More people are taking a cruise for the first time, and it’s a trend that cruise lines are continuing to see for the rest of 2023 and well into 2024.
In a recent earnings call held on September 29th, 2023, Carnival Corp. CEO Josh Weinstein provided some insights into the cruise industry’s resurgence, with a particular focus on the rise in first-time cruise numbers.
“We are also seeing other positive forward indicators that suggest we’re continuing to generate healthy demand. First-time cruisers reached 170% of prior-year levels in the third quarter,” Weinstein revealed, stating that this equates to 2.5 million guests taking their very first cruise.
It was not clear if these new cruisers were new to the Carnival brand or new to cruising altogether. But with 9 cruise lines under Carnival Corp. it’s not uncommon for a person’s first cruise to be with one of these companies, which include Princess Cruises, Holland America, Costa Cruises, and of course Carnival Cruise Line, to name a few.
Weinstein’s remarks shed light on several factors contributing to this trend, including the growing desire for experiences over products, robust booking numbers extending into 2024 and 2025, and the power of loyal cruisers using word of mouth to get more first-time cruisers interested in this type of vacation.
Loyal cruisers driving growth
When asked about the surge in new consumers getting on cruise ships, Weinstein credited it in part to advertising efforts but also emphasized the importance of word-of-mouth recommendations. He stated, “You get your repeaters getting off the ship and telling their friends and family how amazing it is, simply attracting newcomers.”
Shift towards experiences
Weinstein also emphasized the changing preferences of consumers, stating, “People are ready to spend money on experiences more than products.” Cruise vacations offer a unique and immersive experience, appealing to those looking for memorable adventures rather than material possessions or products that are obsolete the year after they are bought.
The pent-up travel demand has still been a major driver for those curious about taking a cruise for the first time. And apparently, Cruise Fever is catching on as more first-time cruisers turn into avid cruisers, booking the next cruise while still on their current ship.
The CEO also mentioned that booking numbers overall have been very strong, stating that “customer deposits and booking volumes hit record levels for the third quarter.” This is indicative of the strong demand for cruise vacations.
Carnival Corp.’s CEO also highlighted remarkable occupancy rates within the company’s portfolio of cruise lines. He noted that “Costa and AIDA both had 119% occupancy in August,” and also, “P&O Cruises had the highest occupancy in over 10 years.” These occupancy levels reflect the growing popularity of cruise vacations, especially in the European market that is seeing capacity levels on the rise again.
The affordability of cruising
For many first-time cruisers it comes down to the appeal of cost-savings with a cruise. A cruise vacation is still 30% -35% cheaper than a land-based vacation and allows guests to travel to various destinations at the same time. Cruise lines have expressed interest in seeing this gap narrowed as debt concerns still weigh heavy on the industry, but the value of a cruise has still been a major factor in those first-time cruise numbers rising to historic highs.
Higher fuel prices are still a concern, and Weinstein was asked if an extra fuel surcharge will need to be added to cruise fares. Carnival’s CEO simply replied that the company was making steps to reduce fuel consumption and be more efficient and didn’t currently see the need to add this additional cost to consumers.
One of the stated reasons for the expansion of the new cruise port at Celebration Key was to help reduce fuel costs as well, as it will be much closer to U.S. based embarkation ports.
With a 3rd quarter profit north of $1 billion, Carnival Corp. is well on its way to digging out of that massive $31 billion in debt, but it’s going to take some time.
Less inventory and rising costs
If you’ve looked at booking a cruise lately you know that it can be difficult to find much available in the short term. Ships have sold out quickly, and cabin availability has been limited. This has led to a slight uptick in fare prices as well.
Weinstein pointed out the industry’s ability to maintain strong pricing, stating, “Essentially, we’ve consistently been delivering pricing well in excess of 2019 levels, while closing the occupancy gap by 11 [percentage] points over the course of the year.” This speaks to the industry’s ability to maintain profitability while offering exceptional value to passengers.
He also mentioned inventory management, noting, “In fact, we already have less inventory remaining for sale at the same time last year, despite 5% more capacity.” This indicates a well-managed supply of available cruise cabins, aligning with strong demand.
Weinstein underscored the importance of repeat cruisers, stating that “over half our guests are repeat cruisers.” This demonstrates the loyalty of passengers to cruise vacations and their willingness to return for more.