Cruise eases back the pace

AFTER a long run of growth that has been the envy of the world, Australia’s cruise market is showing signs of losing momentum. But that hasn’t dampened enthusiasm among Australian travel agents who still report healthy levels of growth. travelBulletin’s annual cruise survey takes a closer look at how agents view the travel industry’s stand-out performer.

Few industries have reaped the sort of double-digit growth enjoyed by Australia’s cruise sector in recent years — a time of surging sales, bigger and better ships, and an ever-increasing choice of itineraries.

So it stands to reason that travel agents have been among the most passionate backers of cruising, enjoying record sales as Australians succumb to what the cruise industry proudly points out is the highest penetration rate in the world.

But as capacity constraints take their toll and port facilities become more and more difficult to book — especially in Sydney — annual growth in the number of Australians taking a cruise has dropped — down from a dizzying 21% in 2016 to just 4.4% last year, according to the latest figures from Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia.

It’s a phenomenon reflected in travelBulletin’s latest cruise industry survey, conducted annually in conjunction with our sister publications Cruise Weekly and Travel Daily.

For the first time, this year’s survey shows the number of travel agents experiencing growth in cruise sales has taken a significant slide, even though a majority still see figures on the rise.

Conducted in October by StollzNow Research, the survey found 64% of Australian travel agents believe the ocean cruise market has grown in the past 12 months, down considerably from the 83% who reported growth last year and the 85% shown in 2016.

About 29% said the ocean cruise market had remained the same as last year, while 6% reported that it had contracted.

Confidence in river cruising also slipped, with 33% of agents reporting growth, down from 42% last year and 46% in 2016. The river cruise market had remained the same according to 52% of respondents, while 14% said it had gone backwards.

But despite a softer market, agents appear less concerned by outside threats than in past years.

This year’s survey again asked about the impact of offshore rivals and direct sales channels, and how they affected their confidence.

Only 45% of respondents said they were “extremely” or “very” concerned about losing sales to overseas travel agents this year — down from 51% in 2017 — while the number of agents who were “not at all” concerned increased from 9% to 12%.

Those reporting a loss of sales to direct bookings has remained the same for three years at 53%, but the number of agents who said they don’t lose any sales to direct bookings lifted from 14% last year to 25% in 2018.

New questions added to the survey this year addressed some of the major issues being discussed in the industry at a worldwide level, but the response from Australian travel agents was mixed.

When asked about the significance of environmental issues in the cruise industry, only 19% of respondents considered them to be extremely or very important to their customers.

The biggest portion, representing 39%, said the environment was only moderately important, while 25% said it was not important at all.

A similarly mixed response came when agents were asked about the hot topic of over-tourism.

When questioned whether the issue of over-tourism was an inhibitor to new sales, 45% said no. About 27% said yes, but a similar portion of respondents said they were unsure, 28%.

Other areas of the cruise survey asked agents to rate cruise lines on a whole range of different levels, from their training and call centre support to the visibility of their advertising and the help they provide with local marketing.

Royal takes top spot

Royal Caribbean International was named by Australian travel agents as their favourite cruise line in this year’s survey, narrowly pulling ahead of Princess Cruises.

Royal was ranked top by 16.2% of agents who regularly sell the line, coming in above Princess at 15.8% and other top lines including Celebrity Cruises (8.1%), Scenic (7.7%), Viking Ocean Cruises (6.6%), APT (5.8%) and Holland America Line (5.4%).

The favourite cruise line category was one of several new questions in this year’s cruise survey, which also asked which lines help best with local area marketing (topped by APT, Scenic and Princess) and which lines offer truly unique experiences (Un-Cruise Adventures, Paul Gauguin Cruises and Disney Cruise Line).

Agents also nominated which lines have excellent management teams (APT, Scenic and Princess), which ones offer an efficient online booking portal (Princess Cruises, P&O Australia and Carnival Cruise Line) and which brands have the best overall representative service (Scenic, Princess and APT).

Agents named Princess Cruises as the line they most regularly sold, followed by P&O Australia, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line.

The survey also provided insight into the visibility of cruise lines’ advertising campaigns, with agents nominating which ones they see most often in Australian media. In mainstream media, the most visible lines were P&O Cruises Australia, Scenic, APT, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.

The river cruise segment was examined separately in the survey, with Viking River Cruises chosen as favourite by 11% of travel agents who regularly sell the line, ahead of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection (10%), Avalon Waterways (9%), and Travelmarvel (9%).

APT was the most commonly booked river cruise product, sold by 65% of agents, followed by Scenic (60%), Travelmarvel (43%), Viking River Cruises (40%) and Avalon Waterways (39%).