World's biggest cruise ship offers activity extravaganza

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The world's biggest and most expensive cruise ship ever built, Oasis of the Seas, is to be handed over to the Royal Caribbean cruiseline on Wednesday at the Finnish shipyard where it was constructed.

At a cost of some 900 million euros (1.3 billion dollars), the mammoth vessel offers a world of luxury and a plethora of on-board activities for its 6,360 passengers and 2,000 crew.

STX Finland, a subsidiary of South Korean shipbuilder STX, will hand over the vessel to the US-based cruise company at a ceremony in Turku on Wednesday, and the ship will set sail on its four-night maiden voyage from the US port of Fort Lauderdale to Haiti on December 1.

Royal Caribbean has called the ship its "most innovative and imaginative ship yet, (where) entertainment areas have become neighborhoods at sea."

Catering to the traditional older crowd of cruise ship travellers as well as to young families, the Oasis of the Seas aims to be more of an activity centre than a traditional cruise ship that merely sails from port to port.

In an interview on the Oasis of the Seas' website, the head of Royal Caribbean, Richard Fain, said the image of cruiseship travellers as being rich pensioners who lounge about poolside was a misconception.

"The average age of our passengers is 44. I don't call that old, do you?" he asked.

As a result, the new ship offers among other things pool surfing, rock-climbing or a whiz above the boardwalk on a zip line, providing passengers with enough activities to spend the entire cruise on board if they wish.

Real trees bring some nature on board and Broadway musicals and ice shows meet passengers' cultural needs as it sails primarily in the Caribbean.

The ship is 16 decks high, or 65 metres (213 feet) above the waterline, and measures 360 metres (1,180 feet) long and 47 metres (154 feet) wide.

She even has telescopic chimneys that can be lowered -- necessary to sail under the bridges in the straits of Denmark after she leaves Finland.

The ship outdoes Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, delivered in 2006 and which has until now been the world's biggest cruiseship with room for some 4,400 passengers and 1,350 crew.

Royal Caribbean ordered the Oasis of the Seas in 2006 and its sister vessel Allure of the Seas in 2007.

Allure of the Seas is scheduled to be ready in autumn 2010.

But times have changed since the orders were placed and both the shipyard and the cruiseline have seen their earnings hit by the global financial turmoil.

Middle class holiday-goers from the US and Europe have cut back on travelling and are instead saving their pennies -- as evidenced by the fact that there are still rooms available for the maiden voyage.

In July, Royal Caribbean reported a loss in the second quarter, citing the challenging economy and swine flu or influenza A(H1N1) virus outbreak, which also prompted many customers to cancel their cruise plans.

But there are some signs that consumer confidence and demand for cruises is picking up.

Royal Caribbean's archrival, US-based cruise company Carnival, said in late September it had experienced a stronger June-August period than expected and that booking volumes for the remainder of 2009 and the first half of 2010 were higher than in the same period 12 months earlier.

Things don't look as good yet for STX Finland though.

It has not received any new orders for new vessels since autumn 2008, as cruise companies have put off investing in ships as long as the economic outlook remains uncertain.

Unemployment or temporary layoffs loom over more than 70 percent of STX's 3,800 employees in the Nordic country.