Cruise Industry Packing Its Ships Full In Post-Pandemic Comeback

Ocean liners have turned on a dime, from half to full occupancy


The pandemic is over, the ships are loaded and the crowds are sailing back to sea.

A projected 31.5 million tourists will jump on cruise ships this year, pushing passenger volume to 106% of 2019 levels, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Tourists have largely forgotten the horrors of a not-too-distant past, including cabin isolations, mass infections, stranded ships and crew-member suicides. And cruise lines, many facing debt loads accumulated during the pandemic, are loading their boats with discounts and promotions, many pegged to the upcoming summer vacation season. 

Compared to the rising costs of airfares, hotels, car rentals and just about everything else people need on vacation, cruise lines are offering relative bargains, said Annette Stellhorn, an advisor at Accent on Travel, a Delaware-based travel agency that specializes in cruises.

“It’s the most competitive I’ve seen in 25 years in terms of values and offers made to the public,” she said. “We’re seeing competitive offers that rival 2019.”

But cruisers who enjoyed half-full ships last year may never find them as spacious again. CLIA expects passenger volume to soar to 39.5 million by 2027, making cruising one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry. And occupancy rates, as reported in the financial releases of cruise lines, are soaring. 

The cruise industry is projecting a big return in 2023 from pandemic lows.
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As an example of how handily the industry has come about, Royal Caribbean Group pegged its occupancy rate at 57.4% in early 2022, and it rose to 102.1% in the first quarter of 2023.   

Cruise lines report more than 100% occupancy when there are more than two passengers to a cabin, and they often overbook expecting that some reservations will be canceled. 

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings reported a 101.5% occupancy rate and forecasts a 103.5% rate for the full year.

“Last week we reached the biggest milestone yet in our Great Cruise Comeback as Norwegian Spirit, the last ship in our fleet to resume sailing, welcomed guests on board in Papeete, Tahiti,” said Norwegian President and CEO Frank Del Rio in a press release earlier this month. “We are encouraged that consumer demand remains robust with net booking volumes not only back to pre-Omicron levels but now approaching historical levels despite a temporary retreat due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” 

Carnival Corp. said it expects 100% occupancy this year. It had been as low as 54% in the first quarter of 2022. 

"We are enjoying a phenomenal wave season, achieving our highest ever quarterly booking volumes and breaking records in both North America and Europe,” Carnival CEO Josh Weinstein said in releasing financial results at the end of March.

The cruise industry comeback has meant a rebound for travel agents, too. Stellhorn said her agency’s bookings were up 30% last year over 2019, which was its best year in 34 years, and this year sales are even higher.

“Cruise loyalists are absolutely comfortable sailing again,” said Jessica Griscavage, a travel advisor and founder of Runway Travel in Springfield, Va.. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand … and these ships are absolutely filling up.”

Griscavage said she’s seen a sharp demand for excursions to exotic locations.

“People had been putting off their bucket-list trips, but  they’re not putting off trips to Galapagos, Antarctica or harder-to-get regions anymore.”

To be sure, not everyone has forgotten the pandemic and its grueling toll on the cruise industry. “After Covid, we made a business decision to no longer sell cruises,” said Sarah Kline, president of Time for Travel in Davidsonville, Md. “It was just such a  mess during Covid, and how everything was handled.”

She’s now focused on land-based travel arrangements and serving rising demand for all-inclusive resorts.  “We decided to focus on what was more stable and profitable,” she said.

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