Cruise lines welcome aboard a growing wave of first-timers


Carnival Corp.’s efforts to cast a “wide net” attracting vacationers who have never cruised before is paying off, said Josh Weinstein, the company’s CEO.

Carnival Corp., which last month reported all-time-high booking volumes along with record first-quarter revenues, saw a surge of 30% more new-to-cruise customers compared with Q1 2023, Weinstein said.

The leader of the world’s largest cruise company attributed the growth in new cruisers to advertising spend, word of mouth now that the company’s ships have returned to high load factors, and the value gap between cruise and land-based vacations.

“Consumers are not stupid. They are looking for value, and they’re looking for experiences that are worth paying for,” Weinstein said. “It’s not pent-up demand. It is truly casting the wide net, having a great experience [to offer] and delivering.”

In addition to capturing more new guests than ever, the line also grew its base of repeat guests, which was up 9% year over year, he said.

New cruisers are something of a Holy Grail for cruise lines as they seek to introduce more travelers to cruise experiences and convert them into repeaters. Weinstein said once someone tries a Carnival Corp. brand, they are expected to sail with them every three to four years.

Royal Caribbean Group has seen similar trends. The group attracted a record number of new guests during the fourth quarter of 2023, CEO Jason Liberty told investors during the company’s earnings call in February. New ships, he said, such as Royal Caribbean International’s Icon of the Seas, which launched in January, help attract those newbies.

“New ships not only elevate our vacation experience and draw new customers to our brands, but they also provide yield tail winds and enhance overall profitability,” he said.

Specifically at Royal Caribbean International, the buzz around the first Icon-class ship has driven growth in both first-time cruisers and consumers new to the brand, said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service.

The particulars of the ship, like its waterpark and neighborhood for young families, are attractive to those segments, she said. Marketing around the ship’s debut and Miami FC soccer star Lionel Messi’s role as godfather of the Icon has also driven awareness and demand, she added.

“There is absolutely no doubt that [Icon] is driving new-to-Royal business. Everybody wants to be on it,” Freed said.

MSC Cruises said new cruisers represent a growing market for the European brand as it expands in North America. Helping attract these customers are the line’s shorter sailings, three- and four-night cruises from its Florida homeports that visit its private island, said Koreen McNutt, senior vice president of sales for MSC Cruises USA.

Weinstein attributed Carnival Corp.’s strong demand among both new and repeat cruisers to consumers’ understanding of the value that cruising offers.

Land-based resorts, he said, often have higher price points without offering the entertainment and meals that cruise ships do. Carnival Corp. has invested consistently in advertising to increase awareness of the products and experiences its brands deliver, an additional tail wind to support bookings, he said.

Weinstein said another motivator driving demand is that the company’s ships are fuller than they used to be, sailing at 102% occupancy in Q1 compared to 91% for the same period of 2023. That means more guests are getting the word out, he said.

“This is the first year [since the pandemic pause] that we’ve really got full capacity,” Weinstein said. “All guests onboard our ships that then get off of our ships and … go tell their friends and their family how amazing it is and help us convince newcomers to come aboard. And so we really are finally back at this point where we have all of those channels and all of those avenues at our back to support the future.”

Several travel advisors said their Q1 business is up over last year. For Michael Consoli, owner of Michael Consoli & Associates, a Cruise Planners franchise in Atlanta, Q1 business is double that of Q1 2023, which he said was a record year for him.

Specifically, his new-to-cruise business is up about 20% over last year.

“I think it’s directly related to the post-Covid demand for travel and the value that cruising offers. Guests are seeing what they can get for the [money], and the value is definitely in cruising,” he said.

Others said their business is also stronger this year than last, but they haven’t seen that same boost in new-to-cruise clientele and suggested cruise advertising may lead new customers to book direct instead of through a travel agent.

Courtesy of Travel Weekly

cruise ship deck