Passenger Vessels

With River Trips Leading The Way, Cruising Is Making A Comeback

Cruising is bouncing back following a near-total shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, with river cruising leading the way.

Ellen Edmonds, spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association (AAA), said that through March of this year AAA had seen a 76 percent increase in cruise bookings over 2022, according to the travel agency’s proprietary data. Looking specifically at river cruises, AAA saw a 102 percent increase in bookings over last year, she said.

A December 2022 AAA survey found 52 percent of U.S. adults were just as likely or more likely to consider taking a cruise vacation as they were before the pandemic. That number is up from 45 percent in 2021.

“Cruising is back in a big way,” said Paula Twidale, AAA senior vice president of travel. “We expect a lot more people to book cruises in 2023 as several new ships have entered the market. We already saw this in November, which proved to be a record-breaking month for cruise bookings. For many cruise companies, Black Friday was the single largest booking day in history.”

John Groundwater, executive director of the Passenger Vessel Association, the national association representing the interests of the U.S. passenger vessel industry, said the cruising industry has made a comeback, and that people are seeking out boat rides—including day cruises—and waterfronts like never before.

“Rides aboard passenger vessels are really in demand,” he said.

Domestic travel continues to lead international travel, Groundwater said. He added that, throughout the industry, the only segment not seeing expansion is that of commuter ferries, as more people continue to work from home, either full-time or part-time.

He also noted that, in addition to new vessels from American Cruise Lines, the Great Lakes are seeing a renewed interest in cruising, and there has also been an expansion in small cruise ships in Alaska.

The U.S. Cruise Market Report 2022-2026, conducted by Phocuswright and published in Travel Weekly, indicated that cruise bookings this year, including those for international cruises, are projected to come close to 2019 numbers but likely to fall short of pre-pandemic levels until 2024. (Note: Phocuswright and Travel Weekly have the same parent company, Northstar Travel Group.)

The same study projected that 2023 revenue is expected to grow 90 percent over 2022, making this year a significant one for cruise volume recovery. Industrywide, revenue is expected to go from $11.1 billion in 2022 to $21.1 billion in 2023, just short of the $23.4 billion reported in 2019.

The report also noted the addition of 19 new ships this year throughout the industry, and said that through 2027, 75 ships are expected to be delivered.

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) projected a faster recovery, saying in its State of the Industry 2023 report that it had forecast cruise passenger volume to reach 106 percent of 2019 volume in 2023. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) took a more conservative approach in its January 2023 report, suggesting that international tourist arrivals would be 80 to 95 percent of 2019 levels.

In its more recently released second World Tourism Barometer of the Year, UNWTO said cruising is “well on its way” to returning to pre-pandemic levels, with twice as many traveling during the first quarter of 2023 than in the same period of 2022. UNWTO cautioned, however, that the economic situation remains the main factor weighing in on tourism’s recovery, with high inflation and rising oil prices over the peak travel season still a concern as they translated into higher transport and accommodations costs. As a result, UNWTO said, tourists seeking value may travel closer to home.

That could be good news for the domestic cruise market in the U.S., as noted in a market analysis report from Grand View Research. Titled the “U.S. River Cruise Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report by Region (Mississippi, Columbia and Snake River, Alaska, Great Lakes) And Segment Forecasts, 2023-2030,” the analysis said the U.S. river cruise market size was valued at $95.4 million in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compound growth rate of 20.8 percent from 2023 to 2030.

“Increasing river tourism in the U.S. has been driving the demand for river cruise services,” according to the market analysis. “When compared to ocean cruising, river cruising is significantly different since the cruises are smaller, operate closer to the ground and are designed for a more intimate experience. River cruising from one destination to the other often takes place at night, arriving at the next destination in the morning. This gives additional time for travelers to visit other places at the new destination. But sometimes river cruises also sail during the day, allowing travelers to enjoy the scenery and changing landscape during the trip. Such factors are expected to increase the popularity of river cruises among travelers.”

The same analysis said the Mississippi River remains the strongest of all regional segments, with special interest generated concerning Cajun culture in Baton Rouge, La., Civil War history in Vicksburg, Miss., music and barbecue in Memphis, Tenn., the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and “several beautiful small towns and stunning scenery along the way.”