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Washing away the bad memories, cruise ship bookings rise

If you want to see rising consumer confidence in action, look out to sea.
/ Source: TODAY

What "poop cruise?" Bookings are on the rise for the cruise industry, a sign that people are feeling better about their finances and forgiving of the industry's recently soiled reputation.

Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s largest trade association, estimates that 23 million people will board ocean-bound cruise ships this year, an increase of 4.4 percent over last year.

Low gas prices, decent job numbers and increasing home equity have all set the stage for a rebound in this kind of disposable income spending.

But consumer sentiment about the industry is also on the rise. According to YouGov, a brand sentiment tracking company, the perception of the industry has recovered to pre-disaster levels among the general public, and surpassed them among those who have cruised in the last 12 months.

Charlie Funk, co-owner of the Just Cruisin’ Plus travel agency in Brentwood, Tennessee, saw the turnaround gather steam last fall when gas prices start dropping.

"A change of $1 a gallon adds up to about $750–$800 a year in savings so the psychological impact is substantial," he said. With consumers carrying a little extra pocket change, the agency has seen a 21-percent jump in cruise bookings this year, said Funk.

At the same time, the resurgence of cruising may also reflect optimism of another sort. It’s been three years since the Costa Concordia ran aground in Italy, killing 32 passengers, and two years since the Carnival Triumph broke down, stranding 4,200 passengers and crew on what soon came to be known as the “poop cruise.”

Both stories dominated the headlines during the industry’s biggest booking windows, January to March. While cruise promoters interviewed by NBC News at the time claimed that bookings didn’t suffer as a result, the industry’s reputation was effectively torpedoed.

Since then the cruise lines have gone to great lengths to repair the damage and forestall future problems.

"There have been no cruise ships crashing, no cruise ships stalling," said Mike Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Cruise Week, an industry publication.

Cruise lines haven't stoked demand with price cuts either. It’s quite the opposite.

"Rates are going up and ships are going out full," said Driscoll.