2020's cruise passenger count plummeted to 5.8m globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, an 81% decrease from the 29.7m in 2019, according to David Selby, managing director of Travelyields.

After the global shutdown in mid-March 2020, the first ships began carrying passengers in July last year, and the momentum is building. But reduced occupancies and other uncertainties make it tough to predict 2021 numbers, Selby said at Seatrade Cruise Global today.

‘I don’t think we’ll know about 2021 until the middle of next year,’ he told Monday’s World Cruise Tourism Summit.

Ship disposals balanced by new berths

The pandemic fueled ship disposals, most notably by Carnival Corp. & plc. Counting all lower berths that exited — and assuming all as weeklong cruises — by Selby’s calculation, the equivalent passenger volume would be 1.6m, around 1.25m of that from the US market.

However, newbuild berth capacity totaled 27,500 lower berths, recouping the berths that were lost through disposals, he added.

6.5m to 7m cruisers?

Selby noted ship occupancies currently approximate 50% to 60%. According to Bermello Ajamil & Partners, by the end of 2021, 75% of lower berths worldwide will be in operation, though not all berths will be occupied.

Selby suggested 2021 could tally 6.5m to 7m passengers, but he’s not putting that out as a forecast because there are so many variables.  

The fact that cruises have been able to operate in Alaska and in the UK will boost 2021 numbers. Some lines sailing from the UK have attracted new customers since it’s been difficult for holidaymakers to travel abroad, and this bodes well for the future.

The great news, Selby added: ‘We know that cruise line protocols are working.’ Significant shipboard outbreaks haven’t happened. Lines are taking a very careful approach.

Not to 2019 levels until 2023, or later?

‘It’s all very encouraging,’ Selby summed up, yet while big increases are predicted for 2022, ‘I don’t see we’ll get back to 2019 levels by at least 2023, and possibly longer.’

Australia is still shut down, and cruising in China will come back more gradually than hoped. It’s possible that new COVID variants could emerge to shake consumer confidence, and the regulatory environment is uncertain.

In 2022, 50,000 new lower berths are set to enter the market. At full occupancy that would add 2.5m passengers, Selby said, then 50 more new ships are scheduled after that, between 2023 and 2027.

‘What goes down must come up’

‘What goes down must come up,’ he quipped.

‘All in all, a steady return beckons, but [cruising] will return. [It’s been a] slow and painful reintroduction, but lines are to be congratulated for making it happen.’

Selby began his presentation by recounting cruising’s strong historic growth.

Pre-COVID forecast had been nearly 44m cruisers in 2027

Some 17.8m passengers were carried globally in 2009, shooting up to 29.7m in 2019, a significant 67% growth. In the five-year span from 2014 to 2019, the industry grew by one-third (7.4m passengers), driven by more newbuilds and growth in China.

Future annual percentage increases projected pre-COVID were impressive. Newbuilds ordered up to 2027 would have taken the market capacity to just under 44m, according to Selby.

Extrapolating on the existing orderbook (which goes through 2027) Selby said passenger count could have been estimated to reach 48.5m in 2031, or almost doubling since 2016.

Access this and many more sessions live and on demand by registering for Seatrade Cruise Global today. Extending further than ever before, Seatrade Cruise Global live is also virtual until Sept. 30, followed by Seatrade Cruise Global 2.0 running Oct. 4-31, including brand new content during the Power Networking week. Learn more and register at www.seatradecruiseglobal.com.