Ocean

Pictured: The world’s biggest passenger ships from 1831 to now

image of a cruise ship out at sea

Since the 19th century, vessels have evolved significantly. Image: Unsplash/Josiah Weiss

Carmen Ang
Writer, Visual Capitalist
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  • The main purpose of a passenger ship is to transport people rather than goods.
  • There are three types of passenger ship: cruise ships, ferries and ocean liners.
  • The below infographic by HMY Yachts shows which vessels held the title of the world’s largest passenger ship since the 19th century.
  • While COVID-19 has caused setbacks for the cruise industry, experts believe it will bounce back in 2021.
an infographic showing a timeline of the world's largest passenger ships, from 1831 to present
These are the world's largest passenger ships from 1831-present. Image: Visual Capitalist

Breaking records: The biggest passenger ships since 1831

The Titanic lives large in our minds, but it’s probably not surprising that the world record for biggest passenger ship has been broken many times since its era. In fact, today’s largest passenger ship can now hold over 6,000 people—more than double the Titanic’s capacity.

This graphic by HMY Yachts looks at which vessels held the title of the world’s largest passenger ship over time, and how these vessels have evolved since the early 19th century.

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Different types of passenger ships

Before diving into the ranking, it’s worth explaining what constitutes a passenger ship.

Passenger ships are vessels whose main purpose is to transport people rather than goods. In modern times, there are three types of passenger ships:

  • Cruise ships: Used for vacationing, with a priority on amenities and luxury
  • Ferries: Typically used for shorter day trips, or overnight transport
  • Ocean liners: The traditional mode of maritime transport, with a priority on speed

Traditional ocean liners are becoming obsolete, largely because of advancements in other modes of transportation such as rail, automobile, and air travel. In other words, the main priority for passenger ships has changed over the years, shifting from transportation to recreation.

Now, luxury is the central focus, meaning extravagance is part of the whole cruise ship experience. For example, the Navigator of the Seas (which was the largest passenger ship from 2002-2003) has $8.5 million worth of artwork displayed throughout the ship.

A full breakdown: biggest passenger ships by tonnage

Now that we’ve touched on the definition of a passenger ship and how they’ve evolved over the years, let’s take a look at some of the largest passenger ships in history.

The first vessel on the list is the SS Royal William. Built in Eastern Canada in the early 1800s, this ship was originally built for domestic travel within Canada.

In addition to being the largest passenger ship of its time, it’s often credited as being the first ship to travel across the Atlantic Ocean almost fully by steam engine. However, some sources claim the Dutch-owned vessel Curaçao completed a steam-powered journey in 1827—six years before the SS Royal William.

In 1837, The SS Royal William was dethroned by the SS Great Western, only to change hands dozens of times before 1912, when the Titanic entered the scene.

a table showing the largest ships including their tonnage and capacity
This is a full breakdown of the biggest passenger ships by tonnage. Image: Visual Capitalist

Showing 1 to 10 of 42 entries. To see the full interactive chart, click here.

The Titanic was one of three ships in the Olympic-class line. Of the three, two of them sank—the Titanic in 1912, and the HMHS Britannic in 1916, during World War I. Some historians believe these ships sank as a result of their faulty bulkhead design.

Fast forward to today, and the Symphony of the Seas is now the world’s largest passenger ship. While it boasts 228,081 in gross tonnage, it uses 25% less fuel than its sister ships (which are slightly smaller).

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COVID-19’s impact on cruise ships

2020 was a tough year for the cruise ship industry, as travel restrictions and onboard outbreaks halted the $150 billion industry. As a result, some operations were forced to downsize—for instance, the notable cruise operation Carnival removed 13 ships from its fleet in July 2020.

That being said, restrictions are slowly beginning to loosen, and industry experts remain hopeful that things will look different in 2021 as more people begin to come back on board.

Article editing by Iman Gosh.

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