It’s long been said that if you want something done properly, do it yourself. For many years, this was a difficult principle for ship operators to apply to the European cruise sector. Long considered a poor relation to the North American source markets and Caribbean itineraries, Europe tended to be where older members of one’s fleet were sent into long retirement.

For European cruise operators, the case for building new ships was not particularly strong either. The cruise vacation remained a niche pursuit on the continent, and making the huge investments necessary to develop something entirely from scratch was a hard sell.

Things have certainly started to change. The North American cruise giants are becoming increasingly keen to home port their prestige vessels in European waters – Norwegian Epic, Allure of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas will all be based on the continent for at least part of 2015 – and MSC Cruises and Costa have undergone unprecedented periods of growth and construction in recent years.

In terms of scale, TUI Cruises cannot hope to compete with those two behemoths of the European market, but then its aspirations have always been somewhat more niche. The joint venture between TUI AG and Royal Caribbean Cruises became operational in 2009 as a direct response to the burgeoning German cruise sector, and is positioned firmly for a German-speaking clientele.

However, despite a 38-day €50-million makeover, the first member of its fleet, Mein Schiff 1, might have been more readily recognisable to seasoned cruisers as Celebrity Galaxy, a 1996 product of Meyer Werft shipyard that had spent the majority of its life in North American waters.

Around the time of its inception, TUI also announced plans for the construction of two 100,000t, 2,500-passenger cruise ships, set for delivery in 2011 and 2012, but as the global economic downturn worsened, the operator returned to Celebrity once more, purchasing Galaxy’s sister ship, Mercury, putting her through extensive refurbishment and launching Mein Schiff 2 in 2011.

Later that same year, TUI was finally ready to announce the signing of a contract with STX Finland to build a 97,000-GT vessel. Mein Schiff 3 will make its maiden cruise, from Hamburg to Mallorca in June 2014 and, as the build nears completion, the signs are that this ship has been worth the wait.

Once completed, she will be approximately 295m long and 36m wide, containing 1,253 staterooms, a capacity of 2,500 passengers – a marked increase on Mein Schiff 2’s guest capacity of 1,886 – and carrying a crew of 1,000.

Green credentials

This project has been a long time coming, and the design reflects a number of current trends and developments within the cruise sector. Taking the reins of its first new build has enabled TUI to invest an unprecedented amount of focus on environmental performance, creating what the operator has billed as the industry’s first "environmentally friendly" cruise ship.

By using a portfolio of best-in-class technologies, such as a combined exhaust after-treatment system, as much as 99% less sulphur emissions will be produced, the emission of particles will be reduced by about 60% and nitrogen oxide will drop by an estimated 75%, putting it well ahead of the requirements for cruise ship engine room standards coming into play between now and 2016.

A waste-water treatment system will see all water used on the ship collected and thoroughly cleaned before being returned to the sea. In this way, no polluting substances can escape into the sea to endanger the ecological system.

Even the design of the cabins has been implemented with environmental protection at the forefront of the build agenda. Greater attention has been paid to the use of sustainable materials, for example, with cabins on board Mein Schiff 3 exclusively using FSC-certified wood – a guarantee of origin from forests managed under environmentally friendly and ecologically acceptable conditions.

Of these cabins, 82% have balconies, a marked increase on previous-generation vessels, and extensive outdoor deck space is a marked feature of the overall build. Elsewhere, on-board entertainment options include a 1,000-seat, three-deck theatre; an acoustically engineered concert hall, where TUI plans to offer classical performances, jazz, theatre readings and movies with surround-sound; a 25m swimming pool; outdoor cinema screen; spa; nightclub; and extensive outdoor deck space.

The grand unveiling

The christening of Mein Schiff 3 will take place on 12 June 2014 in Hamburg, Germany, under the tagline, "diamond meets pearl". The latter references the German port city’s status as "the pearl of the River Elbe", according to TUI Cruises CEO Richard Vogel, but the former precious stone is a nod to arguably Mein Schiff 3‘s most outwardly striking design feature, a 167m2 glass wall at the stern, housing two signature restaurants, coffee lounge and Diamond Bar. Extending over two decks, the interior will be bathed in natural light throughout the day and, according to the operator at least, enable passengers "to walk on water", 120ft above the sea.

But the remarkable turnaround time for what is an entirely new class of ship has been the closest we’ve seen to a miracle thus far. New build practices, including high-block outfitting ratio and modularisation, were used extensively by STX Finland in its efforts to get from the start of construction to float-out in just under a year. Mein Schiff 3 first got water under her keel in November 2013, and while finishing touches continue apace, TUI has already confirmed that it will exercise the option for a sister ship from the Turku Shipyard. Construction started in mid-2013. Keel-laying is expected in February 2014, and delivery is scheduled for mid-2015. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the ship will be christened Mein Schiff 4.

It is particularly good news for STX Finland, which hit choppy waters in late 2012 upon failing to secure financing for the construction of an Oasis-class vessel and losing the Royal Caribbean order to a sister shipyard in France. This forced the closure of its Rauma shipyard, costing 600 jobs and calling into question the company’s long-term future. Financing for Mein Schiff 4 is firmly in place, and the success of the TUI collaboration thus far has been an extremely positive story to tell for a still struggling shipbuilding sector.

TUI Cruises’ plans to more than double passenger capacity in just two years is also a significant statement of faith in the ability of its European source market to maintain a rate of unprecedented growth. Other operators will be watching developments closely as they look to grow European market share, but it is already clear that Europe is no longer a poor relation to its cousins across the Atlantic. Mein Schiff 3 looks set to be a great ambassador for that fact.