Australia is the most buoyant cruising market in the world, with average annual growth of more than 20 per cent each year for the past 10 years and the strongest market penetration - more than four per cent of the population has taken a cruise.
In the latest figures from the Cruise Lines International Association, just over a million Australians took a cruise in 2014. In terms of sheer numbers, we're fourth behind the US, Germany and Britain. So what's driving the popularity of cruising? One theory is that Australians have a marked preference for all-inclusive holidays where convenience is a key consideration. Cruises are presented as an easy package of accommodation, meals, entertainment and handy features such as kids' clubs. And as on-board features multiply, cruise ships are increasingly being regarded as destinations in their own right. "Australians are savvy travellers who have realised how affordable and value-for-money a cruise holiday can be," says Adam Armstrong, regional commercial director of Royal Caribbean Cruises, which counts Royal Caribbean International, Azamara Club Cruises and Celebrity Cruises among its brands. "It's one of the easiest ways to visit multiple destinations and travel in comfort throughout."
Unlike Americans and Europeans, Australians weren't significantly deterred from travelling during the global financial crisis. "The then-high Aussie dollar helped a lot in Europe, especially as cruising for Australians is often only one component of a longer holiday," says Justine Lally, head of marketing for Australia and New Zealand for the Melbourne-based river-cruise and tour company APT Group.
Geographical advantages help as well. The highly appealing South Pacific is on the doorstep and has become Australia's most popular cruise destination; 39 per cent of Australian passengers sail the region, whose key destinations include Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and the latest hotspot, Papua New Guinea.
"I think part of the reason for cruising's growth is that we're a coastal nation, and Australians have a great affinity with the sea," says Ann Sherry, executive chair of Carnival Australia, part of Carnival Corporation, whose billion-dollar brands - among them Carnival Cruise Line, Cunard Line, P&O Cruises Australia and Princess Cruises - represent 80 per cent of the Australian and New Zealand market. "The growing array of exciting itineraries is also driving growth… from Vanuatu's Mystery Island and PNG's exotic Trobriand Islands to Antarctica."
The choice of itineraries for Australians continues to multiply as more cruise ships establish home ports here. Carnival Australia, for example, has nine ships based full-time in Australia.
The runaway popularity of short cruises, such as the two- and three-day "cruise to nowhere", is partly responsible for our impressive record. The average cruise lasts 10 days, but there was a 59 per cent surge in passengers taking cruises of one to four days in 2014; the popularity of five- to seven-day cruises has also risen sharply.
"Short breaks are a trend in travel generally, and cruise lines have responded by offering a great range of local two- to five-night itineraries," says CLIA commercial director Brett Jardine.
As the popularity of cruising grows, so does investment in the Australian market. "As more Australians embrace cruising, cruise companies embrace them in return by committing to bringing the best ships with the best on-board features to this region," says Armstrong. He cites as an example Royal Caribbean International's 4905-passenger Ovation of the Seas, launching this month and arriving here in December. In 2019, P&O will become the first cruise line to build an ocean-going ship specifically for Australians.
Such symbiosis is even stronger on rivers. Two big river-cruise companies, APT and Scenic (and their budget subsidiaries Travelmarvel and Evergreen Tours), are Australian owned. "We've created river cruising specifically tailor-made for Australian customers in terms of sightseeing and inclusions such as tipping, and they've responded to that," says Lally. The number of Australian river-cruise passengers soared 62 per cent in 2014 to almost 80,000.
She thinks the core Danube routes, through Vienna and Budapest, are likely to remain popular, but the appeal of regional rivers will increase - destinations such as the Douro River and the Bordeaux region.
On ocean-going itineraries, interest in short-break, Asian and expedition cruising is likely to remain strong. Most analysts believe the Australian desire to cruise is unlikely to falter. "I think by 2020 there will be two million Australians enjoying a cruise each year," says Sherry. And that really would be a gold-medal performance.