to accommodate them. Bora Bora, the country’s top tourist draw, will further limit daily cruise passengers to 1,200—effectively barring most large cruise ships from docking.

The country’s leaders are concerned that larger ships would not only tax local infrastructure, but also impact the experience for non-cruise visitors. Local officials on Bora Bora had requested the limits as early as 2019 to “preserve the beauty of its lagoon as well as the quality of service which has made it famous,” according to a government release.

Today, most cruise passengers in Tahiti sail onboard small ships nowhere near the caps imposed by the new ban. The luxury cruise liner Paul Gauguin and the combination cargo/cruise ship Aranui 5—both based in Tahiti with local crews—embark fewer than 350 passengers each.

While port calls by the largest ships are infrequent, the measure is intended to be proactive, recognizing the steady growth of cruise traffic in the region. The government’s statement regarding larger cruise ships does not mince words: “Both in terms of capacity and size, [very large ships] are not suited for our destination.”

The news is likely to upend some travel plans. Ships from major cruise lines call at ports in French Polynesia on repositioning voyages in the Pacific. Royal Princess and sister ship Majestic Princess, with capacity for 3,600 passengers, currently plan to call at Tahiti while repositioning to Australia in September 2022. Royal Princess has also scheduled a port call at Bora Bora. 

Repositioning cruises also dock at Tahiti for technical reasons—it’s one of a few large ports across the vast expanse of the Pacific. Without a port call, the voyage from Hawaii to New Zealand takes well over a week. The president of French Polynesia, Édouard Fritch, acknowledges this, saying in a statement that exceptional circumstances will be considered for transpacific voyages. A spokesperson for Princess Cruises confirmed they “are in dialogue with port officials” and that they “hope not to cancel any planned calls.”

Are bans on mega ships a growing trend?

The Cayman Islands are another island destination that doesn’t anticipate a return to unrestricted growth in cruise traffic once travel demand recovers. In early 2021, the country’s premier Alden McLaughlin announced that his government was scrapping plans to construct a cruise port that officials had previously supported. 

Plans to build berthing facilities at Grand Cayman—which banned cruise ship arrivals at the outset of the pandemic—were meant to address concerns that the requirement to tender passengers to and from ships anchored offshore grew more onerous as the ships grew larger. Executives from Royal Caribbean and Carnival had warned their newest ships are too big to tender and would skip ports without berthing facilities in the future, reducing overall visitors to the island.

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