By Ben Hoyle

PLANS WERE announced yesterday for the worldís largest passenger ship, in defiance of an epidemic of disasters that has befallen cruise liners in recent years.

At 222,000 gross register tons, the Royal Caribbean International vessel will be nearly half as big again as the Queen Mary 2, which holds the title.

Measuring 360 metres long (1,181ft) and standing 65m, clear of the water, Project Genesis would also dwarf the Titanic.

Aker Yards, of Finland, which has won the Ä900 million (£616 million) building contract, said that the anticipated 5,400 passengers will be entertained by an unrivalled selection of activities ó still to be confirmed ó when she takes to the sea late in 2009.

A flavour of what may lie in store can be gleaned from another Royal Caribbean vessel which will soon borrow the mantle of worldís largest passenger cruiser until Project Genesis emerges from the Turku shipyard in western Finland.

The 160,000-ton, 3,600 passenger Freedom of the Seas, expected to set sail in June, has an ice-skating rink, rockclimbing wall and an onboard surfing system. Passengers will have access to a water park, a promenade and a casino. She will generate 1,800,000 litres of fresh water and require 35 tonnes of ice cubes every day.

Richard Fain, the Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO, said yesterday: ìIt is exhilarating to take such a giant step into the future. Project Genesis truly is a remarkable ship.î He will hope that Project Genesis and Freedom of the Seas sail clear of the apparent jinx that has clung to their predecessor.

Last month Cunard, the owners of the Queen Mary 2, agreed to refund furious passengers an estimated £10 million after they spent eight days of a South American cruise at sea, missing all the scheduled stops.

It was not the first time that the worldís largest ocean liner had run into difficulties.

Fifteen people died when a gangway collapsed while the ship was in dry dock at St Nazaire, France, in 2003. The next year she arrived home late from her maiden voyage because the bow doors covering the propellers had failed to shut after a stop in Portugal.

P&Oís Aurora has also had ill-fortune. The first time the ship set sail, in 2000, she experienced engine failure. In 2003 in the Mediterranean passengers suffered food poisoning and last year her engines failed again and she was marooned between Southampton and the Isle of Wight.

Unluckiest of all were the passengers who used their compensation money to rebook on her sister ship, Oriana, last month, when many of the 1,975 passengers were confined to their cabins after Norovirus, a highly contagious bug that causes vomiting and diarrhoea, spread through the ship.

But despite these mishaps, cruising is thriving after a slump caused by the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Sars virus and the war in Iraq.

According to the International Council of Cruise Lines, the number of passengers increased 10 per cent to 10.8 million in 2004. Numbers have grown by more than 8 per cent a year annually since 1980.

The biggest ship built remains the Norwegian-owned tanker Jahre Viking, which was built in Japan in 1979. More than 400 metres long and measuring 260,851 gross register tons, she has a cargo capacity (deadweight tonnage) of 564,763 tons.

But she was too large to negotiate the Channel and could reach only a few of the worldís oil loading-points.