Hawaii's cruise ship tourism picks up steam

·6 min read

May 8—The winds are shifting for Hawaii's cruise ship trade as bookings catch up with pent-up demand for travel after the state went almost two years without a single sailing.

The winds are shifting for Hawaii's cruise ship trade as bookings catch up with pent-up demand for travel after the state went almost two years without a single sailing.

Tourists were still able to travel by air to Hawaii in 2020 and 2021 under state-mandated vaccination, testing and quarantine rules, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "no sail " order in March 2020 shut down the cruise industry following COVID-19 outbreaks aboard ships.

With the easing of pandemic restrictions, cruise visitors to Hawaii rebounded only 57.5 %

in 2022 from pre-pandemic 2019 numbers, while overall visitor arrivals recovered almost 90 %. One reason is that cruise lines book itineraries one to three years in advance.

Cruise lines are now reporting significantly higher booking volumes in the first three months of the year than at the start of 2019. Last week Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, whose Hawaii-based, 2, 300-passenger Pride of America accounts for roughly 40 % of cruise capacity in the islands, reported better-than-expected quarterly results and record bookings, and Royal Caribbean Cruises saw its shares soar after raising its full-year profit forecast, according to Bloomberg News Service.

Shortly after pulling into the Maui port Sunday morning, Pride of America passengers Bradley and Christina Cooper, both 35, of Denver were enjoying the beach at Kahului Harbor with their four children. The Cooper clan is sailing with a family group of 16 on their first cruise and their first visit to Hawaii.

Relaxing back on the ship was the kids' grandmother, Tamme Cooper, 60, who has late-stage brain cancer and only a few months to live, according to Christina.

"Her one bucket list that she wanted to do was go on a Hawaiian cruise with her grandkids, so we're all here, " she said.

The family's shoreside activities during their weeklong cruise include snorkeling and a luau, but so far the ship itself has been the highlight.

"The kids love it. They love the fact that there's a pool on a boat and they get to eat ice cream whenever they want. It's fun for them, " Cooper said. "Being on a cruise is really cool. It's like a town on a boat. Anything you could need, it's on there."

The surge in global cruise travel is evident in Hawaii, where 45, 320 visitors arrived aboard 20 out-of-state cruise ships in the first quarter of 2023, and another 28, 351 visitors flew in for Pride of America's weekly sailing around the islands, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

The first-quarter total of 73, 671 cruise visitors surpassed the 70, 513 passengers for the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, the data show, and spending by visitors who arrived by ship in the first quarter hit $19.6 million, up 52 % from the same period in 2019.

"Cruises have returned strong, " said Shannon McKee, president of Access Cruise Inc., a Miami-based marketing consultant group contracted by the Hawaii Tourism Authority to represent Hawaii to the cruise industry.

"The U.S. brands were quick to recover and have come straight back to Hawaii. They love Hawaii ; the demand for Hawaii is there, " McKee said. "What we have not seen up until this point in time is the international brands. We usually get several different brands calling at least on their world cruises every year, and those have not happened, but they are coming back."

Hawaii welcomed its first cruise ship in nearly two years on Jan. 9, 2022, when Princess Cruise Lines' Grand Princess sailed into Honolulu Harbor from Los Angeles with 2, 138 passengers and crew members aboard. NCL resumed Hawaii cruising in April 2022.

"As for the Pride of America, she slowly ramped up capacity in 2022 to ensure consistent service " while experiencing workforce shortages similar to what other industries have faced, according to McKee.

NCL did not respond to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser request for an interview.

Over the next year, Hawaii will see several new and returning cruise lines, including luxury line Viking Cruises, which made its first-ever port call in the islands in January and is due back for multiple visits in the fall and winter, according to PortCall.com, a website that tracks port schedules.

In October alone, a peak month for Hawaii cruising, the schedule shows 17 different ships calling at the Honolulu port. The vessels range from Royal Caribbean Cruises' Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas, both with capacity for 4, 905 passengers, to French luxury brand Ponant's 230-passenger Le Boreal.

In its Hawaii cruise update at the Hawaii Tourism Conference in December, HTA forecast 357, 422 cruise passengers calling at Honolulu Harbor by the end of the year, and 300, 081 in 2024, with fourth-quarter bookings still being placed.

Despite the promising outlook, cruise travel remains a small segment of Hawaii tourism. Cruise ship passengers represented only 1.7 % of the 9.2 million Hawaii visitor arrivals in 2022, down from 2.6 % in 2019.

The $39.5 million spent by visitors arriving by cruise ship in 2022 accounted for only 0.2 % of the $19.3 billion in total visitor spending, according to DBEDT data. Additionally, cruise ship passengers spent $84 per person per day while in Hawaii last year, versus $227 for air travelers.

McKee said the cruise market still has value for Hawaii, providing passengers a chance to sample the islands and perhaps return for a longer stay at a favorite destination. She said cruisers also have a lesser "footprint " since most opt for "curated " organized or private shore excursions to scenic spots and attractions instead of renting cars to explore on their own.

Additionally, spring and fall are the high seasons for cruising Hawaii waters, helping to fill the gaps during the slower months for air arrivals.

Further growth in cruise ship tourism in Hawaii is hampered by limited infrastructure at isle ports. The state Department of Transportation said there are no plans to expand or improve state harbors to accommodate increased cruising, other than the installation of a second high-capacity passenger elevator at the Pier 2 cruise terminal at Honolulu Harbor.

According to HTA's December Hawaii cruise update, the agency is focusing on growing the luxury and premium cruise markets, which feature smaller vessels and more well-heeled passengers.

"The industry will continue to grow, but not exponentially by any means, " McKee said. "I think we're going to continue to see more of the luxury brands coming, and we're going to see more of the premium midsize brands coming in that are a really good fit for Hawaii.

"Some of the new super-large cruise ships are essentially too big to fit in the facilities that we have, so there are limitations on what we can handle."