The Titanic was the pride of the industry when it went down off the coast of Canada on its maiden voyage a hundred years ago with the loss of 1,514 lives, a giant of a ship.
These days, the trend is for even bigger and grander vessels, especially in the cruise line industry, but even with all the technology available to today’s shipbuilders, the dangers remain.
Thirty-two passengers died when the Italian luxury cruise liner Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy on January 13.
And although the ship’s captain has been in the firing line over his conduct, maritime union Nautilus International has warned against a rush to judgment, arguing that other factors may have played a part.
The Costa disaster raised questions about whether safety considerations have kept pace with the quest for grandiose, top-of-the-range, floating leisure palaces.
The accident has hit sales too: both Carnival, the company that ownsCosta Cruises which ran the Concordia, and its main rival in the cruise industry, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (RCCL), have reported a drop in reservations.
The demand for bigger and bigger cruise liners comes as the industry bets on luxurious, floating seaside resorts as the best way to draw in customers.
Of the 13 ships launched last year, four of them were liners with a capacity of at least 2,500 passengers, and of the 15 vessels scheduled for launch this year there will be at least another five on this grand scale.
Nor is there any sign of the trend slowing.
In March, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) ordered a 333-metre (1,066-foot) long cruise liner with a capacity of 5,700 passengers. Days later, RCCL ordered another designed for 4,200 passengers.
Compare that with the Titanic, the queen of the seas in its day: it was 270 metres long and capable of taking 3,300 passengers and crew.
Industry executives have been quick to put the Costa disaster in perspective, arguing that it represented the exception rather than the rule.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has cited figures from industry specialist GP Wild to say that in the 10 years before the Concordia accident only 28 people died on cruise ships, 22 of them crew members.
The European Cruise Council, citing the same GP Wild report, said that even including the Costa deaths, the death rate since 2002 ran at 0.2 per million.
But international industry associations have nevertheless ordered safety audits in the industry to see what can be done to raise standards.
Erminio Eschena, general director of MSC Cruises France, one of the industry’s spokesmen in Europe, has acknowledged that in the wake of the Concordia accident there is a need to reassure customers.
But some maritime officials remain uneasy at current developments.
Jacques Loiseau, president of the French Association of Naval Captains (AFCAN), has condemned what he calls the “tendency towards gigantism” in the industry.
Referring to the Concordia accident, he argued that “even in the best conditions, with such a size you won’t ever be able to save everyone.”
Nautilus International, while not opposed to larger vessels as such, has expressed concern about their design and construction.
“The technology of evacuation likewise needs looking at because of the acknowledged shortcomings of lifeboats and life rafts,” it said in a statement.
But the cruise liner industry is drawn to the economies of scale that such massive vessels make possible.
And each has an eye on competition in what is a growing market: the industry attracted a record 16 million passengers worldwide in 2011, with American customers leading the way.
Europe accounts for six million of those passengers, with the British the biggest fans.
Costa Cruises has enjoyed spectacular growth in recent years, from 363,000 passengers in 2000 (German and Spanish subsidiaries included) to 2.89 million in 2010.
MSC still hopes to double its business over the next few years. And while companies want to stay with the big ships, they are thinking now in terms of vessels that are shorter, but considerably broader.