In a fresh push to become a serious player in the competitive North American market, European cruise operator MSC Cruises will base a brand new ship year-round in Miami.
The Geneva-based company made the announcement Tuesday afternoon during the Cruise Shipping Miami conference in Miami Beach.
MSC Seaside, under construction in Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard, is scheduled to debut in November of 2017. The 4,140-passenger vessel will be christened in December of that year at PortMiami — the first MSC ship to be christened in the United States — and sail the Caribbean year-round.
Officials from the cruise line and port signed a letter of intent Tuesday agreeing to a multi-year commitment. The number of years has not yet been determined, a port representative said. When the ship arrives in Miami, it will use a newly renovated terminal.
“This is a dream come true for PortMiami,” said PortMiami Director and CEO Juan Kuryla at the event Tuesday.
Gianni Onorato, CEO of privately held MSC Cruises, said in an interview before the public announcement that the company is focused on becoming more global. With a strong presence already in Europe, South America and South Africa, the company needed to boost its efforts in North America, he said.
“We cannot be so small in the main and most important market of the world if we want really to be a global contemporary cruise line,” Onorato said. “We do think that this will allow us to enlarge our presence in North America in a way that we can keep up with the highly competitive level of the market.”
MSC announced the approximately $743 million order for the 154,000-ton vessel in May of 2014 but had not announced where the vessel or its sister ship, launching in May of 2018, would be based. The company also has an option for a third ship in the class.
Seaside will be the first of a new class of ship designed for warm climates and will feature a four-slide water park, children’s aqua play area and ropes course. With a heavy focus on the outdoors, the vessel will include a sea-level promenade with shops and restaurants that stretches around the sides of the ship as well elevators with sea views.
In the midst of a $5 billion-plus expansion, MSC will also introduce a separate class of ship in June of 2017 in Europe. By the end of 2017, the company will have 14 ships deployed around the world with two on the way and options for three more.
Tuesday’s event was not the first time the company has announced big plans for a North American presence. In March of 2013, MSC said it would sail the year-old Divina from Miami year-round starting that November.
The cruise line known for its Mediterranean sensibilities made adjustments to appeal to North Americans: making announcements in English, serving free water at lunch and dinner, banning smoking in most areas and offering food and entertainment that would appeal to passengers mostly from the U.S. and Canada.
But by April of 2014, as fierce competition in the Caribbean forced operators to slash prices, the company changed course and said the 3,502-passenger Divina would again summer in the Mediterranean as of 2015.
Ken Muskat, executive vice president of sales, public relations and guest services for MSC Cruises USA, said Divina will remain in Miami until April 26 of this year and return in November. It will stay in Miami seasonally even after Seaside launches, which means the company will have two ships in Miami in late 2017 and early 2018.
Muskat said the company has been trying to raise brand awareness with consumers and travel agents, and saw positive results from an advertising blitz in late 2013 and early 2014.
Fresh ad campaigns and online efforts — including a new consumer website — will lead up to the launch of Seaside.
Onorato said the experience with Divina has provided a good way for the company to dig into the market, improve relationships with travel agents and fine-tune its North American operations.
Said Onorato: “I think this will be very valuable for the future for us and to prepare for the arrival of Seaside.”