Opinion: Why 2024 will be the year of the cruise

The cruise industry bounced back to (almost) pre-Covid levels in 2023. Courtesy of larger ships and impressive value for money, 2024 is set to be an impressive year for cruise figures. Here's why sensible minds and clever money are heading for a cruise next year

Prior to World War Two, terms such as ‘cruise travel’ and ‘youth’ went together like ice cream and gravy. Those regular to the pre-war cruise scene typically spawned from society’s Rotary-sponsored heights of self-appointment; desperately seeking recognition from other passengers on the coattails of ill-bound snobbery.

Meandering around the Ragtime deck with expressionless vanity, seemingly radiated by a haughty sense of pompous expectation, regular sea-faring travellers oozed a sense of money-fuelled boredom between meals – should there be no steerage passengers to sneer at.

In short, black-and-white ocean travel was exclusively marketed to the nouveau riche, and segregated accordingly. It was uncouth to enter the RMS Olympic's smoking lounge unless you boasted a double-barrelled surname, or find refuge in the Titanic's gymnasium until you’d cracked your first million.

As a First-class passenger in your furs and Edwardian hat, the 'decks below' were for vagabonds and criminals. For the wealthy, the wealthy-at-heart, or those who sought recognition among their peers, booking passage with the likes of White Star Line was usually added to each week’s shopping list – underneath a reminder to dry clean those Pâté de Foie Gras stains from the dining table's delicate lace embroidery.

However, that was then. This is now, and things have changed. Oh, boy, have things changed.

Cruising has long since accommodated everyone from all walks of life. Sure, there are still certain white-gloved services, but the entire seascape is now open to the young, and the young at heart. Not to mention all budgets.

It doesn’t take long to establish why. The world has changed since cooked tripe and casual racism were considered fashionable – to stay afloat in contemporary civilisation, you cannot alienate the generational changing of the guard. And accepting that progress appears to have worked.

Cruising has never been more popular, a distinction proven by the industry’s renaissance following Covid-19, and the predictions for 2024. CLIA expects no-less than 36 million of us to book a cruise next year.

Covid: Fear is largely gone for 2024

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 certainly caused financial mayhem. As Covid-19 unpacked its’ bag and settled in, the likes of Cruise & Maritime Voyages and Pullmantur Cruises became a casualty of war.

Carnival Cruises suffered a net loss of US$4 billion during the first half of 2020. It honestly seemed as though the cruise industry was done for, with a hefty dose of stigma destined to sink what remained.

Except that didn’t quite happen. Instead, the cruise industry returned stronger than ever. International tourism receipts breached the US$1 trillion mark in 2022, up 50 per cent in real terms from 2021 and driven by the rebound in global travel. Most cruise ships are also back sailing at full capacity, feeding a market that shows no signs of stopping. Experts predict 2024 will literally become ‘the year of the cruise’.

We seem to have abandoned the fear of Covid-19 consigning those worries to the history books, permitting the cruise industry to fire on all cylinders again.

“People are keen to explore the world after so many years of disruption caused by Covid 19, and cruising enables them to do this in a way that delivers choice, value and convenience,” Emma Furze of Bolsover Cruise Club told World of Cruising.

She continued: “What we are seeing is considerable demand for cruise holidays both in the short and long term, which suggests that Covid 19-related fears have dissipated.

"The world has opened back up again, so some of the countries that largely remained inaccessible to cruise ships during Covid 19 are now open for business – and operators are making sure there are itineraries to take people there.”

Alex Loizou, sales director for Mundy Cruising, also follows that mantra. He explains: “With little to no testing required, an end to the bothersome passenger locator forms and no additional requirements of guests onboard, cruising is now over the major challenges of the pandemic.”

In fact, wherever you go and whomever you ask, the answer is the same. The cruise industry has conquered the ripple effect caused by Covid 19, and arguably capitalised on the situation.

Vast improvements have been implemented across the cruising landscape to attract those new-to-cruise, with upgraded and rampant itineraries between brands fighting for attention.

Not to mention a slew of new vessels. It’s an amazing time to engage with the cruise lines and people know it; especially when browsing the cost.

Cruise lines know that affordability to key to filling those excessive empty cabins. Credit: Shutterstock/RRM

Cruise vs affordability

When you delve behind the travel headlines, inflated prices for both flights and hotels have created an affordability crisis.

The cruise industry exploits that rather neatly, offering excellent value in place of blatant extortion; providing an all-inclusive holiday in a safe environment. That sentiment hasn’t gone unnoticed by the proletariat.

“Value for money combined with the vast choice of offers to entice new guests is set to attract those who have never sailed before. Plentiful promotions by the cruise lines will drive new-to-cruise passengers to consider the options available”, said Tricia Handley-Hughes, managing director of InteleTravel UK.

We asked Bolsover’s Emma Furze to expand on the ‘affordability concept’, and we’re glad that we did: "At a time when household budgets continue to be squeezed, holidaymakers will be looking for breaks that provide just that.

"When you break down the cost of a cruise on a per person, per night basis – and you consider what is included, from the accommodation to the food and entertainment – there really is very little competition.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Alex Loizou then pointed out that “realising the quality equals or exceeds that of many ultra-luxury hotels” plays a big part in the recent spike in cruise bookings for 2024.

“New players in the market, such as Ritz-Carlton, have helped raise the profile of cruise. The new ships of Silversea, and new brands like Explora, demonstrate a forward-thinking sector that is throwing off an unfair image that it’s a stuffy environment in which to travel” – he’s not wrong.

Harking back to the notion that ‘high-quality’ remained an old-school exclusive for those who burn Roche Bobois just to keep warm, that stuffy image of retirees pupating in the sun has been burned away by the radical post-pandemic changes. And when the market is suddenly starved of sensibly priced holidays, the cruise option suddenly feels like common sense.

And, as Kieran Eccles-Miller of Magical Traveller highlighted, why pay for cotton when you can have silk?: “Travel has always been high on people's priority list. Luxury holidaymakers are keener than ever to explore the world in the utmost comfort. The increased focus on the destination experience has helped attract even more people to cruise.

“Superb programmes and itineraries mean that whether guests are looking for an expedition voyage to explore Antarctica, the Arctic or Galapagos, or want to visit local growers and producers to gain an unrivalled insight into the local cuisine – there’s a luxury cruise to suit.”

Utopia of the Seas will start with short cruises in July 2024. Credit: Royal Caribbean

2024: Something for everyone

So, cruising is back in fashion, offers incredible value for money, and the luxurious experience is second to none. And that’s great – but there’s more. With new ships entering the market possessing the capacity of a small city, those cabins need to be filled – creating fierce competition between suppliers.

As the deals keep ships packed with holiday-goers, it’s expected to attract more people than ever for 2024.

Throw in a range of new and ground-breaking itineraries, voyages to lesser-known ports in lesser-explored parts of the world, alongside fresh £100 million refits (here’s looking at you, QM2), and there’s enough to appease both seasoned cruise guests and newbies.

“The best part is, there really is a sailing to suit everyone – from thrill-seeking families, to adventurous solo travellers, to couples looking for a relaxing getaway – they’ll all find an escape they love”, said Cruise.co.uk’s Tony Andrews. He also summarised three big factors in 2024’s expected growth curve.

Firstly, the number of newcomers sailing on a cruise has more than doubled compared to last year. Secondly, the boom in solo holidays continues apace. Thirdly, we're still seeing an uplift in demand for ‘cruise and stay’ breaks, with North American holidays proving most popular.”

Then there’s the age thing. Gone are the days of enforced shuffleboard and an overbearing aroma of Potpourri. Modern cruise ships offer sailings for 2024 with an active and vibrant opportunity to blend adventure with nightlife.

Courtesy of the ongoing and palatable price options, younger travellers don’t need to stem from blue blood or an incestuous line of aristocrats to qualify, either.

The likes of Virgin Voyages now cater to those of a gym-going, phone-based persona. The sexualised and contemporary bling of Scarlett Lady would likely have caused passengers of old to keel over, but that’s progress for you.

Ring in the New Year on the Rhine with Riviera Travel. Credit: Riviera Travel

A new chapter

Unless you were traversing the Atlantic with a purpose, cruising of old revolved around a choice between boredom and suffering. The industry has come a long way since the days of American-bound immigrants and the Covid pandemic of 2020, and with 2024 – China’s Year of the Dragon – upon us, the outlook is not only bright. It’s red hot.

With Covid 19 firmly behind us, the renovated and well-oiled cruise industry is ready and willing to accommodate thousands of extra people for brand-new itineraries. It's set to be a record-breaking season.

The last two years have demonstrated that we can’t get enough cruise action, but 2024 should prove that a cruise package increasingly bought by the heart can also be justified by the head.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.