The $200m refurbishment of Carnival Triumph was so dramatic the cruise line decided the ship needed a new name altogether. Either that, or they jumped at the chance to leave behind lingering memories of the infamous ‘poop cruise’ of 2013, when passengers were stranded without working toilets in the Gulf of Mexico for four days following an engine room fire. Regardless, in May 2019 the resplendent vessel rose as Carnival Sunrise, crammed with brand new restaurants, bars, theatres and a waterslide complex.

Central to this extravagant renovation is the bustling, sociable atmosphere that cruise passengers have come to love and expect. Sipping a cocktail by the pool, dancing all night in one of the many clubs or queuing up for an all-you-can-eat buffet are just some of the experiences enjoyed on board. With the outbreak of Covid-19, however, these once-normal activities have been recast as opportune moments for the virus to spread. So, when March rolled around, and Carnival was set to carry out another almost identical refurbishment – this time adding 115 new cabins and a range of entertainment, food and beverage venues to its Victory vessel – it was hardly surprising the plans were delayed. Since then, operators around the world have been thinking long and hard about how to renovate the interiors of their fleets to fit with the latest safety regulations, without damaging the passenger experience and losing out on significant profit in the process.

Troubled waters

Anne Mari Gullikstad, CEO of Oslo-based YSA Design, a leading studio for the cruise ship industry, is all too familiar with the issues at stake. Having worked as a naval interior architect for nearly 30 years, she has watched the industry weather its fair share of storms. However, she hasn’t seen anything quite like this. In February, YSA had been awarded several new projects and the year ahead looked promising. But by March, they began to receive one letter after another from clients asking to slow down or cancel projects altogether.

“There were a few weeks that were quite dramatic,” Gullikstad notes. “In some ways it still is because we haven’t yet seen any new orders for refurbishment.” Despite this, Gullikstad is confident that business will pick up once cruise lines have figured out the logistics of resuming operations. Ultimately, she says, the interior design of existing vessels hinges on the new protocols put in place to keep passengers safe.

“Of course, the shipowners don’t want to change too much,” adds Georg Piantino, a senior architect at the studio. “After all, they’ve invested a lot of money already.” Cruise lines, he says, will be reluctant to make lasting alterations before they have had the opportunity to carry out initial test trips trialling new procedures. Some have chosen to temporarily operate at reduced capacity, but this is unlikely to be financially viable long term. Piantino explains that one of the immediate challenges is working out how to minimise crowding, particularly when passengers enter and leave the ship. “We’re thinking about how we can use small architectural details to make the boarding process smoother, while enabling social distancing,” he says. From the moment passengers step on board, passenger flow will need to be carefully considered to reduce congestion.

For Gullikstad, a top priority will be adapting the restaurants to make them Covid-safe, potentially splitting venues into individual eating areas. From YSA’s existing projects, the only specific design request related to the pandemic so far has been to implement glass sneeze guards to protect buffet food. Passengers are no longer able to serve themselves and instead must wait for food to be brought to their table. In general, she says, interiors may need to be temporarily adapted to accommodate fewer guests, with empty guest cabins being converted into facilities like medical rooms, or additional crew quarters to enable social distancing.

Ramping up already stringent hygiene and sanitisation is, of course, central to any new design plans. Gullikstad and her colleagues have been considering ways to put cautious guests at ease, including eliminating as many touchpoints as possible. They have also been in discussions with Bolidt about its antimicrobial flooring, proposing its application as part of a ‘hybrid flooring’ concept.

“The material has already been used for a long time in hospitals, but now it’s interesting to look at how it could be used on board ships,” she explains. “In the event of a future outbreak, the carpet could easily be stripped away to reveal the antibacterial flooring, in case the cabin needed to be turned into more of a hospital area.” This would allow a luxury suite to pivot into a medical facility and back again. With studies showing Covid-19 can be transmitted through respiratory droplets and concerns that air-conditioning systems on board cruise ships may be responsible for the rapid spread of the virus, it is crucial to ensure proper ventilation systems are in place.

YSA is collaborating with sensor technology specialist Scenso to deliver cleaner air, limit air flow between cabins and shake the ‘floating petri dish’ stereotype that rears its head during virus outbreaks. Using an interactive software solution, air quality is monitored, and, if found to be inadequate, filtration systems and air-cleaning equipment are used to improve on-board air hygiene.

“In the event of a future outbreak, the carpet could easily be stripped away to reveal the antibacterial flooring, in case the cabin needed to be turned into more of a hospital area.”

Turning the tide

Going forward, Piantino is excited about the opportunity the pandemic has brought to transform traditionally indoor venues, like theatres, into outdoor spaces. He believes there will be an increased focus on flexibility, with designers thinking of innovative ways for a single area to take on multiple uses. For example, he says, “You might have an outdoor pool and then cover it and it becomes a dance area, and then you put chairs on it and it changes again into an outdoor cinema.”

In addition to the touchless and clean air technology solutions Piantino and his colleagues are working on, they have been employing virtual reality and artificial intelligence to assist in the design process. Currently, they are close to completing what they believe to be the first-ever cruise ship new-build project that makes use of building information modelling.

This new technique has allowed them to work in 3D throughout the entire design process, trialling various installation options and spotting problems early on in the project.

Longer term, Gullikstad believes Covid-19 will accelerate the already growing trend towards individuality. She explains that cruise passengers are increasingly looking for more personal, custommade experiences, which is part of the reason there has been a growing demand for smaller vessels like river and expedition cruises. These trips are likely to be favoured by returning cruise customers as these ships face fewer travel restrictions and over crowding. Another area that Piantino is sure will continue to see dramatic expansion is sustainability. In fact, he says, “We’re beyond sustainability now – it’s time to look inside an old vessel and be able to say, ‘Hey, look, we’ve used 60% or 70% of that in the new ship.’” Considerations for the environment and reuse of materials will be front and centre of prospective designs.

Contemplating the impact of current events on future ship interiors, Piantino is adamant that it is still too early to say with any certainty what’s in store. He reiterates that ships are holding back, and that designers are waiting to see the lessons learned from a gradual reopening. Gullikstad agrees it is difficult to predict how Covid-19 will impact the interior design of new-build projects, especially as so many have been delayed or cancelled.

She draws on shipbuilding CEO Bernard Meyer’s sombre prediction that the cruise industry will not return to February 2019 business levels for at least another ten years. While some might dismiss this as dramatic, she believes that as an industry it is important to be realistic.

After all, she says, the virus has had “a huge impact on the world, it’s not like it’s going to go away and we can forget about it”. At the same time, she believes there is an opportunity for the cruise sector to rethink ship interiors and its development as a whole. “Maybe [the industry] needs to make some changes,” she says. “Maybe it was too big and too greedy, I don’t know, but hopefully something good will come out of this.”


CEO Bernard Meyer’s prediction of when the cruise industry will have fully recovered from the pandemic.
Meyer Werft


Total cost of the Carnival Triumph refurbishment.