Is the Cruise Industry Poised to Make a Comeback?

Post-pandemic recovery is well underway throughout the global travel industry. Most cruise liners are back in service, the sector rapidly returning to a new normal. The COVID-driven industrywide halt in operations was an important opportunity for cruise operators to pause for a moment and reflect on the industry’s future. The sector has clearly demonstrated its resilience, but what changes has it made, and how has demand recovered?

Through 2020 and 2021, the sector’s resilience was tried like no other period in its history. According to Kelly Craighead, the CEO and President of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry has been positively recognized for its response to the pandemic. It has set the bar high in terms of health and safety protocols.

Since cruising resumed, 10 million passengers have sailed worldwide. The industry is attracting both return passengers and first-time cruisers. However, COVID-19 remains deeply ingrained in the public consciousness. Against this backdrop, cruise lines are continuing to demonstrate their agility in terms of mitigating the risk of virus outbreaks onboard ships. They are taking more — and more decisive — steps to protect the public than virtually any other industry sector.

It’s undeniable that the industry still faces persistent pandemic pressures, but that hasn’t decreased the urgent demands on the industry regarding climate action. Moving forward, the industry must demonstrate the same focus and determination to establish and meet long-term sustainability goals. Throughout the pandemic, cruise operators and partner organizations continued to make headway towards sustainability goals, responsible tourism and maritime practices, and the implementation of new environmental technologies.

The resumption of cruise tourism has largely coincided with renewed commitments from cruise corporations regarding sustainability. Meanwhile, consumers are increasingly embracing responsible tourism, prioritizing the need to make a positive rather than negative impact on the tourist destinations they visit, driving prosperity in local communities, and helping to protect local habitats.

The cruise industry operated for just two and a half months in 2020, with only a partial resumption of operations in 2021. As a result, there are essentially 20-plus months’ worth of cruise passengers that missed out on vacations. They are eager to catch up. Pent-up demand has already led to a huge surge in cruise bookings in 2022 and 2023 from cruisers who had their vacations delayed or cancelled due to COVID-19. In addition, cruise operators also are reportomg rising numbers of vacationers embarking on cruises for the first time.

The cruise industry was one of the hardest-hit tourism sectors by the pandemic, and it has been negotiating the economic fallout for the better part of two years. Looking ahead, experts forecast significantly less disruption. In March 2022, the CDC removed all risk advisories concerning cruising for the first time in two years. CLIA, the world’s leading cruise industry trade group, suggested that more than 75 percent of member ships had returned to service by that point. The Association predicted that, by the end of 2023, passenger numbers would not only meet pre-pandemic levels, but exceed them.

In a survey by HundredX, cruise consumers revealed the key drivers behind their bookings. These included food and beverage quality, ship cleanliness, pricing, staff service, entertainment, comfortable staterooms, and of course health and safety. Roger Frizzell, CCO and Senior Vice President of Carnival Corporation, also predicts that, as operators continue to reintroduce the cruises and itineraries their guests love, they will see a return to historical occupancy levels, with cruise corporations continuing to ramp up resumption of guest cruise operations.

Tickets for the Oceania’s world cruise for 2023 went on public sale on January 27, 2021. Within 24 hours, they were sold out. Meanwhile, Uniworld, a river cruise operator, reported a 425 percent year-on-year increase in bookings in 2022. There has been a surge in interest in such culturally diverse destinations as Vietnam, India, and Egypt. On the back of that positivity, experts are making some bold predictions for the coming season.

During the pandemic, the global cruise industry fell into debt to the tune of billions. However, a surge in popularity through 2022 and beyond looks set to transform the fortunes of many struggling cruise companies. Most industry insiders predict that 2023 will mark a year of transformation. Although leaner and meaner, the global cruise industry is shaping up to be in a healthier position than ever.



David Geithner is a senior finance executive who draws upon nearly three decades of experience to serve as EVP and COO, IMG Events and On Location.

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David Geithner

David Geithner is a senior finance executive who draws upon nearly three decades of experience to serve as EVP and COO, IMG Events and On Location.