MIAMI — The cruise industry may not return to prepandemic passenger numbers until 2023, according to an industry consultant speaking at Seatrade – the world’s largest business-to-business cruise conference which took place in Miami Beach last week.

“It’s all very encouraging, but I don’t really see until next year that we’ll get significant increases (in passengers),” said David Selby, the owner of Travelyields Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in cruises, speaking at the conference via video call from the UK. “I don’t see us getting back to 2019 levels until 2023, or possibly longer,” he said, adding that, “only time will tell.”

“All depends on if, heaven forbid, there are new variants,” he warned.

Selby presented numbers showing the cruise industry consistently growing in number of passengers in the years before the pandemic. The industry saw 28.5 million passengers worldwide in 2018 and 29.7 million in 2019, but dropped off to just 5.8 million in 2020, an 81 percent decrease. Before the pandemic, Selby’s Travelyields had predicted 32 million global cruise passengers in 2020, a 6.7 percent increase.

Miami’s cruise operators suspended voyages on March 13, 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly spreading throughout the world. The country’s first cruise since then left from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on June 28, 2021. The industry has slowly restarted at reduced capacity and with COVID-19 mitigation protocols.

Cruise Lines International Association, which collects data on global passenger numbers, hasn’t yet released data for 2021.

The Seatrade conference saw 11,000 registered attendees in 2019. The conference’s first day over two years later had fewer than 100 in-person attendees in a midsize room in the 1.4 million-square-foot Miami Beach Convention Center. While industry leaders repeatedly told in-person and virtual attendees that cruising was back, speakers like Selby emphasized that the industry’s return will likely be slow and complicated.

“The steady return beckons, but it will return,” Selby said. “It’s been a slow and painful reintroduction.”

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