Ocean cruising

Ocean cruising is a prime example of tourism’s ability to transform outdated modes of transportation, such as long-distance ocean travel, into a dynamic tourism offering.

A recent entry on the world tourism scene

Ocean cruising as we know it today began to take shape in the 1960s, and since then, the industry has undergone significant changes, becoming a versatile form of tourism. Once the domain of grand ocean liners, which were made obsolete by the advent of jet travel, ocean cruising was given new life by entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to convert these vessels into floating resorts. Ted Arison and Knut Kloster created Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1966, and then Ted Arison founded Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972. The all-inclusive “fun ship” concept was born, offering passengers a complete package of accommodation, dining, entertainment and port stops.

Floating clubs

Over time, ocean cruising has evolved into an even more immersive experience, with many ships now resembling floating resorts, complete with a wide range of onboard amenities and entertainment options. In addition to this, the ships themselves have become larger, with the current trend being for vessels that can accommodate thousands of passengers. 51% of boats put into service between 2018 and 2027 carry more than 2,500 passengers and 23% more than 4,500 passengers. the Wonder of the Seas can accommodate up to 6,988 passengers and 2,300 crew members.

This increase in size not only allows for more amenities and activities, such as full-scale water parks, zip-lines, climbing walls and numerous bars and restaurants, but also allows for economies of scale, making ocean cruising more affordable and accessible to a wider range of customers. The number of cruise passengers increased from 3.6 million in 1990 to 29.6 million in 2019 (according to the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA). Despite this growth, however, cruises still only account for about 2% of all tourist travel, suggesting there is still room for expansion in the industry.

A global offer, although North America dominates

The first Caribbean cruises were marketed to a North American audience, and this clientèle continues to dominate, although it is declining in relative value as other nationalities join in. Today, about half of all cruise passengers are still from North America, and the United States has the highest penetration rate (3.2%), compared to the United Kingdom and Ireland (2.7%), and France (0.9%). European cruisers have seen strong growth in recent years and now make up 26% of the global market. The latest market is China, and it has quickly become a priority. Since 2006, when the country opened up to maritime tourism, the number of Chinese cruisers has grown steadily. In 2019, there were 1.9 million Chinese cruise passengers, making China the fourth-largest market worldwide.

The Caribbean, Mediterranean, and the coasts of China and Australia are currently the most popular destinations for cruisers, but ships are sailing to all corners of the globe, including the north and south poles. Expedition cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic are becoming increasingly popular and are typically offered by specialised companies.

Concentration and specialisation

The cruise industry is marked by a concentration of operators, with a few large companies dominating the market. The three largest companies (Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings) have adopted a strategy of grouping together several different brands to target different segments of the market and different regions. Despite this concentration, however, the industry has also become more diverse. In addition to the major cruise lines, there are also smaller specialised operators, such as MSC, which focus on one geographical area or one type of cruise. The offer has diversified, and several segments can be identified. The most common type of cruises are entry-level or mass market cruises, which are characterised by large ships with multiple amenities and fewer stops. These contemporary cruises also tend to have the most affordable prices. The premium, luxury, and ultra-luxury segments, on the other hand, are characterised by smaller ships, fewer but more sophisticated services, higher quality of service, and itineraries that are less crowded and inaccessible to larger ships.

Ill. 1. The main cruise lines and brands in 2022 (source: Véronique Mondou)

The cruise industry is experiencing strong growth, driven by significant investments from operators and resulting in many innovations on board ships. However, the industry also faces criticisms and challenges related to its environmental and societal impact. Will this globally successful and particularly resilient activity (until the Covid-19 pandemic) falter in the face of these challenges?

Véronique Mondou


  • CLIA, 2021, Global market report 2020. 6 p.
  • Dehoorne Olivier, González Pérez, Jesús Manuel et Renaud Luc (dir.), 2020, «Le tourisme de croisière: défis et perspectives», Études Caribéennes. n° 47, en ligne.
  • Dowling Ross, Weeden Claire (dir.), 2017, Cruise ship tourism. Wallingford, CABI, 2de édition, 600 p.
  • Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2017, Tourisme et transport: deux siècles d’interactions. Paris, Bréal, 255 p.