Yes, people are still booking cruises for 2021 — just not as much as you might have heard

Apr 16, 2020

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There’s been a flurry of news stories in recent days saying Americans still are booking cruises with abandon, despite all the bad news the industry has endured in recent months.

Many of the stories say cruise bookings for 2021 are up 40% — a figure that seems almost incredible given what is going on.

It is, in fact, incredible.

The 40% figure, which came from CruiseCompete.com, an online cruise marketplace, was misinterpreted, according to the company’s top executive.

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Bob Levinstein, the CEO of CruiseCompete, told The Points Guy the 40% figure referred to a change in the type of bookings the company was receiving. The company was trying to say it was seeing more far-off cruises being booked versus close-in cruises.

It turns out bookings for 2021 aren’t up by double digits at CruiseCompete.com: They’re down by double digits.

“Looking at everything on the books for next year, we are down about 23%,” Levinstein said on Wednesday, noting his own company was responsible for the confusion. It’s “our fault,” he said.

Still, the bigger point that CruiseCompete.com was trying to make in citing the 40% figure — that people continue to book cruises — holds true.

“We are seeing bookings for both the end of this year and next,” Levinstein said.

Other cruise sellers also report a steady stream of bookings for later this year and 2021. Some even say their 2021 bookings are up significantly, if not by 40%.

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In many cases, this is because people on recently canceled cruises are rebooking for next year using generous “future cruise credits” that lines are offering. But this isn’t always the case.

Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, a large travel agency network, told TPG cruise bookings for 2021 at the company are up about 15%. The Cruise Planners network includes more than 2,500 travel agents in all 50 states.

“For 2021, we are still seeing a strong growth, which includes our clients with future cruise credits rebooking their canceled 2020 cruises, as well as net new bookings,” Garcia said Wednesday.

Garcia said bookings for 2021 cruises in Europe, in particular, are strong, with 38% of all 2021 bookings the company has recorded so far being for the region. Of those European bookings, nearly half were for river cruises, she said.

Many cruisers with plans for Europe sailings this year already have seen their sailings canceled, as many lines now have canceled all departures worldwide through the end of June. Cruisers with Europe bookings for later in the year have preemptively canceled on their own, too.

Related: Cruises could be canceled into July as CDC issues new ‘no-sail’ order 

Garcia’s data echoes comments about bookings made Tuesday by Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., the world’s biggest cruise company.

“We’ve had substantial bookings,” Donald told CNBC in a lengthy interview about the state of the cruise industry. “Bookings for [2021] are strong.”

Carnival Corp. is the parent company of Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America and six other major cruise brands. It accounts for about 45% of all cruises taken worldwide.

That people still are booking cruises for later this year and 2021 may seem almost inconceivable to noncruisers who have spent the last two months watching one disaster after another befall cruise vessels at sea — everything from the quarantine of the Diamond Princess to the plight of the long-stuck-at-sea Holland America ship Zaandam.

Passengers on multiple ships have died from the new coronavirus either while on board or soon after disembarking, and the CDC recently issued a list of 21 vessels where cruisers may have been exposed to the illness.

But industry watchers note cruising has a strong base of hardcore fans who are very loyal to the concept of cruising and their favorite brands, no matter what happens.

“There is a core base of customers that are and will be rebooking when the all-clear signal is sounded,” Harry Curtis, a leisure analyst at Instinet, said last week in a research note for investors.

Curtis said he was betting demand for cruises “is impaired but not obliterated” due to the recent weeks of negative headlines surrounding cruise ships experiencing coronavirus outbreaks.

Related: Big cruise lines can survive shutdown lasting many months, analyst says  

Curtis noted cruising has bounced back strongly after past calamities. There have been many over the years, including the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia and the 2013 power loss on the Carnival Triumph. After each incident, pundits said cruising would be crushed. It wasn’t.

To put it simply, cruisers will cruise.

“Look, people want to go on vacation and, honestly, they are pent up these days with nothing to do but clean closets and dream of where to go to next,” Garcia said. “It’s the perfect time to plan your next trip.”

Donald, the Carnival Corp. CEO, echoed such sentiments on CNBC, suggesting that cruising regulars wouldn’t be afraid to get back on ships after the industry starts back up. He made a case that cruises are very safe and clean, something that he said people who cruise a lot understand.

“There are a lot of people who understand cruise. They cruise a lot,” Donald said. “They know what [health protocols are] in place there. They know when it comes to social gathering … that, in many cases, they are at far less risk in a cruise environment than they would be in other environments.”

CruiseCompete’s Levinstein also expects a strong comeback for cruising. While bookings for 2021 at CruiseCompete are down, he expects that will change in the coming months as passengers on current cruises that are being canceled begin receiving their future cruise credits.

Most cruise lines have been offering passengers on canceled sailings a choice of a refund or a future cruise credit, and about half of passengers have been choosing the future cruise credit, he said. But many of the credits have yet to arrive, resulting in a delay to rebooking.

“Due to the large amount of administrative work involved, the vast majority of these [credits] have yet to be issued by the cruise lines,” Levinstein said. “Once they are, we will see a large surge in bookings.”

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

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