Cruise passenger numbers hit a record high in 2015 following a slump the previous year, with agents credited for the turnaround.

UK and Ireland ocean passenger numbers surged to 1.78 million last year, cruise association Clia revealed this week.

The figure was up 9% year on year and followed a near-5% dip in 2014, which was the sector’s first decline in more than a decade.

The industry’s focus on attracting new customers in recent years has seemingly paid off with about a third of passengers sailing for the first time last year.

Andy Harmer, Clia’s operations vice-president for Europe and director for the UK and Ireland, said the UK was the fastest-growing market in Europe last year.

He attributed that to the efforts of agents and to new ships sailing from UK ports, including Anthem of the Seas, Britannia and Magellan.

“The 2015 figures show a significant level of growth in the cruise sector,” he said.

“The support and assistance of the agent community is really important and very significant.

“It’s the agents who have those conversations with customers and use their expertise to convert those who may not have sailed before.”

Growth in ex-UK carryings outpaced that for fly-cruises.

The number of passengers starting their cruise from a UK port rose by 12% to 840,000, while fly-cruise passenger numbers rose by 4.9% to 949,000.

Clia claims cruise holidays now represent 10.8% of the package tour market in the UK and Ireland.

The UK remained the third-largest cruise market last year, behind the US and Germany, with the latter’s market growing by a modest 2.3% to 1.81 million.

The river cruise sector also grew, with UK passenger numbers up 8% in 2015 to 150,300.