American Cruise Lines' Charles Robertson on this year's domestic demand

When travelers were staying close to home during the pandemic, demand for domestic, small-ship cruising was stronger than ever, said American Cruise Lines CEO Charles Robertson. It was so strong that the line ordered a dozen vessels for delivery over the next four years. Cruise editor Andrea Zelinski spoke with Robertson about the line’s bullish expansion plans and why he expects the market for such cruises to grow more, even with most Covid restrictions lifted and international destinations mostly reopened.

Charles Robertson

Q: During the pandemic, people traveled more close to home. How has that demand evolved for American Cruise Lines?

A: We see that trend sticking around. When it initially came up, it was very medically driven. As it’s lasted, and as the demand has lasted, it shifted back to the real tourism advantages of small ships and domestic travel. The pandemic, in a way, helped people become exposed to small ships as an option and garner a genuine interest in what they offer, not just about the medical or sanitary advantages. That’s a big part of why this Wave season is strong. We do see that demand lingering, and we’ve been building more ships because of it.

Q: Have you experienced any drop-off in bookings, given that people are able to travel internationally again?

A: Really, no. I think it was sort of a “rising tide lifts all boats.” As the demand for travel generally was coming back, people are increasingly comfortable going abroad. But that also meant more people who weren’t comfortable traveling at all were now getting comfortable traveling domestically. We didn’t suddenly see people no longer wanting to travel here at home. They want to go abroad. It was just this expansion of the entire population interested in travel.

Q: American Cruise Lines went on a building spree during the pandemic. What do you have coming online?

A: This year, we have three new ships coming out, which will be the first year that we’ve ever launched that many: one river and two coastal. That shift back to ocean or small coastal vessels is where the next few years of our building program is really going. Throughout the pandemic, we built four river ships and are really operating all of those in a strong way. It feels like a very big amount of growth since the pandemic since we kept building even when we were shut down.

Q: You’re rolling out a lot of ships over the next couple of years. What does that say about growth for American Cruise Lines?

A: We believe in it. It’s a real priority for us, and it’s based on the demand that we see for the market. Small-ship, domestic travel has a lot of virtues, and it has been growing since before the pandemic, but it’s really taken off since then.

Q: You have three coastal ships sailing the East Coast, and your two new coastal ships will be based there, too. Is business that strong on the East Coast?

A: It is. Our plan is to introduce the new coastal ships over the next few years on the East Coast and then to move some of our existing capacity to the West Coast. Our bigger coastal ships are only 170 passengers and by most metrics a very small ship. There’s one on each coast, and we’d like to get that second boat to the West Coast because it’s really an ideal Alaska boat.

Q: When do you plan to move those ships west?

A: It will not be this year. We do want to grow the total capacity on the East Coast first. We plan to build three boats per year. 

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