The 17 destinations where cruise passengers outnumber local passengers

Cruises are like Marmite. Many people scorn them for contributing to overtourism without putting much money into the pockets of local businesses, and for being harmful to the environment. The backlash against sea holidays has been sharp in recent years. Authorities in Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona, ​​Dubrovnik, Bruges, Mallorca, Maine, Florida, California and Alaska have all taken steps to restrict cruise passengers. This month, the Greek prime minister hinted at plans to curb cruise traffic, with Santorini and Mykonos among the first in line for checks. Often the language used by their opponents is emotional; one Barcelona councillor compared cruisers to “a plague of locusts”.

And yet the sector shows no signs of slowing down. A record 31.5 million people took a cruise in 2023 – and that figure is expected to rise to 39.5 million by 2027. The world’s largest cruise ship, the 7,600-capacity Icon of the Seas, was launched in January unveiled, and of the The 25 largest ships in the world, 16 of which have been introduced in the last four years.

So despite being pushed out of some European and North American destinations, cruise ships will undoubtedly remain an important part of the travel landscape for many years to come. Moreover, even though cities like Venice are no longer fond of cruising, other cities are happy to welcome them.

Telegraph Travel reported this week from Trieste, where tourism is on the rise – partly because cruise lines from nearby Venice are docking there. In the Caribbean, there appears to be less enthusiasm for a crackdown on cruises. Amsterdam announced plans for a complete ban on cruises last year, despite only welcoming around 300,000 passengers a year (about one percent of all visitors to the city). Compare that with, for example, Cozumel in Mexico, a port with 80,000 inhabitants that welcomes more than four million cruise ships every year – and is still growing.

So what are the world’s busiest cruise terminals? Where do Venice and Barcelona rank? And which countries receive the most cruise passengers per capita?

Trieste, where cruise ships are starting to call

Trieste, where cruise ships begin to dock – Alamy

The countries with the most cruise passengers

Europe’s coastal cities may be feeling the pinch, but the Caribbean is – by a long shot – the world’s largest cruise region. About a third of all cruise passengers can be found there, compared to about 20 percent in the Mediterranean.

The Bahamas really stands out. Its proximity to Florida means it’s the first or last port of call for hundreds of departures from major cruise hubs like Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. Some 5.4 million cruise passengers visited the country on day trips in 2022, the most recent year for which UNWTO has statistics. With a population of just 400,000, that works out to 13.5 cruise passengers per capita. By comparison, just 1.5 million visited the Bahamas by air.

Approximately 5.4 million people visit the Bahamas on a cruise ship each yearApproximately 5.4 million people visit the Bahamas on a cruise ship each year

Approximately 5.4 million people visit the Bahamas each year by cruise ship – Getty

The UNWTO doesn’t have data for every country – the US, UK, Italy and France are notable omissions – but of those that did provide statistics, only one welcomes more cruise daytrippers than the Bahamas: Mexico, with almost 7.1 million. It’s another favourite for ships sailing from Florida, with the island of Cozumel, just south of Cancun, featuring on numerous itineraries. Rounding out the top five are Spain, Greece and the Dominican Republic.

When it comes to cruise arrivals per capita, a new winner has been crowned. The island of Sint Maarten has a population of only 42,000, but welcomes an impressive 844,000 cruise passengers. That is 20.1 per year for each resident.

Another 16 destinations see more cruise ships than local populations, including Bermuda, St Lucia, Belize and Barbados.

The Cruise Capitals of the World

Three of the six busiest cruise ports are all in the same US state. The Port of Miami handled 7.3 million passengers in 2023, up from about 5 million in 2016, Port Canaveral near Orlando handled 6.9 million passengers, while Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale carried just over 3 million passengers for a sailing trip on the high seas. People in Florida love to go on cruises. Cozumel and Nassau – because they are close to Florida – and Civitavecchia (the port of Rome) made up the top five.

Icon of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, leaves MiamiIcon of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, leaves Miami

Icon of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, leaves Miami – Reuters

There’s a changing of the guard elsewhere in the table, with efforts to curb cruises in Europe having an effect. Barcelona welcomed 3.14 million annual passengers in 2019, good for fifth place in the rankings. That dropped to 2.32 million in 2019 – and is set to fall further if plans to close the city’s southern cruise terminal come to fruition. Restrictions in Venice have seen the number of cruises fall from 1.43 million in 2017 (which would have put it 19th on the list) to just 497,000 in 2023. Only around 2.5 percent of Venice’s 20 million annual visitors now come by sea. Over the same period, the number of cruise passengers in Dubrovnik has fallen from around 750,000 to 550,000.

This means that a number of relatively unknown ports will be added to the list. Alongside tiny Cozumel, now the third busiest cruise port in the world, Mexico’s Mahahual and Ensenada are in the top 50. Few people have heard of Roatan, in Honduras, but it’s a huge cruise ship destination, with more than 1 million passengers per year (all of whom come from, you guessed it, Florida). On the other side of the world is Jeju, an idyllic corner of South Korea that receives 1.2 million cruise ships every year.

Where do the world’s cruise passengers come from?

As the above statistics have already shown, Americans are by far the most enthusiastic cruisers in the world. Almost half of all passengers come from the US.

The largest source markets in Europe are Germany and the UK, followed by Italy, France and Spain. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese cruise passengers is growing rapidly. It is now tied with the UK and Germany as the third largest market (although still far behind the US).

Do cruise ships make a lot of money?

One of the main arguments against cruise holidays is the lack of money they bring to local economies. Cruise passengers, critics say, eat, drink and shop aboard their giant ships, spend just a few hours sightseeing and taking selfies, and then move on – without helping hoteliers, merchants or restaurateurs.

There’s certainly some truth to this, and passengers who have food and entertainment included in their trip could be forgiven for preferring not to spend ashore. A 2013 study by a University of Bergen professor suggested that of the 60-80 percent of passengers who do bother to leave their ship when it reaches a port, the average spend is a pretty paltry NOK 250 per person – about £18.50.

The cruise industry says the real figure is much higher, claiming that passengers spend an average of $750 per passenger in port cities during a typical seven-day cruise – or around £85 per day. What’s more, it points to an overall global economic impact of $75 billion, with cruises supporting 848,000 jobs. Amid eye-catching comparisons to swarms of insects, such figures are worth pondering.

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