If you are one of the many travel affiliates looking to sell cruises, but have been stymied by the inability to directly access cruise product, then Travel Dividends suggests you look into CruiseDirect.com’s travel affiliate program.

The cruise industry is generally acknowledged to be one of the fastest growing segments in the travel industry.  According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), since 1980, the North American cruise industry has experienced an average annualized growth of 7.4%; a rather phenomenal growth rate considering that during this timeframe, the travel industry also experienced a number of global economic downturns and international crises.  CLIA also estimates that 13.2 million travelers cruised last year (up from 12.56 million in 2007, and an increase of more than 79% since 2000), and that its members will carry 13.5 million passengers in 2009, a year-over-year increase of 2.3%.

Given their marketing prowess, it stands to reason that travel affiliates would be very interested in selling cruises – whether the cruise itineraries originate in North America, Europe, South America or Asia/Pac.  However, their biggest challenge isn’t in marketing cruise product, rather, it’s getting access to it.

Among the 16 major cruise lines operating in North American waters, only Carnival Cruise Lines sells through the affiliate marketing channel.  Although Carnival is the market leader, and a staunch supporter of the travel affiliates, being reduced to ‘one-trick ponies’ competitively disadvantages many travel affiliates versus other travel retailers, as product choice is cited by online travel consumers as a critical prerequisite in their search and buying criteria.

To close this competitive gap, one option available to travel affiliates is aligning themselves with other retailers that offer indirect access to cruise product; one of the top players in this category is CruiseDirect.com.  As one of the largest online cruise portals, CruiseDirect offers travel affiliates who sign-up for their program a panoply of cruise product as well as a solid travel affiliate program.

On the product side, CruiseDirect’s product line includes virtually all of the world’s cruise lines, including leading brands such as Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Disney, Holland American Line, Norwegian Caribbean Line, Princess, and Windstar.  CruiseDirect also offers a ‘Last Minute Cruise Deals’ feature, which is stacked with dozens of deeply discounted sailings.  For example, in our recent analysis of their site, we spotted a 3-night Southern Caribbean cruise departing from San Juan on August 16th on the Carnival Victory priced from $149 per person for an inside double cabin. Quite the value!

TravelDividends is also impressed with CruiseDirect’s technology; its booking engine, Cruise Finder, allows the travel consumer to customize their cruise search process by preferencing for desired cruise destination, length of cruise, specific month or date range, departure port, and by ‘all cruise lines’ or specific cruise suppliers. Cruise Finder’s functionality also includes real time availability and live pricing (at least for the sample cruise itineraries we tested).  CruiseDirect also offers a ‘lowest price guarantee’, whereby in the event that the consumer receives a lower rate quote for the same itinerary from a competitor site than that offered by CruiseDirect, they’ll match it.

CruiseDirect’s travel affiliate program is also quite generous; travel affiliates earn 3.5% of the gross sale generated from each customer booking they’ve referred to CruiseDirect.  The Company claims the average value of a cruise booking on their site is $1,800, which if accurate, suggests travel affiliates can earn an average of $90 for each booking. Additionally, CruiseDirect offers a 60 day cookie and PPC Marketing opportunities; they also note that “an extensive data feed” is in the pipeline.

For more information about CruiseDirect’s travel affiliate program, visit their affiliate program highlight page, or check with Commission Junction, their preferred affiliate network.

The cruise niche represents one of the largest untapped opportunities for travel affiliates, one that we think will grow as more cruise lines and cruise portals realize the upside potential that the affiliate marketing channel offers, both as a way to lower distribution costs as well as expand their customer reach.

What has been your experience with selling cruises?  Do you agree with our assessment about the market, and the prospects for future growth in affiliate generated cruise bookings?  Let us know…as always, TravelDividends appreciates receiving feedback from our readers.