After nearly two years of pandemic lockdowns and quarantines, cruise line operators are beginning to see blue skies on the horizon - and the long-range forecast appears promising.
Interest is going up again in hitting the seas, buoying the industry's optimism. Google and YouTube searches for 2022 cruise destinations and brands have risen dramatically in the last quarter of 2021, and bookings are picking up as well.
And there's more good news: The average passenger is expected to spend 6% ($1,064) more next year on seafaring travels than in 2019. At the same time, however, cruise ships will likely carry fewer passengers - perhaps as much as one-third fewer, indicating the need to approach strategically and cautiously.
What we know is that cruise travel is trending upward, and as new-to-cruising prospects and younger generations jump on board, the potential is high for a stronger cruise economy by as early as 2024. There's never been a better time for cruise operators to refine or even disrupt their marketing strategies. Here's what you need to know.
Consumers are looking and booking
Weary of pandemic lockdowns, the world seems to have caught the travel bug as the end of 2021 approached.
Global digital traffic on travel sites hit hardest during the pandemic - air travel, cruise, online travel agencies, and metasearch - rose to its highest point in November 2021, according to the web traffic comparison site SimilarWeb . And every one of the top 10 travel searches looking ahead to 2022 referenced cruising.
So where are travelers going? Those in the U.S. envision staying fairly close to home. "Alaska cruise" has been trending in searches nationwide since August 2021, and was the most widely used non-branded phrase among online cruise searchers in November, SimilarWeb shows.
Alaska aside, the cold winter months have had American travelers dreaming of beaches and bathing suits: the Bahamas captured the fancy of internet searchers in a few East Coast states, including, most notably, Florida.
Hawaii was in the mix, too. In fact, Hawaii has nearly completely rebounded from its tourism slump, recovering 94% of the tourism booking traffic it enjoyed pre-pandemic, according to SimilarWeb.
People are weary of staying home. Some 76% of Americans told Destination Analysts in October 2021 that they are ready to travel; 60% said they're open to ideas and suggestions about where to go and how to get there.
All in all, 10 popular cruise lines reported a total of 30.8 million website visits in October - an increase of more than 16% over September figures.
Take me away - in luxury
In a growing economy, consumers have more disposable income than before, and more affluent travelers are more likely to be booking trips. Among people with annual incomes higher than 40,000 euros - approximately $45,000 USD at the time of this writing - 31% had traveled internationally for leisure in 2021, while only 8% of those earning less had done so, according to information we obtained from AlphaSense.
The demand for luxury cruises is expected to increase rapidly in two to four years, Statista reports. Norwegian Cruise Lines reported that sales for their premium-priced cruises for 2022 were up 30 to 35% over 2019 levels.
And, as mentioned above, today's cruisers seem willing to pay more for a luxury experience - on average, more than $1,000 more per person in 2022 than in 2019.
Spending begets spending. Our statistics show that travelers spend more when they're among other travelers, especially in close proximity - often, to buy amenities such as additional personal space.
Cruises are ideally suited to inspire travelers to pamper themselves: Cruisers in 2022 are expected to spend 30% more on premium bookings. Hotels (an example of "low-density" travel situations) aren't enjoying the same "splurge" effects: upscale to luxury bookings decreased by as much as a quarter in September 2021 compared to the same month in 2020.
Cruise lines are driving demand
More consumers' spending more money is a win-win for cruise lines. "Revenge travel" may be one reason for this phenomenon: people have felt deprived for too long, and want to compensate with a splashy trip. Or, newly aware during the pandemic of the brevity of life, they feel inspired to finally take that "bucket list" journey.
Seeing these trends, cruise operators are boosting their marketing campaigns to inspire the travel-hungry to choose a cruise for their next getaway.
They're deeply discounting packages for 2022 and 2023 travel. Cruise lines are also offering unique trip options: adults only; small ships; personal butlers; wine and food cruises; even cruises themed around popular TV shows.
Their efforts appear to be working, attracting a new generation of cruise newbies. A recent Google survey found that 86% of people ages 18-34 who have never cruised before said they would be open to doing so now; among ages 35-54, 69% are amenable to cruising.
This emerging market offers exciting opportunities for cruise companies to grow business - but to reach the next generation, they'll need to meet them where they are: on YouTube.
"Try before you buy" means video
When people want to plan a trip or to get ideas for where to go, they visit YouTube. Our research shows that 95% of adults ages 18 to 54 who intend to travel use YouTube videos in their research.
Among top travel spenders of all ages, 75% say that YouTube videos help them decide with whom to book. And 80% of people say they alternate between online searches and video when researching travel purchases.
Videos can also inspire the desire for travel: 65% of "next generation" YouTube viewers say watching videos motivates them to start planning trips.
"‘Next-gen' travelers lean heavily into online video and social media platforms to help their planning," Billy Boulia, senior director of media and digital marketing at Norwegian Cruise Lines, shared in episode 4 of Google's Travel On Air series. "The majority of these younger travelers are inspired by the sight, sound, and motion that videos provide.
"Video has the unique ability to tell a story... to create an emotional connection. That emotion can be wanderlust, it can be intrigue, it can be FOMO," Boulia said.
"Whatever that emotion is, video is able to tell a full story in 30 seconds. No other advertising vehicle aside from long-form blog content can do that... Video grabs us and pulls us in."