Modern-day cruise ships are immense vessels that provide passengers with a comfortable and luxurious way to traverse the world’s largest bodies of water. Given their tremendous scale, you may wonder, just how many cruise ships are there? 

To answer your questions and give you a better understanding of the cruise industry, we are going to take a deep dive into the latest numbers. We will also explain why the number constantly fluctuates and how global events and trends can increase the demand for full-scale cruise ships.

So, let’s get started!

By the end of 2023, there will be an estimated 454 ocean-worthy cruise ships worldwide. While this number is undoubtedly staggering, it is important to note that not all of these ships will operate simultaneously.

This is because some ships are held for repairs and general maintenance, while others are kept docked while passenger demand fluctuates. Others are simply docked between voyages.

Typically, the number of operational cruise ships tends to hover closer to the 300 mark. This number is also spread across numerous cruise lines, including large companies like Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line, and Disney Cruise Line, and smaller ones like Holland America Line, MSC Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises.

As mentioned, different cruise lines operate different numbers of cruise ships. Unsurprisingly, some of the most well-known names in the industry operate the largest number of ships. 

As of 2023, Royal Caribbean has 26 fully operational cruise ships, which is set to grow to 27, with the arrival of the world’s largest cruise ship, Icon of the Seas. With 26 fully operational, Carnival Cruise Line is not far behind, including the third Excel-class, Carnival Jubilee.

Cruise Ships at PortMiami (Photo Credit: Dennis MacDonald)

Beyond that, MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line also operate a significant number of vessels, with 24 and 21, respectively. Some of the smallest cruise lines only operate one or two, which is still a significant feat considering the immense cost of building and operating a full-sized cruise ship. 

As anyone in the industry will tell you, cruise ship construction depends on various factors, so it can vary significantly from one year to the next. Market demands, economic conditions, and even global events can all greatly influence how cruise lines and the shipbuilding industry operate. 

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted the cruise industry, as travel restrictions, lockdowns, and a general unwillingness to be in crowded spaces meant that passenger demand plummeted. Many cruise lines had to temporarily dock some of their largest vessels to reduce operating costs, while others took the opportunity to perform maintenance procedures on their fleets.

Disney Treasure Construction at Meyer Werft

Since most cruise lines had more vessels than they needed, the shipbuilding industry also saw a significant decline in activity. With all that said, the post-COVID-19 recovery period has seen a massive spike in passenger demand, so many cruise lines are expanding their fleets. This explains why the number of operational cruise ships is set to increase substantially into 2024 and beyond.

Worth Reading: How Many Doors on a Cruise Ship?

With all of that said, in a typical year, numbers tend to remain relatively stable. This is because there is usually an equal number of new cruise ships launched per year as there are ones that are scrapped. For example, in 2017, the cruise industry saw the construction and launch of 17 ships, while a perfectly equal number of 17 ships were scrapped. 

Just like the number of cruise ships built per year, the number that are scrapped also varies according to industry demands and the condition and maintenance costs of each. 

Typically, a vessel is taken out of service after roughly 20 to 25 years of operation. That said, some of the more well-built and properly maintained vessels can have a lifespan of more than 30 years.

Photo Credit: Gen-Z designs / Shutterstock

When it is determined that a cruise ship has run its course or is deemed unsafe and no longer fit for service, it is stripped down for parts and scrap through a sophisticated vessel recycling program.

Specialized ship scrap yard facilities meticulously break the ship down so that the valuable metals can be recycled and any hazardous materials can be disposed of properly. 

If you are curious about how many cruise ships are operational, you might also wonder how you can tell it apart from a smaller passenger vessel. 

Aside from the number of passengers they can carry, one of the main differentiating factors is that vessels are designed for extended voyages. Where other large passenger vessels, like ocean-crossing ferries, can hold many passengers, and some even have on-board amenities and dining halls to entertain and feed travelers, they rarely carry passengers for more than 18 hours. 

Since these smaller vessels are only designed to transport passengers to a particular destination rather than provide a vacation in themselves, they do not need to have the same level of passenger accommodations and other facilities required for a long-haul voyage.

Ferry and Cruise Ship Passing Each Other (Photo Credit: Kevin Shipp)

Not only do smaller passenger vessels lack the facilities and supplies required for a lengthy voyage, but they are not given the same level of safety certification, so it would violate maritime standards and laws to hold passengers for more than 24 hours. 

In other words, cruise ships must be capable of safely carrying passengers for a significant time. While many travel to various destinations, their primary purpose is to provide a relaxing and entertaining experience for guests rather than being viewed as a simple mode of transportation. 

Across all major cruise lines, over 20.4 million cruise ship passengers traveled in 2022 alone. By the end of 2023, that number is expected to be far greater, with many industry experts forecasting the number at close to 31.5 million

Since travel demand has risen steadily since the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unsurprising that the 2019 peak will be exceeded this year. 

The average medium-sized cruise ship usually has a passenger capacity of nearly 3,000 guests. Given the number of ships in operation is also rising, you can see how many people can enjoy dream cruise vacations each year. 

Considering that travel demand has risen steadily since the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unsurprising that the 2019 peak will be exceeded this year. 

While millions of passengers traverse the world’s waterways by cruise ship each year, a finite number of passengers can travel at any given time. Obviously, this is due to the number of operational ships, as well as the safe passenger capacity of each vessel. 

As of 2022, 664,602 passengers could travel simultaneously if all 302 cruise ships running that year were filled to their maximum safe capacity. This is substantial when considering that most cruise voyages range from 5 to 14 nights. Given that they run continuously and can carry so many guests, you start to see how the annual number of passengers can quickly climb into the tens of millions!

As one of the world’s biggest cruise lines, you may wonder how many vessels Royal Caribbean International operates. As of the very end of 2023, Royal Caribbean has 26 ships in its fleet, but that number is set to grow throughout 2024.

They have the highest number of cruise ships and operate the world’s largest passenger vessel – the Icon of the Seas. As a new LNG-powered Icon-class vessel, it is immense in physical scale and capable of carrying an incredible number of passengers (7,600 at maximum capacity). The cruise line also operates the world’s second-largest cruise ship – Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas

Like any industry, the cruise industry changes all of the time. One of the many ways it fluctuates from one year to the next is in the number of operational cruise ships. Passenger demands and the condition of individual vessels will dictate the number of new constructions and the number of ships that will be retired and scrapped each year.

Read Also: What is the Average Capacity of a Cruise Ship?

Many of the world’s leading cruise lines are reporting record-breaking passenger counts for 2023, and those numbers are not showing any signs of slowing down as the year ends. Given that trend, we can only expect the number of cruise ships to increase going forward.

This is all great news for cruise vacation enthusiasts! The more cruise ships out there, the more flexible your travel options will be. Who knows, more vessels may even translate to more affordable vacations for travelers.

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