The battle for well-heeled cruisers is about to heat up.

Fast-growing MSC Cruises has revealed plans to add a new “ultra-luxury” division that will compete in the space currently dominated by such lines as Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

The Swiss-based cruise operator said it had signed a memorandum of agreement with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri for the construction of four luxury cruise ships that will roll out between 2023 and 2026.

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Costing more than €2 billion (US$2.3 billion) in aggregate, the vessels will measure approximately 64,000 gross tonnes and feature 500 cabins, the company said.

Until now, MSC has focused on the mass market side of cruising with giant, resort-like ships that compete on price and amenities with the giant vessels operated by the likes of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line. It currently operates a fleet of 15 ships, with 10 more big vessels on order.

Still, MSC has dipped a toe into the luxury cruise market in recent years with the construction of high-end “ship-within-a-ship” luxury complexes at the top of its mass market ships. The complexes, called MSC Yacht Clubs, feature high-end cabins, butler service, private pool areas and other luxury touches. They sell for a premium price and have been in strong demand, according to MSC executives.

“It is off the back of the great success of our ship-within-a-ship luxury concept that our guests asked us to enter into the ultra-luxury segment, as a natural evolution of the MSC Yacht Club,” MSC Cruises executive chairman Pierfrancesco Vago said in a statement accompanying Thursday’s announcement. “These ships will be able to offer unique itineraries, thanks to their size, and the guest services will be taken to another level.”

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Thursday’s announcement from MSC comes four months after cruise giant Royal Caribbean Cruises jumped into the luxury cruise segment with the acquisition of Monaco-based Silversea. Royal Caribbean Cruises is the parent company of Royal Caribbean, as well as Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.

Two other major players in mass market cruising, Carnival and Norwegian, already have sister brands in the luxury space. Carnival’s parent company owns luxury line Seabourn. Norwegian’s parent company owns luxury line Regent.

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A giant of cruising in Europe, MSC has had a relatively small presence in North America until recently, and it has far less name recognition in North America than such US-based rivals as Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian. But after years of focusing its growth on Europe, the company has begun turning its attention to the North American market in a bigger way. In December, it devoted its newest ship, the 4,138-passenger MSC Seaside, full time to the North American market.

MSC has released few details about the new luxury ships it plans other than to say they would “showcase highly innovative design as well as introduce groundbreaking options for guest comfort and relaxation”.

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