The rebound has caught even the most optimistic by a surprise. In 2020, almost as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak began, the global cruise industry found itself in the eye of the storm as viral outbreaks were reported from several ships, with hundreds or even thousands of passengers aboard.
The imagery of large cruise ships like Diamond Princess or Grand Princess, carrying thousands of passengers and crew, stranded at sea for weeks, even as the virus was spreading onboard, causing as much panic on the ship as in the ports nearby, was a dreadful one, leading most experts to write off cruise industry’s return to normalcy for many years to come.
But come 2022, as soon as many countries began removing restrictions on travel, especially cruises, the rush of travellers opting for a cruise vacation entirely contradicted the conventional wisdom and general consensus about the sector’s slow crawl out of the pandemic-induced spiral.
Encouraged by the unexpectedly good response, most cruise operators lost no time in revising their forecasts, in the short-term, mid-term and the long-term.
“As the industry resumes operations, passenger volume is expected to recover and surpass 2019 levels by the end of 2023, with passenger volumes projected to recover 12 pc above pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2026,” said Kelly Craighead, President and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the largest body of cruise industry, representing almost 95 pc of the industry.
Craighead made her forecast as early as April, 2022, indicating the sharp rebound that the industry had witnessed over the preceding few months.
Underlying the renewed buzz and confidence in the cruise industry were the findings of a survey that had been released by CLIA on the occasion. The survey showed that the intent to cruise amongst potential travellers was rebounding strongly, after having remained muted for a long time. About 63 pc of cruisers or potential cruisers indicated they were ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ to cruise in the next two years. Not only the old-timers but cruises seemed to be attracting even new customers as 69 pc of respondents that have never cruised said they were open to cruise, much higher than the pre-pandemic levels. Millennial cruisers showed most enthusiasm about taking another cruise, with 87 pc indicating they would take a cruise in the next few years, followed by Gen X at 85 pc.
Not surprisingly, cruise company bosses announced bumper numbers when reporting their performance for the year 2022. For instance, Norwegian Cruise Line reported 87 pc occupany in last quarter of 2022, with forecast of achieving 100 pc occupancy in Q1 2023 and 103.5 pc for the full year. Not only was it selling more cruises, but also at higher rates as the revenue per passenger cruise day was 23 pc higher than in 2019.
NCL says that it entered the year with a record cumulative booked position of approximately 62 pc for full year 2023 and at higher prices than 2019 at a similar point in time and its advance ticket sales balance at USD 2.7 billion was 30 pc higher than at year-end 2019.
The situation was not far different from other leading cruise operators, for whom the bonanza of 2022 and 2023 is extremely timely as they accumulated billions of dollars in debt during the months of closure.
India: Sleeping giant awakens
While the boom in cruise has stemmed from the traditional markets of United States and Europe, one of the surprisingly strong markets in 2022 was India. Historically, it has been a very small market for cruise tourism, with the segment appealing only to a very small niche market, with most studies putting the market size between 250,000-400,000 passengers a year, which pales into insignificance when compared with total number of people taking cruise around the world, about 30 million in 2019, as well as the number of outbound travellers from India, about 22 million in 2022.
Despite the puny size of the market, destinations as well as cruise operators have been looking eagerly at India, especially since global tourism revived post-pandemic.
The reason behind this renewed or growing interest is a booming market. Even before the pandemic, the Indian market had been recording astounding growth rates. For instance, the number of Indians taking cruise overseas jumped from 221,000 in 2018 to 312,600, a 41 pc growth in the year. Though the market slumped to a meagre 45,700 in 2020, it raced ahead to 122,600 in 2021, even before India had restored international flights.
With a growth of over 168 pc, perhaps one of the fastest in the world, even under the shadow of Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian cruise market is definitely sizzling and that is the primary reason why destinations and cruise operators are scrambling to reinforce their position in India.
Travel Boutique Online (TBO) is one of the largest travel distribution platforms in India. Deepak Sharma, Sales Manager, Cruises-India, at TBO says that one of the reasons to explain the rapid growth of Indian cruise market is exposure to an increasing number of domestic cruise companies.
‘‘Domestic cruise tourism has been imperative in promoting and taking cruise to the reach of many new travellers. Also, the average age of an active cruiser in India is low as compared to other parts of the world and now, slowly the average duration of an Indian cruise holiday is going up. As per the statistics, previously 73 pc of cruise clients preferred to opt for up to 3-night sailings only and now that percentage has gone down to 55 pc. Therefore, clients are now open to longer sailings,’’ Sharma tells India Outbound.
Sharma lists the factors that could be driving the growth of Indian cruise market. “It offers you a multiple generation travel option and all that with the budgets that suit your pocket. Apart from FIT and leisure travel of individual and family, cruise has emerged as a great option for corporate MICE, weddings and landmark anniversary celebrations. So for the coming years, the cruise industry is very hopeful, as now the market seems to be a bit aware about cruises and thanks to media, both social and print, clients today are aspiring to see themselves doing a cruise vacation,’’ says Sharma.
All the major cruise operators are present in India either directly or through DMCs and have launched various packages for the Indian market. The main pitch of a cruise line in India is the same as in other markets, the overall experience that a cruise offers.
Manoj Singh, Country Head India, Norwegian Cruise Line, says that a cruise offers just the kind of experience that many Indians seek. “There is a hunger among travellers to tick off their travel bucket lists and go on experiential vacations that allow them to bond with each other while indulging in multiple activities. Cruising offers all this and much more! You can choose to dine, dance, relax with onboard activities and explore diverse port destinations around the world. A recent survey conducted by Hansa Research on behalf of NCL found that 8 in 10 urban Indian families who are planning to travel internationally are considering a cruise holiday in the next 12 months with 79 pc Indians wanting to travel with their families. For 78 pc of the respondents, travelling to create memories was their vacation goal, while 65 pc said they travel to visit different places and experience something new,’’ Singh tells India Outbound.
The company is banking on keeping its clients, including the Indian visitors, hooked with new offers and new ships. “2023 will mark the debut of Norwegian Viva, the second ship in our new Prima Class. She will sail breath-taking Mediterranean itineraries departing from Lisbon, Athens (Piraeus), Rome (Civitavecchia) and Venice (Trieste) and will mirror the upscale design and structure of her record-breaking sister ship Norwegian Prima. The Prima Class will include four more ships to be delivered over the coming years. We will also continue our investment in travel trade in India, developing tools and resources that will help travel partners maximise their selling potential,’’ says Singh.
NCL’s rival Royal Caribbean has been present in India for a while through its exclusive sales agency Tirun Travel Marketing, whose CEO Ratna Chadha says that even though the market size was relatively smaller, the growth has been impressive and promises to be better going forward.
‘‘India has thus far never been a large cruise market due to its own compulsions. At best there have been about 220,000 people approximately who have gone for cruise ex-India, and within this segment it has been mainly to Singapore. Even so, 2019, pre-Covid was a great year for us. The popular destinations were Singapore of course, with the Mediterranean Europe being a close second and Alaska. Booking class differs per destination but most normally opt for balcony staterooms and above. Value of the cruise is relative to the destination however, the average for a balcony stateroom works out to about USD 150 per person, per day,’’ Chadha, CEO tells India Outbound.
‘‘People are keen to cruise with friends and family, realising the importance of bonding with their loved ones and more essentially, spending quality time together. A cruise vacation and specially a Royal Caribbean Cruise vacation lends itself to this environment, allowing families quality time, without liberty for members to go off in different directions, when the ship is sailing. The best vacation therefore, is on cruise ship like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, that allow our passengers to maximise their time, the most perishable commodity today!’’ says Chadha.
One of the newest kids on the block is Resorts World Cruises, headquartered in Singapore. Naresh Rawal, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Resorts World Cruises (India) says that his company’s primary focus is India as Singapore is one of the homeports for the one of its ships Genting Dream and hence business from India market is very much focused on the FlyCruise sector, which contributes a sizeable amount of the overall passenger growth.
As a Fly-Cruise destination, Singapore is a popular choice among many Indian travellers, which is further complemented by our 2-night and 3-night cruises to Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and soon Phuket with regular cruises starting in early May 2023. There is an increasing demand for cruises as many are now discovering the convenience and value of a cruise, which is inclusive of food and beverages at selected venues, entertainment and recreational activities,’’ Rawal tells India Outbound.
Resorts World Cruises is a brand extension of Resorts World, a global brand with over 46 properties in eight countries and four continents. Launched in June 2022, the cruise operation leverages the hospitality segment that attracts over 80 million visitors a year and has over 30,000 employees. The latest property of company that opened was USD 4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas in 2021.
Genting Dream, its first ship with capacity to host 3,352 passengers, undertook its maiden voyage from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. On March 10, it added another ship to its fleet, Resorts World One, that can host 1,856 passengers and will homeport at Hong Kong, another popular destination for Indian travellers.
It is not just Resorts World Cruises that is excited about the arrival of Resorts World One. Hong Kong Tourism Board is also eagerly awaiting the new ship as it could play a big role in revival of tourism to the territory that has just begun to reopen after three years of total closure to international tourists.
‘‘I think the good news for India market is that Resorts World Cruises will deploy their ship with a homeport in Hong Kong from March 10 and they will have three weekly sailings. Indians are very familiar with the cruise and we think Hong Kong would be very attractive proposition for them to add land and cruise holiday,’’ Puneet Kumar, Director, South Asia & Middle East, Hong Kong Tourism Board tells India Outbound.
Though a late entrant to the game, Resorts World Cruises is banking on the legacy of its Asian roots. “Over 50 years of affiliated valuable experience in hospitality and cruising enabled us to understand and cater to the various Asian market best, including India. We are able to customise offerings that will appeal to the Indian markets, such as vegetarian and certified Jain food and beverages, special on board events like Box Cricket or Bollywood nights as well as customised shore excursions,’’ says Rawal.
Smooth sailing in Singapore
As in other segments of travel, a large number of tourists from India opt for South East Asia as a cruise destination. For long, Singapore has been the most favourite spot for Indians looking to board a cruise or for those on a vacation. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, over 1.42 million Indians headed to Singapore each year, making it one of top 3 source markets for the City-State.
The return of tourists after the pandemic is picking up as in 2022, Singapore received about 686,000 Indian visitors, which made it the second largest market.
“Notwithstanding the global headwinds and inflationary pressures that will continue to influence global international travel, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) expects the Indian outbound travel into Singapore to continue to grow in 2023 and beyond. The robust air connectivity between India and Singapore, with direct nonstop flights from 16 key cities across India, makes it easier than ever before for travellers from India to enjoy Singapore’s suite of dynamic, game-changing destination offerings,’’ G B Srithar, Regional Director, India, Middle East, South Asia & Africa, Singapore Tourism Board tells India Outbound.
Srithar says that cruising out of Singapore has always been a popular programme among Indian families, especially those with kids, and MICE corporate incentive trips and India was Singapore’s top source market for cruise tourism. He adds that Singapore’s position as a regional cruise hub strengthened in 2022, with more than 230 ship calls, including by the two yearround home-ported cruises Genting Dream by Resorts World Cruises and Spectrum of the Seas by Royal Caribbean.
“We believe that there is tremendous potential to grow the cruise tourism segment, and we will continue to enhance our efforts to increase Singapore’s appeal as a destination of choice. STB, along with its trade partners, will continue to promote this in the Indian market, focusing on Fly Cruise Packages encouraging Indian travellers to enjoy the best of both worlds, on land and sea,’’ says Srithar.
Keeping an eye on expanding its footprint, Singapore has launched a Cruise Development Fund (CDF) to motivate cruise liners to make Singapore their homeport. The country is also investing USD 380 million in modernising its state-of-the-art cruise centre, says Srithar.
Jamaica : Cruising the Caribbean
Across the globe from Singapore and Hong Kong, in the Caribbean, sits another destination that is renowned for its cruises. Of the nearly 2.7 million international visitors that Jamaica received in 2019, 1.56 million were cruise passengers. The Jamaican cruise industry was devasted by the global pandemic, with ports completely closed during the period of Covid-19. However, the destination has recovered smartly since reopening in mid-2021, says Donovan White, Director of Tourism, Jamaica.
“We started to see a few scheduled calls to our ports which picked up momentum as the sector reopened. Jamaica registered 551 port calls in 2018, our last best year before the pandemic. This declined to 478 in 2019, then 158 in 2020 which took place before the heights of the pandemic. Once cruising resumed the destination recorded 49 port calls in 2021 with expectations that the sector would not recover for some three years. With 313 calls registered in 2022, Jamaica as a cruise destination has shown its true mettle and resilience,’’ White tells India Outbound.
White goes on to say that the recovery is set to continue as about 350 cruise port calls are forecast for calendar year 2023 based on cruise line schedules published. “Though still registering below 2018 port calls, a reduction of 201 calls, cruise ship arrivals are showing a steady increase to the destination, as 2023 projections are a sturdy 12 pc increase on the previous year. The return of cruise shipping to our harbours registered yet another signal of confidence in Brand Jamaica and the ongoing recovery of the industry. The global cruise industry proved its resilience by bouncing back nicely in 2022, driven primarily by pent up demand, a trend that is expected to continue through 2023,” White adds.
He says that Jamaica is witnessing an increased interest in homeporting, with TUI considering a second vessel homeporting in Port Royal, Kingston, while German cruise line Aida Cruises continues to homeport in Montego Bay. “With more cruise ships choosing Jamaica for homeporting, we have witnessed an increase from 25 pc to 40 pc in pre or post cruise extension visits. Our marketing activities in India and the MENA region strategically pose ideal opportunities to expose the brand and the visitor experience to the destination. Travellers considering land based experiences but open to cruise can gain exposure to the appeal of the destination and access the ease of a Caribbean cruise from the shores of the destination,” says White.
Tantalising Turkiye & Splendid Spain
Besides South East Asia, a large number of Indian tourists also opt for Europe, especially the countless opportunities for cruise in the Mediterranean Sea. Besides, the traditional destinations like Italy, Greece, France and Spain, one destination that has emerged as a strong player in the last few years is Turkiye. The number of cruise passengers arriving in the country exceeded the 1 million mark in 2022, travelling aboard the 991 cruise ships that docked at Turkish ports throughout last year.
“Cruise tourism has been increasing demand in recent years. Parallel to the cruise tourism and passenger growth in the world, there is a significant increase in cruise tourism in Türkiye as well and Türkiye has become an important destination for cruise tourism. Türkiye is surrounded by seas on three sides and offers favourable conditions for cruise tours with its rich history, culture, nature, geographical location and climate,’’ Cüneyt Yavuzcan, Consul General of Türkiye in Mumbai tells India Outbound.
Yavuzcan adds that the most popular cruise ports are around İstanbul, İzmir, Kuşadası, Marmaris, Bodrum, Antalya, Çeşme, Sinop, Çanakkale, Bartın, Bursa, Aydın and Trabzon. Of these, the Kuşadası received the highest number of tourists, followed by İstanbul, Bodrum, İzmir, Antalya and Çeşme.
“Located at a very strategic and convenient point with its historical, cultural and natural beauties, Türkiye is also very close to the destinations preferred by cruise ships in the Mediterranean basin. Passengers have opportunities to visit different ports and cities on a particular route. After the opening of İstanbul Galataport, world-famous cruise companies have added Turkish ports to their routes. Galataport is a cruise port and mixed-use unit with a 1,200-metre coastline in the city centre. The site, which cost USD 1.8 billion, opened in April 2021 after being delayed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The port has a goal of welcoming 25 million visitors per year, including 1.5 million cruise passengers,’’ says Yavuzcan.
Across the Mediterranean, Spain is also an increasingly popular destination for Indian visitors, including those looking for a cruise, before pandemic derailed travel entirely, though there has been a strong revival in 2022. “Spain was indeed becoming a sought-after European destination for India during the prepandemic era. Indian arrivals to Spain were showing a very progressive trend during the years leading to 2019 with more than 210,000 visitors each in the years 2018 and 2019. The arrival numbers in 2022 are clearly showing signs of a robust recovery towards pre-pandemic results with more than 122,000 arrivals registered in 2022 as per latest available data, which is almost 4.5 times of the arrivals registered in 2021,’’ says Elisa Robles Fraga, Director, Tourism Office of Embassy of Spain in India, tells India Outbound.
Fraga adds that though the demand for cruise from India still represents a niche, it is a segment that would be promoted in the market. “Spain indeed offers a great experience when it comes to cruises. Cruise tourism – especially across Mediterranean sea along its city points such as Barcelona, Valencia and Malaga, for example – is an important tourism product that remains popular among the Indian travellers. Spanish coastal cities themselves offer a wide variety of exciting experiences which could be enjoyed at the same time. However, given the sheer size of Indian market, it still remains a relatively niche product which we would continue promoting through a combination of physical events and digital platforms,” says Fraga.
New passengers & new destinations
As the Indian cruise market evolves and matures, the profile of the traveller is also changing. While traditionally the cruise passengers from India have been the older age groups, cruise operators, travel agents and destinations report that the profile is evolving and cruises are increasingly attracting younger tourists from India, including millennials.
‘‘The Fly-Cruise segment is evolving and expanding to a larger set of demographics, as we start to see a wider spectrum of travellers from a younger age having an interest to cruise from India. In addition, we observed younger families with kids, couples, multi-generation families and also MICE groups opting for a FlyCruise from Singapore on the Genting Dream. We are optimistic of the continued growth as travel restrictions gradually return to the norm’,’ says Rawal of Resorts World Cruises.
“At Resorts World Cruises, we remain optimistic of the cruise industry in 2023 and beyond as we continue to adopt a wholistic and realistic approach in our operations based on the evolving global situation. However, 2023 will still relatively be a transition year with a higher pace of growth. As travel options gradually increases and return to norm, vacationers will have more travel options boosting the Fly-Cruise segment. It will take some time for it to reach the pre-Covid peak of 2019, but we are heading towards a positive and right direction,’’ adds Rawal.
TBO’s Sharma says that Indians are now seeking unique destinations like the Arctic and the Antarctic and are also opting for longer cruises, that allow them greater value in terms of costs, experiences and convenience. The evolution of the customer profile is set to continue as the Indian customers get a taste of cruising.
‘‘Southeast Asia always gets first time cruise clients having an advantage of closer to home, shorter itinerary and value for money. However, we need to keep in mind that, nobody or very rarely, clients repeat the cruise itineraries. Once someone likes the concept of cruising which is the case with 90 pc of guests, they want to explore different routes of other cruise lines. As we say ‘once a cruiser, always a cruiser’. Europe is the hub of cruising at the current scenario globally, where major cruise liners are deploying their best ships in Iceland/Norway, Western and Eastern Mediterranean during the season which typically ranges from May to October. All the new built ships do their inaugural seasons in these destination because of the demand with high yield,’’ says Sharma.
One of the most significant and perhaps deep-rooted evolution in the cruise travel market is the launch of international services by Cordelia Cruises, the sole Indian operator of cruises that has so far offered domestic cruises, from its homeports of Mumbai and Chennai. Come June and with the second ship in its fleet, Cordelia will launch its first international service, with a cruise to Sri Lanka.
‘‘It was our plan last year to launch services to Sri Lanka, but unfortunately we could not launch it due to the challenging situation that prevailed there then. Now, they have overcome that situation and we are excited about the launch. It is in the interest of Indian government and we are happy to support Sri Lanka by taking a lot of Indian tourists there,’’ Jurgen Bailom, President & CEO of Cordelia Cruises tells India Outbound.
Bailom says that from his experience with domestic cruises that Cordelia has been operating, he has learnt that Indians are still very new to cruises and hence prefer to do 2 or 3 night cruises rather than longer ones and hence for now he is limiting his ambitions for overseas cruise destinations ex-India to the neighbouring nation of Sri Lanka. He says he chose Sri Lanka as the first destination as the country has a lot to offer.
“The reason we are going there is because it is a very beautiful nation, with a lot of wildlife and amazing safaris. I also know that Indians love to go there and also Sri Lanka has a lot of ports fully developed to host cruise ships and the advantage would be that we can go to various parts of the country and the Indian travellers who don’t like to check in and check out every day but still want to travel to different places everyday can have that experience of waking up in a different city every day in Sri Lanka, while staying onboard the cruise ship,’’ Bailom adds.