In a milestone for the cruise industry, the number of passengers carried last year topped the 20 million mark for the first time, as the popularity of cruising spread globally.
But the year's growth from 2011 was a subpar 5.1% as fallout from the Costa Concordia incident and economic woes in Europe put a temporary dent in consumer demand.
In total, 20.3 million passengers cruised in 2012, including 17.2 million from North America.
The figures, released by CLIA, include cruise numbers from every world region, reflecting the association's new global structure and emphasis on cruising in emerging markets.
"More and more around the world, we've seen people are interested in cruising as a vacation," CLIA President Christine Duffy said in an annual update on the industry's outlook in New York.
CLIA also used the occasion to announce new European members, saying the Dutch Cruise Council will become CLIA Netherlands and France's AFCC will become CLIA France. It also said it is forming a German CLIA to be based in Hamburg.
With its recent reorganization, CLIA now represents 55 cruise lines, up from 26, Duffy said. The move also brought in 3,000 travel agency members in the U.K. and Australia, raising the total to 17,000.
Twenty new ships worth $8 billion are set to be delivered in the next two years, said Jim Berra, chief marketing officer at Carnival Cruise Lines and the head of CLIA's marketing committee.
"The consumer is bullish on cruising, so that's why you're seeing the growth you see today," Berra said.
Although 2012 smashed the 20 million-passenger barrier, it might not be remembered as a vintage year. Since 1990, when about 3.7 million people cruised, the long-term annual growth rate in passengers has been about 7%, according to research firm Cruise Market Watch.
CLIA used figures from Cruise Market Watch because they are more global than those collected from 2012 members, a spokeswoman said. Previous CLIA numbers tallied cruise passengers in North America, Europe and Australia.
Cruise passenger growth has slowed since 2009, when it hit 8.8%. From there it slipped to 6.9% in 2010 and 4.8% in 2011, before recovering to 5.1% last year, Cruise Market Watch figures show.
To keep the recovery going, Duffy announced several new marketing initiatives.
CLIA will launch a YouTube channel called Cruise TV. It will show video of ports, destinations, onboard experiences and ships, among other subjects. It will initially use content supplied by CLIA members, Duffy said.
Another new communications initiative will be called "Cruise Forward: Vacations That Make a Difference." It will include a website on how the industry affects the environment, community development in port destinations, economic impact and philanthropic activities of the cruise lines.
Even without the new initiatives, the number of cruise passengers is expected to grow to 20.9 million this year and 23.7 million by 2017. Much of that growth will come from Asia, where Berra said capacity growth will be around 300% in the next five years.
"By 2020, the Chinese market is projected to be a $7 trillion consumer economy," Berra said. "As people gain affluence ... they want to see the world and get their passport stamped. Cruising affords them the opportunity to see parts of the world in a way that offers convenience and value that no other travel sector can provide."
Berra highlighted several trends in cruising, including better ship-to-shore Internet communications, new ways of letting passengers use devices to communicate with each other onboard and new ship experiences, such as the Seawalk on Princess Cruises' upcoming Royal Princess.
He also noted the trend for all cruise lines to revitalize and update existing ships and for lines to partner with high-profile brand entertainment such as "Dancing With the Stars," on Holland America Line.
Berra reiterated CLIA's support for travel agents as "the lifeblood and the backbone of our industry."
Berra emphasized how complex it is for consumers to sift through the plethora of brands, ships, prices and destination choices.
"The Web is fantastic, and it can create a ton of information, but that can also lead to some confusion," he said. "You need a trusted adviser to help you navigate that. That's where travel agents can play an incredible role."
In a survey of 600 agents, CLIA found that 68% expect bookings will be comparable or better in 2013.
"They're fairly bullish," Berra said. "They believe things are going to improve relative to 2012."
The survey also found that homeport, price and onboard facilities are the three top issues that consumers factor into their decision about which cruise to take.
Ethnic groups, weddings and honeymooners represent the top three target areas with the most growth potential, the survey said.
Those surveyed also said the window between booking a cruise and the sailing date is getting shorter.
As CLIA announced its new affiliates in Europe, it also said that the head of the former European Cruise Council, now CLIA Europe, was stepping down. Tim Marking had led the council since it was formed in 2004.
Succeeding him as secretary general will be Robert Ashdown, currently director for technical, operational and environmental issues at CLIA Europe.
CLIA also made four other appointments:
- Tomas Matesanz was named communications director for CLIA Europe. He had been a communications consultant in Madrid.
- Barbara Muckermann was named global communications adviser to CLIA. She had been chief marketing officer at MSC Cruises.
- Didier Scaillet will serve as vice president, business development, responsible for CLIA's associate member and executive partner programs. He had been chief development officer at Meeting Planners International.
- Rob Griffiths was named director of technical and regulatory affairs, design and engineering. A former Coast Guard official, he had previously served as a consultant to CLIA.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.