Chapter 3.6 – Cruise Terminal Design and Equipment

Author: Dr. Athanasios Pallis

Cruise terminals have a unique set of characteristics and operational considerations since they need to handle a large number of passengers and cruise ship supplies.

1. Cruise Terminals

Cruise terminals are designed to serve the requirements of cruise vessels and their passengers. At the same time, they have to be integrated with transport, tourism, and the urban planning strategies of the port city and nearby destinations. From a maritime viewpoint, cruise terminals need to fulfill minimum requirements for draft, berthing lines, and navigation channels for cruise ships. Inside the cruise terminal, there are provisions for various spaces, including the apron area, terminal building, and ground transportation. Due to the nature of their customers and the nature of cruise operations, connectivity to the city, car parking, and public transport facilities are particularly important.

Operational considerations are a critical factor in implementing the design of a cruise terminal is carried out at a specific port. The cruise port’s function as a home port, a transit port, or a hybrid port, implies different needs and design considerations:

  • In a home-port, the cruise vessel that begins or concludes its itinerary commonly arrives early in the day so that passengers proceed to customs and immigration, have their luggage (un)loaded, and make their flight connections (more an issue for arriving passengers). Provisions for the next cruise need to be loaded, baggage from arriving passengers scanned and loaded, passengers processed through ticketing, spare parts, deck supplies, and bunkers (potable water and fuel oil) taken aboard. Minor repairs may also be undertaken. A portion of the crew visits the port city and returns before the ship departs. All these activities need to take place within up to 24 hours and preferably within 12 hours. Handling a large number of passengers in a short amount of time requires a terminal building, parking areas, and good access to the local transport system, particularly airports. The conditions and performance of the cruise port terminal are strongly linked with homeports selection by cruise lines.
  • port of call (transit) is visited for only a few hours within a day, or overnight, and requires a fast and efficient system for transporting passengers to points of interest or recreational spots.
  • Hybrid cruise ports are used for both home-porting and transit activities. The terminal is designed to handle home-port and visitor flows at the same time.

Once designed and constructed, the operating costs of cruise terminals are generally smaller than in other port terminals, as cruise terminals do not require heavy equipment and do not consume much energy. The main operating cost items are the staff for managing the terminal, security, and luggage handling. These are frequently outsourced owing to the seasonal nature of the industry. On the other hand, security is a fundamental issue as cruise ships and passengers at ports might be vulnerable. A large number of passengers concentrated in a small restricted area might be considered a potential risk. Cruise ships also have high symbolic and economic value. Consequently, cruise port design and operations must comply with several security regulations, while cruise lines and regulatory agencies constantly audit port security.

2. Maritime Infrastructure

The core consideration for cruise terminal design is related to the expected technical characteristics of the cruise ships. Indicators, such as the tonnage, overall length (LOA), beam, and draft of modern cruise ships, along with the passenger capacity, and the number of crew on board, are the most considered. Due to the range of cruise vessel types, sizes related to cruise ships scale of dimensions and capacities, the maritime infrastructure of a cruise terminal depends on several factors:

  • The number, size, and class of the cruise vessels that could utilize the terminal. Since the 2000s, the average size of cruise ships has increased in all dimensions (i.e. larger, wider, and higher passenger capacity). The average cruise ship capacity has increased from 1,300 to 3,100 passengers, and the average length from 200 to over 300 meters.
  • The characteristics of the vessel types that could call at the port are key aspects. Due to design changes and technology, the mass and dimensions of cruise vessels include a variety of deck designs. These features contribute to the design of shoreside infrastructures like shore-power location, gangway placement, and cruise terminal building dimensions and facilities.
  • Operational conditions imposed by weather. Some cruise ports may be exposed to the seasonality of weather risks, such as hurricanes in the Caribbean.
  • The operational needs of stevedoring for activities such as mooring, bunkering, and stores.
  • The desired potential berthing patterns and the average number of cruise ships expected to be docked.
  • For home-ports, the number of crew members is also significant. Depending on the size and market segment of the cruise, the ratio varies from one crew member per passenger in a luxury cruise ship to one crew member per three passengers in a standard ship.

Entrance channels to berths and maneuvering areas provide safe clearance during vessel movements and operational loading conditions. Their minimum depth incorporates the maximum draft and allowances for technical and wave conditions anticipated during vessel approaches. Modern cruise vessels are very maneuverable in most sea conditions. The berth area length required for safe mooring and securing the vessel allows for a minimum clearance of 10% of the vessel’s overall length (LOA). Where turning basins are required, a diameter of two times the LOA plus an allowance for adverse weather conditions is necessary. In home port operations, the port maintains contingency plans in case of extreme weather due to the need for passengers to connect to the various modes of transportation from the terminal. Ports of call do not need such plans, as ships have the option of skipping a port of call in the case of inclement weather.

Mooring of cruise vessels generally uses arrangements where the maximum pier frontage adjacent to the vessel offers loading/unloading efficiencies. In some transit ports, vessels are moored to piers shorter than the vessel, using dolphins to secure the offshore end of the vessel. Cruise vessel facilities are typically provided with fender systems along the full frontage of the berth area to absorb the energy of an impact during vessel berthing and provide a soft buffer between the pier and vessel while moored.

3. Apron Area of the Cruise Terminal

Aprons are fenced secured areas immediately adjacent to the cruise building and vessel service doors. While cruise vessel loading can occur with small widths of apron surface, the wider and less obstructed the surface in the area is, the better. The apron area provides space for any of the following operations:

  • Stevedoring services including line-handling, baggage movement, utility connections, and waste processing from the vessel. Luggage is moved by forklift and baggage handling carriages from/to the ground floor of the cruise building to/from the vessel luggage doors.
  • Supplies to the vessels to serve the needs of passengers, crew, systems, and equipment. The provisions arrive on trucks soon after the ship arrives at berth. With larger ships served by a total of between 20 and 40 tractor-trailer size trucks, managing this flow and providing proper maneuvering, unloading, and turn-around space is critical to the success of this process. In addition to space, two other factors are important, connectivity with the ground transportation area, and storage areas where certain perishable provisions can be placed before being loaded onto the ship in order to avoid any damage.
  • Access for vehicle circulation, parking, unloading, and access for load/unload equipment.
  • Emergency vehicle access.
  • Provisions for site-specific needs of terminal operations, such as vehicle controls.

All these operations take place in the apron area via the various service doors of cruise vessels. Within the apron, the operational pier service loading area for vehicles servicing cruise vessels, such as containers and tanker trucks, is separated from the cruise terminal passenger areas. Gangways are the single most important passenger processing element of the entire terminal as they are crucial for turning vessels around quickly and efficiently.

The gangway (also known as seaport passenger boarding bridge) is the means of getting on and off a ship. In general shipping terms, it refers to a walkway or bridge connecting the vessel to land. Because access varies widely from one port to another, a cruise ship gangway refers to the place on the ship where passengers enter and exit.

Gangways transfer passengers from the vessel doors to the terminal building through the boarding corridor (boardwalk). For example, on embarkation and debarkation days, the gangway will often consist of an enclosed raised bridge like a jetway in an airport. For larger vessels, the embarking and disembarking processes entail the need for two fully automated mobile gangways per berth to move in excess of 1,000 passengers per hour. Cruise terminal operators might select one of the various types of cruise gangways available to meet these needs and provide safe boarding in all conditions.

For home-ports, the demand for some or all of the following vessel utilities might require further infrastructure that might even extend beyond the facility property in order to provide sufficient capacities to allow vessels to be serviced during their limited time at berth:

  • Bunkering for ship refueling.
  • Waste reception facilities such as oily wastes, garbage from ships, and sewage.
  • Potable water. A 3,500 passenger vessel can use approximately 1.40 million gallons during a seven-day excursion. Most of this water demand is provided through onboard desalination systems. However, it is not uncommon for cruise vessels to take on water while at the pier.
  • Ballast water.
  • Energy such as shore power (cold ironing and LNG provisioning).

4. Cruise Terminal Building

The presence of a cruise terminal building is part of the evolution of the cruise business. As the market matures, cruise ports have started developing purpose-built terminal buildings to serve cruise passenger movements. Still, for ports where cruising activities are in their initial phase, the terminal is often a temporary structure, or a building primarily having a non-cruise use and is convertible on the days a ship calls. A range of structures is used:

  • Temporary cruise terminal buildings exist in cruise ports with few calls and are managed only when a ship is calling. This includes vessel navigation and berthing, provisioning, passenger debarking, ship hoteling, passenger embarking, and vessel deployment. The methods of handling these needs rely primarily on essential services only, and on occasion, there is no building dedicated as a cruise terminal. In these cases, organizing and segregating functions are handled on-site with temporary event-type facilities with movable barriers, traffic control elements such as bollards and cones, and tape lines.
  • Convertible cruise terminal buildings focusing on hospitality, civic, commercial, retail, or warehousing as the primary function. As these facilities are not specialized cruise terminals, passengers, baggage, and supplies are managed on a day-of-cruise basis. Before a ship berths, specific cruise use elements such as signage, furniture, equipment, and space-dividing material will be set up for a cruise and then removed after the ship departs. Several processes (including immigration) may be handled on the vessel rather than in the terminal.
  • Purpose-built cruise terminal buildings address the entire needs and functionality of cruises on both disembarkation and embarkation. On occasion, some of the building spaces may be designed for dual-use (embarking and debarking). Most often, each space is designed and built for specific functionality. These buildings can also have secondary uses such as event space for shopping areas, cafeterias, and restaurants. Sill, cruising remains the primary design and operational driver. Embarkation and disembarkation spaces, equipment, furniture, signage, and agency requirements are all designed to optimize flow, heighten passenger satisfaction, minimize staffing levels, and maintain security. Often these buildings are part of a larger port community, or combined waterfront context, but they stand alone, not usually offering other uses when no ship is at berth.
  • Mixed-use cruise terminal buildings are the most developed response to cruise tourism, along with the need to serve a waterfront community. Recognizing the multi-functionality that a single building can provide, such mixed-use buildings include all the necessary elements of a purpose-built terminal. They also add other uses to their plan and volume, such as shopping areas, commercial areas, theatres, and conventions. As with other mixed-use buildings, the economics of capital investment, operating cost, and revenue stream are combined in order to benefit from multiple uses. This creates a beneficial cycle of increased use, greater revenue, heightened visibility, and a stronger tourism market. Simultaneously, regardless of whether or not cruising is the dominant purpose of the mixed-use building, the cruise market must perceive that the building is successfully serving the core cruise terminal mission.

Cruise terminal buildings are either single-story or multi-story. A single-story terminal has the advantage of fitting on an open site, especially in relation to the length of a cruise vessel and the need for ground transportation, and the absence of vertical core elements such as stairs, escalators, and elevators. On the negative side, the operational distances are longer on one level than in multi-story terminals. Multi-story terminals are becoming the more common form of cruise terminal buildings, especially in the bigger home-porting cruise ports. This format takes advantage of the inherent differences between embarkation and disembarkation processes to segregate them by floor level, a design common in airport facilities. The stacking of spaces on different levels has greater advantages when co-locating other activities, such as parking. Most often, a multi-story terminal will have the majority of disembarkation spaces on the ground floor and most of the embarkation space on the upper level. This has the operational advantage that embarking passengers are brought upstairs to check-in and wait to board while disembarking passengers flow through immigration check, baggage pickup, customs, and ground transportation pickup.

5. Embarkation and Disembarkation Processes

The embarkation process of cruise passengers begins upon arrival at the cruise terminal. In home-ports, a number of different spaces and services are provided to facilitate the process:

  • Entrance space is a gathering space for passengers arriving at the terminal, a shelter from the weather, a place to seek information, and a place to queue for the next step in the process.
  • Bag drop space where bags are brought for the security check and organizing prior to loading onto the ship.
  • Luggage security controls (X-ray scanners) that allow thorough luggage monitoring, and detecting objects that are not allowed to be taken on board.
  • Queuing space that includes multiple lanes for passengers to process through security controls boarding the vessel.
  • Passenger security controls (passenger X-ray lanes), with operating schedules adapted to the size of traffic, peak hours, and other local and cruise-ship requirements.
  • Ticketing where passengers pick up their tickets before check-in if not available through prior arrangements.
  • Ticket area queue where passengers queue before checking in so that people can move quickly from ticketing to boarding.
  • Check-in area with counters where cruise-line staff process passengers for the designated cruise trip. The use of new technologies like mobile applications or bar-coded wristbands in the check-in process is already bringing changes in the layout of this area.
  • Waiting areas for checked-in ticketed passengers to wait until boarding can begin. This space is large enough to allow for ample seating and circulation area, as well as space for cruise information and other pre-travel material the cruise lines have.
  • Boarding corridors where passengers move toward the vessel.
  • Staff offices for cruise operator staff, cruise line staff, and port security.
  • Other spaces, such as spaces where passengers can have their pictures taken, VIP lounges separated from the general embarkation experience, and even wedding and other special group spaces.

The size and location orientation of each of the above spaces and respective services varies from one cruise terminal to the other. Not all of the spaces listed will be found in every terminal or found in similar arrangements. Security might take place at the entrance of the terminal building or after check-in. Well-developed VIP spaces do not exist in all terminals, as the configuration is determined to meet the needs of all stakeholders (port, cruise lines, operator, customs, and port security). In any case, the terminal needs to offer a positive experience to passengers, as it might provide the first impression to the embarking passengers and it is thus valued significantly by cruise lines. Further, if the terminal is too small for the capacity of the cruise ship, discomfort can result from passengers being forced to stand up in crowded spaces over periods of time.

The disembarkation process in the home port begins before a passenger leaves the vessel to enter the terminal, aiming at reducing the processing time to a minimum and maximizing this final experience for the passenger. The different spaces and services that are provided in home-port terminals include:

  • Boarding corridors for disembarking passengers.
  • Customs, immigration, quarantine, and police spaces and processes.
  • Baggage lay down, which is often the single largest space in the building. Luggage is brought directly from the ship according to deck level and grouped via a “lay-down” process that takes place before passengers enter the space. While in most cases separation refers to baggage waiting in different spaces per group of passengers, more sophisticated processes of managing bags also exist, the most obvious being carousels such as those used in airports.
  • Customs areas for passengers to proceed after luggage collections to processing counters, and to conclude applicable procedures.
  • Meeting spaces where passengers gather and meet with others and move to ground transportation.

In ports of call, the disembarkation/embarkation processes are less complex, particularly since passengers do not carry luggage. The terminals do not usually have or need a building to host passengers since the (dis)embarkation time is normally short, lasting less than an hour, with access to the local means of transportation or to the walkways and back to the ship having to be as fast and simple as possible. In the absence of a terminal building, the port provides an open space along the quay to enable passengers to gather comfortably. If a terminal building exists, transit terminals do not require spaces for the check-in process or luggage operations.

6. Ground Transportation

The ground transportation area of a cruise terminal is where passengers arrive from all transport modes to embark on the cruise. It is also where they disembark to take any transportation mode to travel inland, usually through public roads and transit systems. Since the passengers of a single cruise generate large numbers of inland trips, ground transportation is an important function of the cruise terminal. As traffic needs to move quickly, safely, and efficiently from and to the terminal and from and to the city, this area must be located close to the terminal building. The ground transportation area includes spaces for:

  • Coach parking, such as shuttle buses provided by the port or the cruise lines and tour buses provided by the ship and independent excursion buses.
  • Taxi lines with comfortable space around the cars to facilitate loading and unloading.
  • Drop-off spaces such as a short-stay car park earmarked for people dropping off or picking up passengers.
  • Parking spaces for passengers who drove to the terminal to take a cruise.
  • Regional and local connectivity to both the local and regional intermodal system, such as the airport, needs to be connected to the home port by rail or road.

The modal distribution of cruise passenger mobility differs by port. Passengers can decide to take a coach, a taxi, a private car, or go on foot depending on factors such as proximity to major hotels and connectivity to the regional transport system. Space assigned to ground transportation services at a cruise terminal depends on:

  • Type of cruise vessel operations at the port of call, with buses and shuttles being the main transport mode. In a home-port taxis and private transport are the most used transport mode, together with transfers and connections with the airport.
  • Port-city distance where the cruise terminal is within a metropolitan district, most of the passengers might go into the city by foot, depending on the presence of pedestrian corridors. However, if the city is far off a shuttle system transport is provided.
  • Transport systems available as several transport modes and services near the terminal area, such as car parks, train connections, and airport connectivity, are considered.
  • Other factors such as local, regional, and environmental considerations may affect the design criteria. A terminal in an area of recurrent high temperatures may need to provide air conditioning in most ground transportation areas. In contrast, a terminal in an area prone to security risks will need to ensure that these areas are secured.

In addition to infrastructures such as quays construction, dock expansion, dredging of channels and basins, waiting areas, and gangways that improve traffic flows and accessibility, modern cruise terminals also involve shoreside projects. In many cases, land reclamation, retail, restaurants, and hotels are of equal importance. The multi-purpose use of cruise terminals is of a different type. Due to their service and touristic orientation, the terminals are ‘people-friendly’, rather than ‘cargo friendly’. Thus, they might be used with open access to the public for events or other usages. This is especially the case as the seasonality of cruise activities implies that several terminals host cruise ship calls for only a few months each year.

Beyond the change in the usage of existing infrastructure or the development of greenfield projects, recent developments have also revolved around the adaptive reuse of brownfield assets. Such cases can be found in the United States, both at the East (Brooklyn and Galveston) and the West (San Francisco and San Diego) coasts. In all cases, cruise port infrastructure development takes far longer than building new cruise ships, meaning that ports may lag behind in trying to meet vessel capacity developments in the market.

Related Topics


  • Cheng, Z. Gong L. and Li C. (2020).  Design and Practice of Cruise Ports. Singapore: Springer .
  • Pallis, A. A. 2015. “Cruise shipping and urban development state of the art of the industry and cruise ports”. OECD-ITF Discussion Paper 2015-14, OECD: Paris.
  • PIANC Working Group 152 (2016). Guidelines for Cruise Terminals. Brussels: PIANC.