The cruise industry—blemished by high-profile accidents and illnesses in recent years—is looking shipshape for 2015 and quickly getting booked up for 2016, led by high-end travelers, according to some industry experts.
Already, select bookings for the so-called “wave season,” the first three months of each year when cruise lines do high-volume sales and promotions, have more than doubled for 2016, according to UBS researchers.
As of mid-May, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) noted a 100%-plus increase in bookings, while Royal Caribbean (RCL) showed “strong bookings in January,” the report says. Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) does not report bookings, but UBS notes it historically moves in the same direction as the broader industry.
More Seafarers on Board in 2015
Ocean-going cruising is expected to swell by 4% this year to 23 million seafarers, up from 22.1 million in 2014, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
The most popular destination? Cruising to the Caribbean—and it looks like that’ll remain the top choice, the trade group says (see the sidebar below).
That growth comes thanks to “significantly more” spending on television advertising, “which seems to be a more effective driver of demand than just lower prices,” according to UBS.
Big Spenders on the High Seas
It’s also important to differentiate between target audiences when explaining the rebound. The high-end cruise sector largely avoided the mishaps that hit among middle-class passengers in 2012 and 2013, according to Robert Meute, travel consultant at Blue Globe Getaways. As such, demand for high-end sailing stayed relatively strong, he says.
“The luxury cruise ship clientele is usually older and more dedicated to this type of travel,” he says. “There were no issues there, so it wasn’t as affected.”
Katharine Schultze, vice president at luxury travel agency Esplanade Travel, agrees.
“Many people who travel in the upper end of the budget spectrum do multiple trips per year, and they plan multiple trips at a time, so it’s a more resilient market than the budget tour market is,” she says.
“For example, we are working on bookings through 2017. It’s too early to book most elements until we’re within a year of travel, but our clients start talking about their next trips early, and they always have ideas for new trips in the works.”
“From our perspective, the illness and other problems didn’t seem to affect our clients as much as the average cruise-industry passenger,” she adds.
Consider Expert Help
Travelers are increasingly empowered to scout out deals and book their own trips, but tapping the assistance of travel agents to find the best cruise line, ideal amenities, target destination, promotions, and more, remains a popular route for planning. From Michelin-rated chefs to water parks on deck, cruises offer something for everyone, but some will be a better fit than others.
The Cruise Lines International Association planning page includes filters that can help travelers select their destinations, sort by ship features, or connect with member travel agents.
Travelers who remain skittish about sailing can read online reviews of ships before booking, but part of a travel agent’s job is to know what’s going on in the industry.
“We have relationships built with various cruise operators, and it’s our job to continue to evaluate and keep updated on what various cruise companies are doing so that we are recommending the very best to our clients,” Schultze says.
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