In 2018, more people are expected to take to the seas on a cruise ship than before. Elly Earls meets Cindy D’Aoust, Cruise Lines International Association’s president and CEO, to find out what’s driven passenger demand up to these heights and whether the upward trend is set to continue.

This year, 27.2 million passengers are predicted to venture onto a cruise ship, increasing from 17.8 million in 2009, according to research conducted by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise industry trade organisation.

Its latest trend report also forecasts that the next 12 months will see more ‘skipgen’ travel; a greater focus on healthy, sustainable, transformational cruising; an increase in the number of cruisers, particularly millennials; and growth in traveller-friendly on-board technologies.

While the largest source of cruise passengers remains the US, there has also been strong growth in China, Germany, the UK and Australia. One million more cruisers came from these markets in 2016 – and more growth is expected. “We are also seeing massive growth in the Asian cruise market,” says Cindy D’Aoust, CLIA’s president and CEO. “Asian passengers predominantly cruise within Asia on short sailings, making it a promising market for cruise lines looking to branch out into new regions, since the interest is already there.”

Last year, 35 cruise lines had an active presence in Asia; in 2018, overall passenger capacity is expected to reach 3.2 million, a 24% increase from 2015. “Cruising in this region includes more than 204 destinations across 17 countries, making travelling by cruise ship one of the easiest ways to see multiple destinations throughout Asia,” D’Aoust notes.

The year will also see cruise passengers warm up to chilly destinations like Antarctica, where expedition trips frequently sell out.

Expanding ranges

As cruise passengers come from a wider range of markets, the demographics of cruising are broadening, too. CLIA predicts that ‘skip-gen’ trips, where grandparents travel with their grandchildren, but without mum and dad in tow, will be highly popular in 2018 and beyond, due to the wide variety of itineraries and on-board activities offered by cruise lines.

“Many grandparents want to travel with their grandchildren, but as they age, travel can become challenging for a variety of reasons. A cruise is stress-free, great value and fun for the whole family – even with leaving mum and dad at home,” D’Aoust says.

Millennials are also bridging the gap by becoming more interested in cruising, particularly on the river, where operators have been maturing their offers and raising standards over recent years. For example, 2016 saw Crystal Mozart, the first vessel from Crystal River Cruises, set sail on its maiden voyage, garnering a reputation for being the largest and most luxurious river cruise ship in Europe.

Its amenities include an indoor pool and jacuzzi, a spacious gym, an ultrawide sundeck with a retractable bar and two custom-built Italian yachts for private excursions. There are also four restaurants serving fresh, seasonal cuisine inspired by – and sourced from – the regions and cities along its Danube route, which covers destinations such as Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava. The Crystal Mozart was swiftly followed by the Crystal Bach, and the Crystal Mahler, Debussy and Ravel will embark on their first river cruises in April and May 2018.

“Millennials are all about customisation and value, which makes a cruise vacation a great fit for many people in this demographic,” D’Aoust believes. “River cruises are a great way to explore parts of the world that aren’t accessible to ocean liners, and they make it easy for millennials who want to travel to see more of the world in a single trip. I anticipate river cruising will continue to grow in the years to come, not only in Europe, but also in other parts of the world.”

Transformative, healthy and sustainable travel

Other trends identified in CLIA’s report include the increasing importance travellers are placing on transformational experiences; from cultural immersion to extreme adventures, they want to return home with a new perspective. There is also a growing number of health and environment-conscious travellers. Examples from across the industry show that operators are responding to these demands in droves.

On the health front, most CLIA cruise lines have gyms and activities on board, and more are offering healthy menus. Special mentions go to Celebrity Cruises for its yoga programme, fitness classes, indoor cycling, personal training and healthy-spa cafes, and Royal Caribbean for the fitness centres on Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, which house everything from free weights, a spinning studio, and fitness classes including TRX suspension training and Pilates.

When it comes to transformational travel, Holland America Line is leading the way with its Explorations Central initiative that is designed to give cruisers more insights into destinations before they arrive, so they can immerse themselves in the culture more efficiently. Meanwhile, the industry is making big strides towards cleaning up its act, according to D’Aoust. “By 2026, there will be at least 87 new vessels in the CLIA community; 13 will be LNG powered and most will be required to be built with low-emission marine engines,” she explains, adding that exhaust-gas cleaning systems are installed on more than a third of CLIA ships, and many new builds will have these systems too.

Making passengers lives easier

The past several years have seen cruise operators invest significantly in high-speed Wi-Fi and mobile apps to meet passenger demand for connectivity and convenience. Unsurprisingly, 2018 will see more of the same, with CLIA predicting a rise in traveller-friendly on-board technologies that enhance travel experiences.

Affordable internet and social media plans are already becoming the norm, and many cruise lines offer apps through which passengers can manage almost every aspect of their cruise, from making restaurant reservations to booking shore excursions . The next steps, as far as Royal Caribbean is concerned, are virtualreality dining, drinks that find passengers wherever they are, boarding via facial recognition technology and a dedicated app that offers keyless room entry, and will also eventually feature a chatbot and other artificial intelligence capabilities.

Not to be outdone, rival Carnival Corporation plans to roll out Ocean Medallions, which will serve as a locating device, room key, on-board charge card and virtual concierge, as well as a tool for generating data about each passenger’s preferences, so their experience can be tailored on more than 100 ships.

It’s all part of the industry’s drive to make cruising as ‘frictionless’ as possible for passengers who have become accustomed to technology in all areas of their lives. “In today’s world, technology and making things easier is no longer a very nice thing to have,” said Royal Caribbean Cruises’ chairman and CEO Richard Fain, speaking at an event in November 2017 at Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York. “The truth is technology is simply something that people expect. It’s an entry requirement; it’s not an option.”

Steady demand for travel agents

Despite the fact that it’s easier than ever for travellers to book their own holidays online, CLIA’s report reveals that travel agents are continuing to see a steady demand from consumers in planning and executing their vacations. Eight out of ten CLIA-certified travel agents stated that they are expecting an increase in sales in 2018 compared with last year – a statistic D’Aoust puts down to travellers’ desire for holidays that meet their specific needs. She also believes that a number of things must happen to ensure travel agent sales remain on this positive trajectory. “The role of the travel agent has really become more complex as the industry has grown over the years. There are now more cruise options for travellers than before, so travel agents now have more areas that they need to be experts in,” she says.

“It’s imperative that travellers are matched with the right cruise vacation to fit their needs and wants, and travel agents are there to be that matchmaker. They must focus on understanding the experience that the traveller is trying to create. From the transportation to the cruise line, the cruise ship [and] the excursions, consumers want an experience that is customised to them.” Travel agents also need to know where to look for customers. “In a recent CLIA survey, travel agents marked social media as the second-best way to attract new cruisers, which shows they recognise the importance that the digital world can play when marketing to new clients,” D’Aoust remarks.

If customers continue to demand flexibility, customisation and a wide range of unique experiences, D’Aoust sees no reason why the growth of the cruise industry shouldn’t continue. “As travellers’ interests continue to evolve, so will cruise vacations,” she predicts. “Ships can be upgraded as needed to fit the requirements of the industry, and cruise lines are constantly introducing new itineraries. The options are endless.”