Operators report buoyant bookings in the new year period, as Clia is tipped to reveal a return to UK cruise passenger growth last year. Hollie-Rae Merrick reports
Cruise lines are expecting to prosper in the UK market this year as many brands attribute a record-breaking January to the efforts of the trade.
Industry bosses have also applauded agents for their attempts to grow UK passenger numbers in 2015, following a 5% dip in ocean passengers in 2014.
While the official figures for last year are yet to be revealed by cruise industry body Clia, many senior cruise executives have hinted at growth.
In addition, industry analyst GfK puts cruise sales for 2016 up 1% year on year for bookings made between Boxing Day and February 6, with an average selling price of £1,402. GfK’s figures represent about 40% of the UK ocean cruise market, mainly high street bookings but not cruise specialists’ or cruise lines’ direct sales.
GfK’s figures also show a surge in bookings for 2017, with sales more than twice those of the same period last year. The average selling price for 2017 is £2,394.
This year the cruise industry will see a surge in capacity, with 10 ocean ships and 20 river ships due to launch. Cruise line bosses said the strong start to 2016 had been spurred by demand for these new ships, which include Carnival Vista, Thomson Discovery, Seven Seas Explorer, Koningsdam and the 5,400-berth Harmony of the Seas.
Fraser Ellacott, customer operations director at Thomson, said the arrival of Thomson Discovery, which joins the fleet in June, had “been an absolute dream”, causing a stir among new and old customers.
“The cruise side of our business is doing well and we expect it to be even stronger as we modernise the entire fleet,” he said. “Cruise is a big growth area for our business.”
Wave period sales
While a number of cruise line bosses declined to reveal growth figures for the wave period, others reported an increase in bookings of almost 50%. The positive start to the year follows a tougher wave period in 2015, when a number of lines admitted the start of the year had been slower than anticipated.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Princess Cruises and MSC Cruises all described January as a record‑breaking month for sales.
Princess bookings were up 40% on last year, with sales through the trade up 50%. Chris Barnaville, head of commercial and customer service, said demand for sailings in Asia was particularly strong in the UK market, second only to demand for its cruises in Europe.
“The flexibility of repackaging means we do very well through the trade,” he said.
Jo Rzymowska, UK managing director of Celebrity Cruises, said Alaska and Asia had been “exceptionally popular”, and that trade reaction to the line’s new winter-sun cruises from Abu Dhabi, starting later this year, had been “pleasing”.
Regent’s head of sales Paul Beale attributed its record January to “extremely good deals in the market, and excitement around Seven Seas Explorer”.
Giles Hawke, executive director of MSC Cruises, said the line had achieved “great volume and strong pricing”. He said he was confident that summer would perform strongly, adding that early signs for next winter were “very promising”.
Hawke said MSC’s “double‑digit growth” for this winter compared with winter 2014-15 was very positive in light of the line dropping its popular Canaries programme and replacing it with an inaugural season sailing out of Cuba.
Royal Caribbean International said it had built on the “good momentum from November and December” around the time when the line revealed new branding and a TV ad campaign.
Sales director Ben Bouldin said: “We’ve seen a real upturn in the performance from the high street and a lot of new-to-cruise [customers] are coming from that.”
Iain Baillie, UK boss of Carnival Cruise Line, said the brand was on track to finish 50% up year on year for the first two months of the year.
The lines insisted prices were holding firm despite criticism
last month by agents that other retailers were discounting heavily during the turn-of-year period (Travel Weekly, January 14).
Agents claimed discounting was rife and on par with levels seen prior to Carnival UK slashing commission in 2012.
Baillie said prices were holding strong and claimed there had been growth in longer sailings, allowing for higher average selling prices year on year.
In the river cruise market, Angela Waite, UK sales manager at APT, said there had been “a leap in demand” for longer sailings, with European cruise bookings of more than 15 nights up 30% year on year.
She said the line had also seen a 15% rise in sales by agents booking APT for the first time.
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