Surprise! Cruise Bookings Continue to Rise for 2021

Devoted cruisers are chomping at the bit to return to the seas and rivers. Their options are extremely limited this year, so many of them are making plans to sail in 2021.

And so, even despite the coronavirus pandemic, cruise companies and agency networks say bookings for 2021 are rising, giving the industry a much-needed ray of hope for recovery.

In business updates in recent weeks, both Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. said 2021 bookings are “within historical ranges.” In fact, NCLH President and CEO Frank Del Rio said he was “astonished” by the booking strength.

“Given the current global situation and uncertainty, we’ve been both encouraged and humbled by the volume of bookings we’ve been receiving for 2021,” Royal Caribbean CFO Jason Liberty said in the call. “Since our last earnings call, bookings have averaged more than double the levels seen during the first eight weeks of the global cruise suspension.”

He said it is “quite remarkable” that this is taking place with very limited to no marketing activity.

Royal Caribbean Group – which operates Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea – said about 60 percent of the reservations are new, rather than bookings with future cruise credits given to travelers whose cruises were canceled. NCLH said that, as of Aug. 3, about 60 percent of guests requested cash refunds. Most cruise lines offered a premium on future cruise credits (FCC), often an extra 25 percent on top of the amount paid.

The optimism was echoed by top executives at major cruise-selling travel agent networks, who say many bookings are not simply rebooking with cruise credits.

“We are closely tracking our numbers, and five of our bookings are net new, further solidifying the strong relationship that Cruise Planners travel advisors have with their clients,” said Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of Cruise Planners.

Drew Daly, senior vice president and general manager of Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., said the companies are “seeing solid momentum for 2021 bookings overall as compared to the same time last year,” and that about 60 percent of bookings are new and not from FCCs.

Where are the new bookings coming from? Del Rio said it was “a very loyal customer base” across the three brands NCLH operates – Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises – not to mention pent-up demand.

Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said he is seeing a “huge response” from loyalty customers and particular strength in summer 2021 bookings – likely from people who had to cancel summer vacations this year.

“When you look at our bookings by quarter in 2021, there’s a lot of activity as we move into the summer,” Bayley said during the Aug. 10 conference call. “And I think a lot of people have written off this summer. They’ve decided that there’s not going to be a big summer vacation for all of the reasons that we know. But people certainly want to have a vacation next year. And I’m kind of hopeful that we’re going to see a nice bump in 2021 because people want to go and have a great vacation. And certainly, when you look at our bookings for 2021 the summer, the summer seems to be pretty popular.”

Fee said Cruise Planners is “seeing a similar summer-travel trend that Michael Bayley mentioned with Europe and Alaska leading as top destinations for 2021.”

Meanwhile, across the pond where cruising has restarted, barge cruising specialist European Waterways said it is experiencing “brisk business” for 2020 – and more so for next year. Advance bookings for 2021 are currently up 170 percent compared to last season, the company said, including more than 90 percent of Americans who rescheduled for next year after their cruises were canceled due to government border restrictions.

“Travelers want to travel,” said Derek Banks, managing director of European Waterways. “In the age of social distancing, hotel barge cruising is in the right place at the right time. We sail the picturesque canals and waterways through often unspoiled countryside, in the less populated regions of the country. Since most boats hold just six to 12 guests, social distancing is easier, if necessary, with exclusive excursions and private tours arranged during less crowded times. Families and small groups often book the whole vessel and have it all to themselves.”

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