TORONTO — If 2021 was about resumption for the cruise industry, 2022 was all about recovery, with cruise lines really hitting their stride and making significant gains in growth.
Widely considered to be the hardest-hit sector in travel as a result of the global pandemic, cruising has bounced back – in a big way – this year, with many global ports reopening, new ships launching, and COVID-19 protocols easing. Several cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line reported record-booking numbers during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, while construction plans for new ships are well underway including the Celebrity Ascent, the Silver Ray and more. And towards the latter part of the year, many lines announced the elimination and easing of COVID-19 protocols like proof of vaccination and pre-embarkation testing, in place since cruising resumed in non-U.S. and U.S. waters in mid-2021, indicating a real turning point for the cruise industry and the return of consumer confidence.
With so much to celebrate this year, Travelweek sat down with Kelly Craighead, CLIA president and CEO, and Caroline Hay, General Manager, Cruise Division at Trevello Travel Group, who who highlighted standout moments for the cruise industry, the role travel agents played in recovery, and any remaining challenges in 2023.
How do you think the year went for the cruise industry?
Craighead: “This year was a strong year for cruise—in terms of resumption, as well as in advancing on our industry’s commitments for responsible and sustainable cruise operations. Today, more than 100 markets are open to cruising, nearly double the number that were open in January, and virtually 100% of our cruise line member fleet is back in service. In addition, based on public reports from various cruise lines, we know that occupancy levels, which had hovered around 50% at the start of the year, are now approaching 100%, on average, worldwide.”
Hay: “It’s been a tumultuous year in the cruise segment but despite starting the year under a Level 4 Do Not Cruise advisory, there have been significant gains made in the Canadian (and North American) market as it relates to cruise. Both Ocean and River Cruise companies had comprehensive health and safety programs in place but most importantly offered very flexible peace of mind travel policies that allowed both travel advisors and clients to be in the best position when promoting and selling the product.”
What are some standout moments that really propelled cruise lines forward in their recovery this year?
Craighead: “The biggest standout moments have been the outpouring of enthusiasm and appreciation for cruise, which we saw with each and every market that opened to travellers and cruise specifically. Cruise tourism provides travellers the best way to see the world and is essential to the livelihoods of countless families and business, the majority of which are small businesses that are the heart of any community.
“All of this was possible as a result of government agencies, as well as Federal and Provincial tourism associations, ports and destinations, and so many others who worked tirelessly to support the industry’s responsible resumption of operations. This has allowed us to make tremendous progress toward returning 30,000 jobs and more than $4 billion in economic activity generated by the cruise industry across Canada prior to 2020.
“And, of course, even as protocols have eased across all travel sectors, CLIA-member cruise lines have continued to demonstrate their strong track record for effectively prioritizing the health and safety of passengers, crew, and the destinations they visit. Our member lines have processes and protocols in place that exceed those of nearly any other venue or travel sector outside of healthcare settings. In fact, cruising has been proven to be one of the safest forms of travel and among the most successful industries in mitigating the spread and severity of COVID-19, resulting in few passengers or crew becoming seriously ill or requiring hospitalization compared to hospital statistics for landside patients.”
Hay: “There are so many key moments but the ones that stick out in my mind are the new tech tools that were quickly launched to help with hold times, Future Cruise Credit reports that agents have access to for them to maximize forward bookings, increased coop dollars, fam trips and overall support from the cruise companies.”
Do you think cruise lines have done everything they can to rebuild consumer confidence?
Craighead: “The proof is in the numbers. Intent to cruise – both among repeat cruisers and those who are potential new to cruise travelers – is higher than it was in December 2019. We are also seeing a significant increase in the number of travellers who are recognizing the leadership of the cruise sector in environmental sustainability and destination stewardship, which is an important component of consumer confidence in cruise.
“Engagement and collaboration across the entire cruise community has been and will continue to be critical in our ability to convey the unique benefits that cruise tourism provides travellers and in our ability to demonstrate that cruise tourism is managed tourism that can actually be a solution to community concerns.”
Hay: “It’s no secret that capacity issues have plagued many lines this year. However, the cruise lines all seized this opportunity to get key agents on the product so they could see first-hand how the ships are operating. In turn, agents were then able to confidently display to their customers that a cruise vacation is indeed safe and still a wonderful vacation option.”
If you had to give the cruise industry a grade based on their recovery efforts in 2022, what grade would it be?
Craighead: “Our member lines hold themselves to a very high bar, so the status quo is never enough. They are continually looking to enhance both the product and the experiences they offer travellers, as well as the environmental technologies and practices of their brands. Assigning a grade to those efforts and their commitment to continual improvement would, therefore, be impossible, because an “excellent” grade today would only be an average grade tomorrow based on our industry’s vision to sail to an even better future.”
Hay: “100%! From BDM to Executive Level to CLIA its been an incredible work in progress to ensure that agents were armed with the necessary tools to help agents sell the product while being fully supported by the Cruise line Reps.”
How do you think travel advisors helped in the cruise industry’s recovery this year?
Craighead: “Travel advisors were critical to the recovery and are critical to the future of cruise. The CLIA travel trade community represents the largest network of travel professionals who specialize in cruise. They are they link to connecting travellers to the right cruise for their travel needs and desires, and they are critical to helping travellers understand the responsible and sustainable nature of cruise travel, and to cruise lines knowing what cruisers want. In addition to their expertise, their voices are hugely influential. Their value to the entire cruise community is proven.”
Hay: “Groups have been our highest growth segment in cruising this year. Clients have been more comfortable travelling with their agent and have enjoyed lower rates and layered benefits offering them unparallel value. Our Trevello agents have reported an increase of new clients who previously booked with the cruise line direct, seeking out their services as they want to deal with someone local as well as avoid the hassles of long wait times. I recently sailed on the AmaSonata with our Chairman Circle (Top Producer) group and every advisor who as posted and shared their journey with their clients reported sales and interest from their clients – its spectacular to see! The agents in our network who invested their time and money into experiencing the product themselves this year are showing higher cruise-to-tour sales simply due to sharing their own experiences.”
What challenges remain for the cruise industry heading into 2023?
Craighead: “Much of what the cruise industry is doing and investing in to decarbonize the industry is largely unknown. That’s because, for the most part, it’s happening behind the scenes – and it’s complex. When people think of the industry, they see cruise ships rather than the advancements that have been made, particularly in the last few years. That can result in uninformed critics of the industry saying we need to do more.
“The truth is, we are doing more. Many of the advancements from which the entire maritime sector benefits were initiated and led by cruise. That’s a pretty big return on investment for our overall industry to sustainable travel and tourism, and is a testament to the leadership of cruise, especially when you consider the fact that cruise comprises far less than 1 percent of the global maritime community. Cruise lines are at the forefront in developing responsible environmental practices and innovative technologies that lead in environmental stewardship, and that’s something for which we are very proud.
“Earlier this year we announced a commitment by all CLIA ocean-going cruise lines to pursue net-zero carbon cruising by 2050 – and our cruise lines have, for some time now, been investing billions of dollars into research and development to help create the innovations needed to achieve this ambitious target. While the industry’s investments are already delivering results, there’s still a long way to go. To that end, our cruise line members are embarking on joint ventures with fuel companies and other developers, aimed at accelerating an effort to make sustainable marine fuels available at scale. These include power sources like biofuel, methanol, ammonia, hydrogen, hybrid propulsion and electric batteries.
Hay: “2023 is going to be a record breaking year. We have more inventory, more interest from clients, and more advisors who have identified cruise sales as their primary niche. There is still a lot of noise around travel and the threats of an economic downturn looming may cause some clients to halt their plans, however, our forward sales do not seem to be indicative of this trend.”