GIVEN the timeless, borderless virtual world we live in these days (ironic in itself I know), I tuned into the Expedia Cruises 2021 Virtual Conference, which set sail around 11.30pm SG time on Tuesday. I was curious to find out what was happening on the other side of the ocean – are people really that eager to get back on the seas, after all that had happened? Are memories that short? Or is it just that people’s travel appetites are just much stronger?

Well, it seems they are – stronger. First, I learnt that when Oceania Cruises announced its 2023 “Around the World in 180 Days” cruise, it sold out within one day on January 27, 2021. Apparently, the cruise, which calls into 96 ports in 33 countries across four continents, saw more than one-third of all bookings come from first time Oceania Cruises guests, a marked change when most guests on world cruises were repeat pre-pandemic.

96 ports, 33 countries, four continents, 180 days – sold in one day. (Image credit: Oceania Cruises)

Referring to
the one-day sale at the media roundtable, Cathy Denroche, director of sales,
Western Canada and Pacific Northwest, Oceania Cruises, said, “It sold out in 24
hours, the entire 180-day cruise. So it wasn’t segments, it was the first time
in our history that we didn’t have to sell segments.

“There’s that huge
pendulum of ‘revenge travel’ – people couldn’t travel in 2020, they couldn’t
travel so far in 2021. And now they’re saying, I’m just going to go for whatever
I can get.”

Then Expedia
shared these data points.

  • The average length of cruise bookings jumped from nine days in Q1 2019 to 11 days in Q1 2021, and the average spend per cabin has also increased by just over 100% for bookings in Q1 2021 compared with bookings in Q1 2019.
  • With US vaccination rates up and more relaxed travel restrictions, 44% of new bookings in Q1 in the US market were for 2021 departures, 20% of which are for this summer.
  • Newly released research also revealed that the desire to cruise spans different age groups too: although Millennials (53%) and Gen Zers (56%) are comparably comfortable with taking a cruise, Millennials (12%) are nearly twice as likely as Gen Zers (7%) to have booked a cruise for some time during the next six months.
  • New research also showed that despite travellers currently spending more per cabin, lower pricing matters more in cruise compared with other forms of travel in some markets. From research that looks at what travellers value the most when booking a trip, cruise travel was the only line of business where travellers from numerous countries ranked low pricing as the top value. Separately, younger generations tend to be thinking more about environmentally-friendly policies when thinking about cruises, most notably with Gen Z in North America ranking it jointly in the second spot after value.

Said Denroche, “What
we’re all seeing is the demand is just so pent up, this pendulum is swinging in
such a huge tsunami … people who have cruised and even new to the brand, they
haven’t lost one ounce of confidence in cruising itself.”

Regardless, to address concerns about the safety of cruising during a pandemic, Charles Sylvia, VP of industry and trade relations at the Cruise Lines International Association, said, “Since July, more than 400,000 passengers were successfully carried by CLIA cruise lines, resulting in fewer than 50 cases, all of which were managed effectively and showing that our new enhanced safety protocols for cruise ships work and they are working, and they’re actually adding to the onboard experience by giving our guests greater peace of mind.”

Sailing back to
Singapore, I was curious to learn more about what’s happening with cruising in
Asia and whether the current wave of Covid transmissions in the region has dampened
future demand.

World Dream’s “Cruise to Nowhere” out of Singapore is attracting a younger customer. (Image credit: The Travel Intern)

Thanks to Covid, cruising has had a breakout moment in Singapore as well as Taiwan – given that the local population has not been able to travel abroad, they have taken to cruises in a big way and this has given cruise companies a captive catchment of first time and younger cruisers as well as the ability to sell online and direct because the cruises during this period come in simple packages – as simple as “cruises to nowhere” in the case of Singapore.

Genting Cruise Lines’ World Dream was the first cruise line in the world to resume cruises during the pandemic, starting with Taiwan in July 2020 followed by Singapore in November 2020; and soon in Hong Kong at the end of July 2021.

Admittedly, the current wave
of Covid infections in the region has affected its operations – Taiwan has been
suspended from May 12 to June 29, and in Singapore, during the Phase 2
Heightened Alert period from May 16 to June 13, it had to reduce passenger
capacity from 50% to 25%.

However, Michael Goh, president, Dream Cruises, said it had minimal cancellations with most bookings translated to postponements. “We continued to enjoy robust sales in June, including bookings close to the 25% limit for selected sailings during that period. Good news is that we had started back to 50% capacity from June 14 onwards and we are receiving bookings and enquiries from existing and new customers.”

In line with the sentiment expressed
in the US around vaccination rollout and testing requirements by local governments,
Goh said it remains optimistic about continued demand for 2021 in its key
markets, even as it remains vigilant to adapt to evolving conditions.

Prior to the suspension, he reported that bookings for Taiwan had been strong with 91 sailings with close to 94,000 guests (July 26, 2020 – May 9, 2021). In Singapore, it had 93 sailings with close to 115,000 guests (6 Nov 6, 2020 – June 13, 2021).

Again as in the US, customer confidence in health and safety onboard is paramount, with Goh saying, “Bookings have been healthy for Dream Cruises as we have demonstrated stringent safety and preventing measures on World Dream and Explorer Dream with no Covid-19 incidents aboard to date, contributing to the confidence level in our brand that had translated to guests continuing to cruise with us.”

Additionally, the company has had to create new offerings for new customers, such as thematic cruises like Rhythm of Korea and Amazing Thailand; and coming up in Singapore from June 20 to September 18, Wonders of Japan on World Dream.

On new
customer trends, Goh said in the Taiwan market, it had observed an increasing
demand for MICE. “Across both the Taiwan and Singapore markets, there is also
an increasing trend in family travel and millennials. We are also widening our
pool of consumers in Singapore through our offerings, appealing to the Muslim
market in Singapore with our certification as the first Halal-Friendly cruise
ship in the region.

“In
Singapore, we are also observing a shift to younger cruisers, first-time
cruisers as more domestic residents are exploring cruising as the best way to
travel in view of the travel restrictions.”

(Indeed, watch this video made by The Travel Intern for a millennial’s take on his cruise to nowhere.)

These
younger cruisers form the new wave of customers that will choose to book
differently from their parents.

Goh
remarked that “we continue to observe strong bookings through our travels
agents, complemented by additional bookings and enquiries through the social
media and website platform due to the digital transformation accelerated by the
global pandemic.”

Certainly, the shift to online was underscored at the Expedia conference as the group rolled out its new digital services to support agents and to serve travellers in the most efficient way possible.

Matthew Eichhorst: “Never felt so much energy.”

Matthew Eichhorst, president
of Expedia Cruises, said: “We’ve never felt so much energy from our partners
and travellers to return to cruising as soon as possible. Almost 70% of the
conference attendees said in a pre-conference survey that the industry will be
back to 2019 demand levels by the end of 2022, so there is great optimism.”

So it seems that no matter which ocean you are on, the cruise industry is off and sailing, and travellers, old and new, are getting back on board.

Featured image credit: The Travel Intern