Cruise ship tourism in Hawaii is gaining momentum

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

Tourists could still travel by air to Hawaii in 2020 and 2021 under mandatory vaccination, testing and quarantine rules, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s March 2020 “no sail” order shut down the cruise industry following COVID-19 outbreaks on board ships.

With the easing of pandemic restrictions, cruise visitors to Hawaii rebounded just 57.5% in 2022 from pre-pandemic numbers in 2019, while total visitor arrivals rebounded nearly 90%. One reason is that cruise lines book itineraries one to three years in advance.

Cruise lines are already 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, accounted for roughly 40% of cruise capacity of the islands reported better-than-expected quarterly results and record bookings, and shares of Royal Caribbean Cruises jumped after raising its full-year profit forecast, according to Bloomberg News Service.

Shortly after arriving in Maui Harbor 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 first visit to Hawaii.

The children’s grandmother, Tam Cooper, 60, who has late-stage brain cancer and only a few months to live, according to Christina, has rejoined the ship.

“Her one bucket list thing she wanted to do was go on a Hawaiian cruise with her grandkids, so we’re all here,” she said.

The family’s shore activities during their week-long cruise included snorkeling and a luau, but so far the ship itself was the highlight.

“The kids love it. They love the fact that there is a pool on a boat and they can eat ice cream whenever they want. It’s fun for them,” Cooper said. “Being on a cruise is really great. It’s like a city on a boat. Everything you could possibly need is there.

Growth 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 data from the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

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

“Cruises have come back strong,” said Shannon McKee, president of Access Cruise Inc., a Miami-based marketing consulting group contracted by the Hawaii Tourism Authority to represent Hawaii to the cruise industry.

“The American brands quickly recovered and went straight back to Hawaii. They love Hawaii; the demand for Hawaii is there,” McKee said. “What we haven’t seen so far are the international brands. We usually get a few different brands calling at least on their world cruises every year, and that hasn’t happened, but they’re coming back.”

Hawaii welcomed its first cruise ship in nearly two years on January 9, 2022, when Princess Cruise Lines’ Grand Princess sailed into the Port of Honolulu from Los Angeles with 2,138 passengers and crew on board. NCL resumes Hawaii cruise in April 2022

“As for Pride of America, it has slowly increased capacity in 2022 to provide consistent service” while experiencing labor shortages similar to what other industries have faced, according to McKee.

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

In the coming year, Hawaii will see several new and returning cruise lines, including luxury line Viking Cruises, which made its first port call to the islands in January and is set to return for multiple visits in the fall and winter, according to, a website , which tracks port schedules.

In October alone, Hawaii’s peak cruise month, the schedule shows 17 different ships calling at Honolulu Harbor. Ships range from Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas, both 4,905-passenger, to French luxury brand Ponant’s 230-passenger Le Boreal.

In its Hawaii Cruises Update at the Hawaii Tourism Conference in December, HTA projected 357,422 cruise passengers visiting the port of Honolulu by the end of the year and 300,081 in 2024, with bookings still being made for the fourth quarter.

Despite the promising outlook, cruise travel remains a small segment of Hawaiian tourism. Cruise ship passengers accounted for just 1.7 percent of Hawaii’s 9.2 million visitor arrivals in 2022, down from 2.6 percent in 2019.

The $39.5 million spent by visitors arriving by cruise ship in 2022 represents just 0.2 percent of the $19.3 billion in total visitor spending, according to DBEDT data. Also, cruise ship passengers spent $84 per person per day while in Hawaii last year, compared to $227 for air travelers.

McKee said the cruise market still has value for Hawaii, providing travelers with an opportunity to experience the islands and perhaps return for a longer stay at a favorite destination. She said cruises also have a smaller “footprint” as most opt ​​for “curated” organized or private shore excursions to scenic spots and attractions rather than renting cars to explore on their own.

In addition, spring and fall are the high seasons for cruise waters in Hawaii, which helps fill the gaps during the slower months for air arrivals.

Further growth of cruise ship tourism in Hawaii has been hampered by limited infrastructure in the islands’ ports. The state Department of Transportation said there are no plans to expand or improve the state’s ports to accommodate increased cruise traffic, other than installing a second high-capacity passenger elevator at Pier 2 cruise terminal in the Port of Honolulu.

According to HTA’s December update on Hawaii cruises, the agency is focusing on growing the luxury and premium cruise markets, which include smaller vessels and more affluent travelers.

“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 come in and we’re going to see more premium mid-range brands that really fit Hawaii.

“Some of the new ultra-large cruise ships are essentially too big to fit in the facilities we have, so there are limits to what we can handle.”

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