Orkney Aims For World's Biggest Cruise Ships

December 21, 2010
(6:30 a.m. EST) -- Who would have thought it? Sleepy Kirkwall (pop. around 7,000), capital of Orkney and a place most Brits would struggle to pinpoint on a map, is hoping to attract the world's biggest cruise ships.

Orkney Islands Council is planning to extend its Hatston Pier, where cruise ships dock, from 225 metres to 380 metres, which would allow the world's biggest cruise ships to come alongside instead of ferrying passengers ashore by tender boats. The work is due to start at the end of the next summer season and should be complete for summer, 2013. In terms of cruise ship visitor numbers, Kirkwall is, surprisingly, Britain's third-busiest port, after Southampton and Dover, with 70 ships in 2010 bringing 26,000 tourists from all over the world to explore the prehistoric settlements, the 12th century Cathedral of St Magnus, the whisky distilleries and the wartime heritage of Scapa Flow. It's this impressive range of attractions, and the quality of the welcome cruise passengers receive, that led us to name Kirkwall the 'Top U.K. Port of 2010' in our Editors' Picks Awards.

Some 63 ships are already booked to call in 2011 and, Michael Morrison, business development manager for marine services at Orkney Islands Council, told Cruise Critic, "We intend to be knocking on the door of 80. We already have 23 ships confirmed for 2012 and the combined tonnage and passenger numbers of those 23 exceed our entire total for 2010. Ships like MSC Lirica are starting to visit, as well as Caribbean Princess. Ships are getting bigger. And by 2013, we will be able to take the largest in the world."

Kirkwall's plans go beyond simply bringing in the numbers. A mobile device along the lines of an iTouch, complete with an Orkney shopping and sightseeing app, is being designed for passengers to rent at a token fee for their day in port. It'll be launched early in 2011. More uniformed meet-and-greet staff are being hired to help cruise passengers not on tours find their way around.

But can the tiny town cope with ships like Caribbean Princess and its 3,100 passengers? "Absolutely," said Morrison. "Half go sightseeing in the morning and half go shopping. Then they swap over in the afternoon. A big ship dominates the island, but we have a lot of fun."

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor