Skift Take

Australians have taken to cruising like ducks to water. With around 85 percent of bookings going through travel agents, this sector is providing a shot in the arm for travel retailers hit by falling margins in their bread-and-butter flights and hotels business.

Editor’s Note: Gateway is a Skift series featuring first-hand, original stories from our correspondents embedded in cities around the world. The logo reflects where the correspondent is based and not necessarily the article’s focus. Read about the series here.

While the latest Cruise Lines International Association market report is still a couple of months away, it looks like Australians continue to break records. Passenger numbers for 2016 totaled 1.28 million – up 21 percent from the previous year, and the 2017 tally is expected to be bigger still.

And with a population of nearly 24.4 million, that means more than one in 19 Australians took a cruise — the highest per capita ratio in the world.

Cruise Lines International Association Managing Director Joel Katz attributes this growth to “the variety and diversity in cruise brands and experiences; growing capacity with more ships being homeported in Australia; and increased level of interest amongst travelers discovering cruise is a great value-for-money holiday choice”.

According to the association, approximately 28 ships are currently homeported in Australia and another 30 ships are in transit. During this Southern summer cruise season, almost 60 cruise ships have made over 1,200 port calls.

Anna Russell, marketing manager of Clean Cruising (a division of the Globenet Travel Group), has seen cruising grow three to five times faster than other travel categories over the past five years.

John Simos, general manager – Cruise, Wholesale at giant national travel network Helloworld Travel Limited, said cruise has grown at an average of 19 per per annum for the last 10 years. “Forward business for both The Cruise Team and SevenOceans Cruising brands in our wholesale division has grown by 48 percent over last year,” he told Skift.

Domestic Cruising is Booming

The influx of vessels now calling Australia home has had a huge impact on the market, boosting domestic cruises by 23.4 percent in 2016. Australia’s geographic isolation means the vast majority of cruise activity is local, with the cruise association’s data revealing that more than three-quarters of the traffic is in the waters off Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

The South Pacific remains Australia’s favourite cruise destination, attracting 542,825 cruisers in 2016 – or 42.4 percent of the total market.

“Domestic, New Zealand and Pacific Island Cruises from Australia are still the go-to cruise for the majority of our clients,” said Kath Williams, owner of Melbourne travel agency Helloworld Travel Rowville. “It’s a nice, easy holiday without a long flight,” she said, adding that the majority of cruises sold at the agency are between eight and 13 days.

Many in the industry attribute the surge in Australian cruise activity to the large pool of ‘first-time travelers.

“The industry is attracting new cruisers, often through people who go away to celebrate something; whether it be a birthday, wedding anniversary or family reunion, it’s an extra holiday and, for most, it is the introduction of new cruising clients,” according to Williams.

Clean Cruising’s Russell believes “homeported cruising is attracting people who might otherwise do a short break within Australia, or may previously have taken a South Pacific/South East Asian flop-and-drop holiday.”

She also noted that the growing range of special events cruises such as music revivals or themed occasions is encouraging even more people to travel due to the combination of the excitement for the special interests and the convenience of a cruise.

A good earner

While the Australian market is clearly lucrative for the major cruise lines, it is also a significant contributor to the broader travel trade, according to Jayson Westbury, CEO of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents. While his organization hasn’t specifically tracked the increase in specialist cruise agencies, he pointed out that “the large majority of retail, home base and leisure travel agents across Australia are selling cruise and are all looking more and more to develop their knowledge of cruise and all of the various forms that cruise comes in to be up to date with the latest available products that service Australia and overseas.”

Despite the rise of online direct bookings in leisure travel, the cruise association estimates that around 85 percent of all cruise bookings are being made via a cruise travel agent.

Cruise is a profitable market for travel agents; their earnings from the competitive flights and accommodation sectors are under pressure. Westbury said cruise operators continue to provide strong support for travel agents, “including the commercial model which is well-received by travel agents.”

There are no reliable figures for total passenger spend, but travel agent Williams said that the average cost for a 13-night cruise starts from Australian $1,999 (U.S. $1,600) per person twin share in an interior cabin, Australian $2,589 (U.S. $2,000) per person in an outside cabin, and Australia $2,899 (U.S. $2,300) per person for a balcony cabin.

At Clean Cruising, there’s been significant growth in new-to-cruise customers “who tend to do homeported, four- to eight-night cruises, spending less than Australian $2,500 (U.S. $2,000) per booking,” the company said. But there has also been strong interest in seven- to 10-night Asian cruises, where the spend stretches to Australian $5,000 (U.S. $4,000) per person.

Among those who have been swept up in the rising tide of cruising is online agency Ecruising.

“We launched 18 years ago with just two staff members and now have a team of 20 people,” said Brett Dudley, Ecruising founder and chairman. “I established Ecruising in 2000 after recognising Australia’s blossoming cruise market needed a reliable, uncomplicated and efficient online resource that allowed agents and consumers alike to make holiday plans at any hour of the day or night.”

Dudley believes his operation has changed the way Australians purchase cruise holidays by unlocking distribution channels. The agency has agreements with 33 cruise lines and 20 airlines as well as more than 200 hotels, and a swag of ground operators around the globe.

And it’s not just the domestic market that’s booming. Beyond Travel Group launched Cruise Croatia 12 months ago as a direct response to the increase in Australians keen to spend holiday time on a small ship exploring the Adriatic Sea.

“We launched on March 23 last year with 60 cruises on the website and now we have more than 100 voyages that visit some of the most beautiful, and underexposed, corners of the Adriatic,” group General Manager Bryce Crampton said.

Buoyed by the 100 percent growth in bookings in less than 12 months, the group has launched a second dedicated cruise brand, Cruise Russia, which is already reporting a 35 percent hike in bookings for the 2018 summer season when compared to the same time last year.

Cruise Line International Association’s Katz is optimistic about continued growth in the sector: “The broad variety of cruise options means there is a cruise for everyone; combined with the wide variety of national and international itineraries and destinations on offer, it is easy to see why more Australians are discovering cruising.”

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Tags: australia, clia, gateway, travel agents

Photo Credit: P&O Cruises’ Pacific Explorer, seen in Sydney Harbor, is part of a growing fleet based in Australia.