Millennials and Gen Z lead a surprise boom in cruise passengers

Cruise passenger lists are getting a youthful facelift.

Cruise passenger lists are getting a youthful facelift. Photo: Viking Cruises

The cruise industry seemed close to drowning during the early years of the pandemic, but business is now booming – and younger passengers are helping revive it.

One in four Australians are planning on taking a cruise this year, a figure that has tripled since last year, according to a Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) Australia survey.

University of Technology Sydney adjunct fellow in tourism David Beirman said the results aren’t surprising, as Australia is one of the biggest producers of cruise passengers per capita in the world.

“Back around 2010, probably 150,000 Australians cruised [per year],” he said.

“By 2019, that increased to about 1.3 million.”

Adventure, cost of living drawing in young passengers

Although cruises have long been considered the domain of retirees, the laid-back method of travel is becoming increasingly popular with younger generations.

TTF found Millennials and Gen Z passengers are driving this year’s increased demand, with 35 per cent of Australians under 35 planning to cruise this year versus 18 per cent of over-65s.

Beirman said the shift in interest is largely thanks to a combination of investing in marketing campaigns, post-lockdown ‘revenge travel‘ and offering journeys to hard-to-reach locales.

Some companies are even going the extra mile and drawing in new passengers by offering cruises with pop culture themes, such as Taylor Swift.

“When you think of cruise cruise companies, there are a lot of brands but there are only a very, very few number of actual companies,” he said.

“The thing that they’re all trying to do is to broaden their age appeal … cruising can go to some places which other forms of transport just don’t get you to.

“[For example] the Kimberley cruises – cruising to more isolated parts of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands; a cruise ship can get to places that a plane can’t, and certainly a car can’t. So cruising has started to target places which perhaps were not on the tourist trail before.”

Australian Travel Industry Association CEO Dean Long said the wide variety of packages offered by many cruise companies go a long way to drawing in more passengers.

This is especially valuable during the current cost-of-living crisis, and paying for a cruise comes with a bonus in that the initial payments covers most, if not all, of your costs such as accommodation, food and entertainment.

“There’s usually an escalation of products in terms of values that can meet varying price points,” Long said.

“Which means you can be loyal to a brand and have multiple experiences around the world, depending on where your budget is at and what experience you’re looking for.

“What we’ve seen is that people are probably looking to cruise a little bit more than ever given the high price [of airfares] for the last two years coming out of COVID. And cruise is a value-for-money product which people can really engage with.”

COVID ‘paranoia’ dampened

Pandemic restrictions and COVID-19 outbreaks put a cloud over the cruise industry for a couple of years.

A 2021 survey found 67 per cent of UK and Australian respondents were less willing to cruise as a result of the pandemic – a stark contrast to the current boom in interest.

Beirman said the change in public perception comes as governments have performed a U-turn in their attitudes towards the cruise industry since 2022.

“During the first half of COVID, there was total paranoia about cruising, but particularly at government level,” he said.

“Cruising … was far more heavily discriminated against as a sector than aviation, or bus tours, or just about any other type of tourism.

“Then all of a sudden, towards the end of 2022, everything started to change, and COVID went from being a mortal threat to civilisation to being a disease that we just had to watch out for.”

People also understand there is an inherent risk in daily life itself, Long said.

“The cruise companies have done an amazing job in creating safe environments. But as with all things, once you get out of bed, there is a level of risk with every decision that you make,” he said.

“I think people are pretty comfortable [with that], and the proof is in the pudding that people are voting with their feet to get on board and sail the world.”

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