CLIA says that about 17% of Americans have cruised. That statistic is positioned on the organization's Web site as good news: The industry is profitable and growing, and there's still a large field of potential cruisers.

That does not mean, of course, that 17% of the U.S. population is actively cruising. If their estimate of the number of people who would cruise in 2006 turns out to be correct, the 11.7 million passengers who boarded a ship last year represented a little less than 4% of the U.S. population.

Is that good news or bad? Is it disappointing that only 3.9% of the population cruised last year, or should the industry rejoice that there is still so much potential upside? With an 8.2% per annum passenger growth rate, record profits and significant capacity increases on the horizon, the lines are certainly not feeling much pain.

But the relatively slow rise in the number of new cruisers over the years suggests that growth is fueled in no small measure by repeat cruisers. Depending on the demographic slice being examined, experienced cruisers will represent 54% to 63% of future business over the next three years.

The great unanswered question is: Where does the real potential number of cruisers ultimately top out?

CLIA's 2006 industry overview indicates its targeted demographic for potential cruisers is 25 years and older with a household income of $40,000 or greater. That means 44% of the country, 127 million people, represent unconverted business. Applying those criteria, the 17% of the population that has cruised actually represents almost 40% of targeted potential cruisers.

While that would still appear to leave considerable growth potential, anyone who sells cruises knows that there is a fair percentage of the population over age 25 making more than $40,000 who, fully aware of all the benefits of cruising, will never choose to cruise. My guess -- and I'm an optimist by nature -- is that the 17% of Americans who have cruised actually represents at least 50% penetration of the true universe of potential cruisers.

People have varied reasons for choosing not to cruise, but one reason I eliminated another 10% of the "potential" market is that, in most cases, lines don't need to persuade individuals to cruise; they often need to persuade couples. CLIA estimates that the decision to cruise is made jointly 58% of the time.

I recently spoke with a woman who may belong to the segment of the population that represents the very ceiling of potential cruisers. Before she decided to sail in late October, Elinor Lipman had placed the odds that she would ever cruise at about 50:50. On one hand, she said, "Some people I like and respect are cruise-a-holics," and that piqued her curiosity. But she faced an almost insurmountable "con" that outweighed all the pros: Her husband was uninterested in cruising.

CLIA research indicates that word of mouth is the greatest influence on behalf of cruising, but that sword cuts both ways. If your partner views cruising negatively, a formidable barrier has been erected.

On top of that, both Lipmans were troubled by another result of word of mouth, what she calls "cruise cliches."

"First, there's the image of food, food, food, too much food," she said. "And I had reservations about who I perceived would be my fellow cruisers and didn't want to be stuck at a table with them. I guess it was snobbishness."

This is not the first time that consumers with whom I have spoken indicated, often with undisguised gusto, that snobbishness and lingering stereotypes about cruising are powerful enemies of the industry. What eventually led the Lipmans to decide to cruise was a beyond-the-ordinary circumstance. She's a novelist, and she and her husband were invited by writer community Web site to join a cruise from Boston to Bermuda on the Jewel of the Seas for free, provided she gave one seminar.

Even her anti-cruise husband found a free cruise irresistible, and while not exactly a convert to cruising, he now would at least not rule out another.

In reality, the Lipmans, over 25 years of age with a household income over $40,000, would likely never have paid for a first cruise.

I don't anticipate seeing a "first-time cruisers cruise free" campaign to stimulate business any time soon, so the lines have their work cut out for them if they ultimately want to more than double their existing business. The Lipmans' story suggests where work needs to be done: Cruise cliches are still alive, well and suppressing potential.


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