Andrea Zelinski
Andrea Zelinski

As pandemic regulations begin to relax, Wall Street analysts, travel advisors and the world's largest cruise company are offering differing, and sometimes contradictory, views of what the cruise comeback looks like.

Robin Farley, cruise analyst for UBS, has a sunny outlook. After catching up with one of the largest U.S. cruise sellers, she noted that bookings are returning nicely: Volume is still down from 2019, but for the first time since the pandemic, close-in departures were firming up in March. One large seller, she said, "sees this strength in close-in sailings as 'huge' since most strength had been for cruises more than six months out, and this is a sign that demand is firming up now."

However, like many sectors, that demand is being challenged by labor shortages. Farley cited a large cruise seller who said he can't hire enough staff to cover the phone lines and has had to let some calls go unanswered. Volume from that seller is down 22% from this time in 2019, in part from those unanswered calls, but is better than three weeks ago, when the seller was down 32%, and late January, when it was down 60%.

Cruise lines are yearning for a sense of normalcy. Although European bookings are down, Farley said, a result of the war in Ukraine, other bookings are strong enough to feel like its Wave season. Bookings for Q3 are up 20% and Q4 up 29%. In particular, she said, volumes for the Caribbean and Alaska were "extraordinarily strong" in the last few weeks.

Her report dovetailed with Carnival Corp.'s first-quarter business update last week, during which it said that it is "feeling the effect of an extended Wave season" and has recently seen its three best weeks of bookings since resuming operations last summer.

"In fact, we're already achieving occupancies in the month of March that are nearing 70%, with nearly 40 sailings exceeding 100% occupancies," said CEO Arnold Donald.

Farley's findings, and Carnival's update, were rosier than those of Truist securities analyst Patrick Scholes, who said demand is "disappointing," even to popular destinations.

Overall bookings for 2023 were a "bright spot" several months ago, he said, but the booking pace compared to 2019 sailings has decelerated over the last eight weeks, he said.

And while Carnival Corp. has seen improving trends in weekly booking volumes, Scholes argues that improvement is due to more ships sailing and heavy promotional activity, along with a lack of negative news headlines and the "very attractive" value for cruises versus land-based trips. While those are positive developments, he notes other trends are worth worrying about.

"The most concerning and surprising observation over the past eight weeks was the large deceleration in booking volumes for the very important Alaska summer sailings," he said.

I asked Steve Orens, president of Plaza Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif., to weigh in on business in his shop. "It's really crazy how busy it is," he said, adding that his team is immersed in bookings and new phone calls, although he doesn't expect this year's number to beat those of 2019.

Like Scholes, Orens is finding Alaska is "not as hot as it used to be" but notes there is a lot of pent-up demand in general. The day after a contractor came to fix his bathroom, an email from that contractor's friend popped up asking for help booking a cruise and airfare to Europe.

Referrals, he said, are just coming through the door now. That’s a change from the past two years, when people were figuring out the logistics on their own, without an agent.  "They got so left on their own during the pandemic," he said.

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