Investors in cruise-line stocks have been feeling seasick this year. Shares of Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL) are entering the weekend trading 61% lower year to date. If you think that's rough sailing, keep in mind that Royal Caribbean stock has actually held up better than its two publicly traded peers: Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NYSE:NCLH) and larger rival Carnival (NYSE:CCL) (NYSE:CUK) have cranked out year-to-date swoons of 72% and 68%, respectively.

Asking if Royal Caribbean stock is a millionaire maker right now -- with the shares clearly out of favor -- may not seem right. The question brings up the old joke: The best way to make a million in this situation is to start with $2 million. But this isn't about looking back at the cruel first half of the year -- will Royal Caribbean be a wealth creator in the future? The answer will be more bullish than you probably think.

A wave of dollar bills and coins

Image source: Getty Images.

It's a floating casino

The knocks against cruise lines in general, and Royal Caribbean in particular, are pretty well established. They're not sailing right now, and that's been the case since mid-March. With rare exceptions -- Carnival's Aida brand expects to start sailing three ships out of Germany next month -- we're at least two more months away from a phased resumption of sea travel. Canceled voyages have naturally irked passengers and hurt the industry's cash flow; the crisis has been even worse for crew members, as tens of thousands were stuck on ships without pay during the lengthy repatriation process.

Cruises were hit hard by COVID-19, and the aftermath won't be pretty. It will be the last travel segment to weigh anchor.

With coronavirus cases continuing to climb in the U.S., betting on a return to normalcy sooner rather than later is a risky gamble. However, there's also a lot to like here, given Royal Caribbean's depressed share prices in an otherwise buoyant market.

The industry seems to get it. All three companies have raised billions of dollars since the March shutdown, arming them with the liquidity to get through this year. They're adjusting to the initial dip in demand. Carnival announced on Friday that it will be disposing of 13 existing ships as it delays new ship deliveries.

The risks are there. But if you're the type of risk-averse investor who would prefer to buy the leading player in an out-of-favor industry rather than buying a laggard in a hot sector, you may find Royal Caribbean stock to your liking. It's not a coincidence that Royal Caribbean has held up better than Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line. It's not the largest player -- Carnival wears that crown. However, it's a good thing to be the silver medalist in terms of volume: Carnival relies on entry-level pricing to woo first-time cruise passengers, and that will be the hardest target audience to sell cruise vacations to over the next year or two.

Royal Caribbean has historically commanded the thickest margins in this market. If we look out to 2022 -- the year that analysts see a return to profitability for all three players -- Royal Caribbean will be the closest to its peak 2019 earnings. Royal Caribbean is in a unique win-win situation with its leading metrics. If things improve, it's going to bounce back first. If conditions deteriorate, the shakeout would eliminate some of its competition, boosting its long-term prospects at the expense of short-term results.

These are scary times, between COVID-19 and the global recession. But if you had to find a millionaire maker among the cruise-line stocks, it would be hard not to go with Royal Caribbean.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.