Andrea Zelinski
Andrea Zelinski

Something caught my ear on the Royal Caribbean Group Q1 earnings call last week, and it was talk of a comeback of new-to-cruise customers. 

After a pandemic that early on included a stream of headlines about high-profile Covid outbreaks, there was fear that cruise lines would struggle to attract people who weren't already familiar with what a cruise vacation meant. Indeed, when I meet people in my daily life and tell them what I do, many of them cringe at the idea of being on a cruise in a pandemic world. One friend posted on my Facebook page, "be safe."

Attracting new cruisers has always been important in an industry that competes against land-based vacations. According to CLIA, 11.9 million Americans cruised in 2019, which represents just 3% of the population. That leaves lots of room for growth.

In the last quarter of the year, that growth was struggling. Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley said during that earnings call that first-time cruisers had lagged four to six weeks behind repeat cruisers. Essentially, as the Delta variant faded, loyalty customers came back and first-timers followed a month or so later.

But in the first quarter of 2022, the picture has changed, Royal Caribbean Group's vice president of investor relations, Michael McCarthy, said last week.

"That's really shifted now and we're moving back into a far more normal environment where we see new-to-cruise returning," he said during the earnings call. "It helps with that fact that we've got great products that really do attract new-to-cruise," such as new ships and Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay private destination, which the line expects will see more than 2 million guests this year.

Royal Caribbean Group CEO Jason Liberty echoed McCarthy's comments. "Cruise consideration is the highest it has been in two years and nearing pre-pandemic levels, with the most significant recovery among those new to cruising," he said.

Royal Caribbean isn't alone in seeing a comeback of curious potential future cruisers. At the Seatrade Cruise Global conference in Miami last month, Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald said that like other cruise companies he was aware of, "we're booking new-to-cruise, as well."

Last week on the Azamara Onward in the Mediterranean, I brought a friend who had never cruised before. The avid traveler roamed the port towns, snapped pictures of our adventures and bought souvenirs for her kids at home. She left the ship saying her family should book a cruise for their next big get-together.

As more cruise companies report their Q1 earnings, we'll find out how universal this new-to-cruise comeback is and whether consumers' pandemic-era hesitance to cruise is fading.

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