(3:50 p.m. BST) -- For months now, cruise industry executives have been talking about how pent-up demand from travellers will fuel the industry's recovery.
Those predictions are being borne out, as existing and newly-created itineraries are selling out in record time.
P&O Cruises experienced such a high level of demand for its newly-created domestic voyages for UK residents aboard Britannia and Iona this summer that the surge in bookings crashed its corporate website, while Cunard Line experienced its busiest day of reservations in a decade as its UK-only voyages aboard its Queen Elizabeth went on-sale.
"We are delighted by this response from guests and particular thanks to all of our agent partners for their continued work supporting guest bookings," Cunard president Simon Palethorpe said. "We're really looking forward to welcoming guests back on board this summer."
Viking, meanwhile, couldn't even put its three new UK-only departures on official sale before they completely sold out -- and has just added two more due to high demand.
"We had been planning to put three domestic UK sailings of England's Scenic Shores on sale from today, but due to popular demand, they have been fully booked by past guests," a Viking UK representative told Cruise Critic.
Saga -- the first line to mandate everyone be vaccinated -- has seen a 20 percent increase in cruise bookings this year, from £154 million for 2021/22 and 2022/23 combined, compared to £128 million last year.
Future Cruises Selling Well
Beyond these shores, Silversea, which announced its 2023 World Cruise aboard Silver Shadow has entirely sold out and is already waitlisted. The 139-day voyage has been its most successful pre-sale in the company's history -- selling out in a single day.
"We are delighted to have seen unprecedented demand for our World Cruise 2023, South Side Story, which sold out within hours of its general opening," Roberto Martinoli, Silversea's President & CEO, said in a statement. "The most successful World Cruise launch in the history of our cruise line, this triumph pays testament to the strong demand we are seeing in the market, particularly from affluent, sophisticated travelers."
It's the same story with Oceania -- it also sold out its 180-day World Cruise in one day.
"We are thrilled by the wonderful response to these new sailings. It's clear that travelers have been eagerly looking forward to exploring again and are as excited to see Crystal Serenity return to sailing as we are," said Jack Anderson, Crystal's interim president and CEO. "We are incredibly grateful to our loyal Crystal guests and our valued travel partners for their support as we begin to emerge from what has been an unprecedented year for everyone."
Crystal reported nearly 4,000 passengers booked space aboard Crystal Serenity's sailings from Nassau or Bimini that are slated to begin on July 3, 2021. Of particular note, roughly 200 passengers elected to book back-to-back voyages, with some people planning to spend up to 42 days aboard the company's flagship vessel.
Back-to-back voyages, along with voyages over eight days in length, are currently prohibited for all vessels calling on or departing from U.S. ports of call as a result of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s long-standing "Framework for Conditional Sailing" that is in effect until November 1, 2021. Because these sailings depart from the Bahamas and do not touch a U.S. port, back-to-back voyages are permitted by the Bahamian government.
For prospective cruise travellers looking to set sail in the next year, it points to a high-demand market that is looking increasingly competitive. And that means booking early will be more necessary than ever before.
Red-Hot Demand Means Fewer Deals
For cruisers on the fence about booking a voyage into 2022 and 2023, Simone Clark, managing director of Iglu Cruise, says:
"We are seeing high demand for all new cruises going on sale at the moment. Both 2022 cruises, for those wishing to confirm something special further out and now for the new round-Britain cruises.
"We are seeing lots of demand but especially for peak dates, suites and also the brand new ships such as Iona and MSC Virtuosa.
"Regional departures are also proving extremely popular, so would advise book as early as you can to get what you want (especially as there will be reduced capacity on board)."
Clark notes newer, last-minute itineraries like the ones Crystal and P&O announced are likely to sell just as quickly as more exotic and established World Cruise itineraries like those offered by Silversea and Oceania.
This should come as no surprise as folks who are able to travel, either though vaccination programs or the easing of previous government restrictions on travel, are keen to resume doing so. But it also serves as a cautionary tale for how the cruise landscape may appear for the next few years.
"One of the assumptions we made was about how many experienced cruisers would go during this period," said Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain. Fain, appearing as a guest for travel agents on senior vice president of Sales, Trade Support and Service Vicki Freed's weekly coffee chat on March 24. "Only people that already loved cruising, and that first timers wouldn't be interested. And that simply isn't true at all."
"In Singapore, 80 percent of our guests have been first timers," Fain continued. "In Germany, the Canary Islands and in Greece, the percent of first timers is actually at or above where it had been pre-pandemic."
Fain went on to note much of this demand stems from people's natural response to the lockdowns and restrictions imposed as a matter of course during the pandemic.
"People are fed up," he remarked. "They want to get out. There is pent up demand here, and what we need to do is capture that."
Lower Prices? Forget About It
First and foremost, the idea that the cruise industry will have to discount heavily in order to retain cruise passengers -- an idea bandied about in the early days of the pandemic -- is not going to happen. Cruise lines have a large contingent of loyal passengers eager to set sail again, and with only a handful of lines resuming limited operations, this creates an imbalance between supply and demand that will likely keep prices at current levels or higher for the foreseeable future.
Apart from the 12 lines sailing around the UK for UK residents only, the only other lines which have announced restarts are: Norwegian Cruise Line, Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, which will be sailing from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Greece and Cyprus this summer; and Viking, which will also sail from Bermuda and Iceland.
But it's still a handful compared to a typical season -- and bear in mind all will be sailing half full, at least at the start.
"Prices aren't at rock bottom but people should compare what's included versus the very expensive land based holidays -- especially for the cruises from the U.K.," Clark said.
And if you are confused about which lines require vaccines, she offers this advice:
"Each cruise line is offering something different and have different rules regarding vaccinations, so important to speak to a specialist agent, who will have all the information and be able to advise you of requirements and what it will be like on board."
Higher Demand, Pricing Here to Stay
With most people going a year or more without cruise travel of any kind, demand -- particularly for initial voyages or unique journeys -- will continue to remain high. Couple that with the industry's reduced capacity overall (some 21 vessels were withdrawn from service or scrapped last year) and a global fleet that has not measurably yet returned to service, and price increases start to look inevitable.
That doesn't mean that cruises won't offer any value in the short term. In 2020, Celebrity Cruises announced it would begin bundling most drinks, gratuities and Wi-Fi into its standard fares, which have increased modestly across the board.
Other lines are content to continue offering special perks and promotions to encourage passengers to book, throwing in things like beverage packages, specialty dining offers, and cabin upgrades in lieu of price reductions.
It's always worth keeping in mind, however, that as demand rises, so do prices. And cruise lines, who have lost billions of dollars over the past year, will be eager to secure higher per diems in order to aid in their path to fiscal stability.