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CTN Investigates: Chasing cruise records

 

Industry trends suggest that the cruise sector could soon surpass previous record passenger numbers. So, what is fuelling this growth? Gary Peters investigates.

As cruise lines began to sail again following the initial pandemic lockdowns, there was much talk of how travellers would return in their droves. As more and more ships took to sea, the first stirrings of a great comeback began to emerge.

In the time since, as the industry worked towards full resumption, many of those predictions of record demand have proven correct, and the figures back up the warm words.

CLIA’s latest findings show the intent to cruise is “stronger than ever”. A total of 85 per cent of passengers say they plan to take a holiday at sea again (a six per cent increase from 2019), and 60 per cent will do so in the next two years (up from 53 per cent last year).

What’s more, the association found that 70 per cent of those who have never cruised before would consider a cruise in the next few years, up from 68 per cent in March 2022.

All of this leads to the question, what are the underlying reasons for the current positivity bubble that surrounds cruise?

“Covid-19 concerns have moved to the background following the easing of restrictions and relaxed health protocols,” explains Mintel associate director of travel research Marloes De Vries. “[This] will see the sector continue to benefit from pent-up demand following a prolonged period of disruption.”

That pent-up demand that De Vries mentions has created a sense of momentum, something which, says CLIA UK & Ireland MD Andy Harmer, “we have probably been talking about for 10 or so years”.

He adds: “It keeps building and growing – driven by innovation, by cruise lines’ investment and by a travel agent community who are better informed, more confident and who are taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Royal Caribbean, Icon of the Seas
Icon of the Seas will launch in 2024

Cruise ‘appealing to wider audience’

On Harmer’s point about innovation, the key strand of this can be seen in many of the new ship launches of recent months, as well as those that are due to set sail later this year and in 2024.

Royal Caribbean head of UK sales Torey Kings-Hodkin tells Cruise Trade News that guests “not only want innovation – they also expect it”.

“It’s critical for cruise lines to continue to break expectations and lead the way in travel technology – both pre, during and post cruise,” she says.

“We will be welcoming our first new class of ship in 10 years, Icon of the Seas, next year. The reaction to Icon has been incredible and we had our highest booking day and highest volume week following opening the ship for sale.”

De Vries agrees that the “rising number of new ships coming to the market should help the sector to appeal to a wider audience”.

However, De Vries continues: “The itinerary/destinations travelled to remains the leading decision-making factor for consumers and this has grown in importance.

“The prolonged period of travel restrictions during the pandemic has fuelled people’s desire to explore destinations once again, meaning that itineraries with overnight port stops or cruise and stay options will appeal.”

This chimes with the thoughts of AmaWaterways managing director Jamie Loizou, who says “the discerning traveller demands a more personalised holiday experience, [so] destination is also a key factor”.

He adds: “They also want to immerse themselves in all aspects of the country they are travelling in. Our cruises not only sail through the heart of a country but are a cultural immersion, bringing it to life, through excursions but also by on-board talks, themed entertainment and dining that reflects the destinations that guests cruise through.”

On destinations, CLIA’s research shows the Mediterranean remains the number one destination for cruise travellers from the UK and Ireland, with 38.4 per cent, followed by 29 per cent travelling to northern Europe and 10.6 per cent to the Caribbean.

Nonetheless, itineraries closer to home in the UK are also proving popular.

In April, Cruise Britain said that the UK cruise sector’s post-pandemic year of transition has provided the “strongest possible springboard for a projected record season in 2023”, with a predicted eight per cent increase in terms of port calls across the UK

Cruise Britain chair Ian McQuade says: “The projected eight per cent rise is a very healthy increase and we would anticipate that this can be built upon over the next few years.

“Cruise calls are planned up to three years in advance and the level of interest in deploying ships to the UK is not showing signs of slowing down.”

Highlighting the value of cruise

Other key reasons advanced by many for the bookings bounce are value for money and the growing trend of multi-gen and family cruising.

De Vries says Mintel’s research shows 30 per cent of potential sea cruise passengers aged 16-34 “would be willing to spend £1,000 or more per adult, compared to 59 per cent of those aged 35-54 and 83 per cent of over-55s”.

“There is also a gap between what experienced cruisers and first-timers are willing to spend,” De Vries continues.

“As such, shorter cruises, cruises outside of the peak season, price offers and flexible payment options will likely be essential to attract more (younger) newcomers, while websites should make it as easy as possible to find a deal within customers’ budgets.”

Harmer pinpoints how CLIA’s findings show “27 per cent of those who sailed for two or more nights in the last 12 months travelled in a party consisting of three or more generations”, while Kings-Hodkin highlights: “It’s important to focus on the incredible value cruise offers to guests, whether that is the ease and convenience of planning or world-class entertainment on board.”

AmaWaterways river cruise
AmaWaterways MD Jamie Loizou says river is a “good stepping-stone into cruising”

Predictions for the future

As for what the remainder of this year and beyond will bring, there is little let up in the positivity.

Speaking to Cruise Trade News in May, Royal Caribbean vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa Ben Bouldin, and CLIA chair, said: “As the world normalises, I am optimistic that, once we get data for 2023 and 2024, the cruise industry will surpass previous highs of 2.1 million.”

Sticking with Royal Caribbean, Kings-Hodkin states: “Based on Royal Caribbean’s record-breaking and extended wave period, we’re confident that 2023 will be a year of growth for the industry.

“The percentage of our guests who are either new-to-brand or new-to-cruise has surpassed 2019 levels, which is an incredibly positive sign.”

She does, however, sound a word of warning: “The last few years have taught us that nothing is certain anymore.

“As an industry, we need to remain adaptable to situations around the world while offering guests as much of a sense of certainty as we possibly can.”

Harmer believes that a “key barrier” is convincing people to take “the leap”, adding: “We know when they do, they will come back. So, we are challenged by them trying a cruise now and not deferring that decision for ‘another time’.”

Loizou argues that this is where river cruise has a part to play. “While new to cruise clients may feel daunted by the sheer scale of many ocean cruise ships, a small ship travelling close to land feels a good stepping-stone into cruising,” he says.

Another important aspect is the agent/cruise line relationship. Cruise Circle MD Jason Daniels says: “They are vital. Let’s be honest, without each other things would look grim on both sides, however we should never take each other’s support for granted.

“Our most successful partnerships with cruise lines are built on open, honest and mutually respectful relationships that are focused on longevity, not quick wins.”

Such longevity will be fundamental to cruise reaching, and then surpassing, 2019 levels.

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