Cruise ‘visionary’ dies at age 90

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Norwegian shipowner Arne Wilhelmsen, one of the founders of the large international Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL), died over the Easter holiday weekend with much of the cruise industry he helped form in turmoil. Wilhelmsen was 90, and among the last of the shipping pioneers who nurtured a cruise industry that’s currently in crisis because of the Corona virus.

Brothers Arne (left) and Gjert Wilhelmsen were active in the shipping business all their lives, and helped found Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Arne died over the weekend. Gjert died in 2018. PHOTO: Awilhelmsen

Wilhelmsen and his late brother Gjert were the sons of Anders Wilhelmsen, who founded the family shipping firm in Oslo in 1939 and operated tankers, dry bulk cargo vessels and car carriers. Anders Wilhelmsen & Co was entirely shipping-related until the firm now known as Awilhelmsen also went into the offshore business. From the mid-1970s the company became an active owner in the oil service industry through supply ships, shuttle tankers and offshore rigs.

Arne Wilhelmsen, armed with an MBA from Harvard Business School, had started off working as a chartering assistant and later as a shipbroker in New York before he joined the family firm in 1954. His older brother Gjert joined in 1958 and both continued to work in the firm and as members of the board until the summer of 2012. Arne became president of Anders Wilhelmsen & Co in 1961.

Cruise pioneers
They’re best known, however, for being part of the trio of Norwegian shipping companies that launched RCCL in 1968. The Anders Wilhelmsen firm teamed up with IM Skaugen and Gotaas-Larsen to establish the line that now operates some of the largest cruiseships in the world, and ranks second only to Carnival Cruises.

The Anders Wilhelmsen concern remained active in RCCL, now known as RCL, even after Skaugen and Gotaas-Larsen dropped out. Arne Wilhelmsen, long one of Norway’s wealthiest men, remained as RCCL’s largest single shareholder until he died at Palma in Spain on Saturday, according to the company. No cause of death was revealed, but Oslo newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Wilhelmsen had been ill.

Huge ships like RCCL’s Independence of the Seas came to characterize the cruise business. Now all their cruises are suspended because of the Corona virus. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“At a time when the rest of the world thought cruising was a niche for the old trans-Atlantic liners, Arne was already seeing glimmers of the growth that was possible,” Richard Fain, RCCL’s longtime chairman and chief executives, stated in a press release. “He had a vision of the modern cruise industry when the ‘industry’ might have been a dozen used ships, total.”

Fain hailed Wilhelmsen’s “key insight” to build new vessels “uniquely designed for cruising in warm weather.” The fledgling cruise industry based itself in Miami, and Wilhelmsen once claimed his “initial challenge” was to convince his partners and management in Miami “to build bigger and more efficient ships in order to grow the company.”

Falling fortunes
The company has most recently been operating 61 ships calling at ports around the world. Now all of its cruise operations have been suspended since March 14th because of the Corona virus outbreak. RCL’s brands include Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity, Azamara and Silversea Cruises. RCCL also owns half of the German TUI Cruises and 49 percent of Pullmantur Cruceros of Spain.

Awilhelmsen is also active in real estate, retail and various investing ventures, and remains owned by the family with Arne Wilhelmsen’s son Alex taking over as its chief executive and also succeeding Wilhelmsen on the board of the cruise line. DN noted that Arne Wilhelmsen’s personal fortune fell by roughly half on the Norwegian magazine Kapital’s list of the wealthiest Norwegians last year, to NOK 31 billion (USD 3 billion). It has likely fallen much more since, given the roughly 70 percent decline in the value of RCL’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange because of the Corona crisis. Cruiseships have been denied docking in ports around the world because of fears of infection on board.

RCL reports that its “voluntary suspension” all sailings has been extended at least until May 12th, when it hopes to resume most of its operations. Several cruises will continue to be cancelled, however, because of port closures in Canada, until July 1st, and in Singapore until June 1st.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund