Amid pent-up travel demand and a growing experiences-driven economy, global cruise revenue is expected to rise more than 9% annually over the next several years. From an estimated $25 billion this year, worldwide cruise revenue is anticipated to reach nearly $36 billion by 2027.

With that in mind, today let's compare two cruise line stocks -- one of them an industry behemoth and the other one more of a niche player -- to determine which currently presents a better buying opportunity.

The case for Lindblad Expeditions

Posting remarkable fourth-quarter and full-year 2022 revenue growth, Lindblad Expeditions (LIND -1.77%) enjoyed strong demand from a burgeoning adventure-travel market last year. Known for transporting guests to the most remote parts of the planet aboard cruise ships, Lindblad also operates a growing portfolio of land-based adventure companies.

The cruise line's fourth-quarter revenue finished at $118 million, a remarkable 80% improvement over the same period in 2021 -- and 56% above 2019's fourth quarter. Full-year 2022 revenue came in at nearly $422 million -- a whopping 187% higher than 2021.

While fourth-quarter revenue marked substantial improvement (56%) over pre-pandemic levels, full-year 2022 revenue only surpassed 2019 by 23%. It appears that Lindblad's performance has accelerated in recent quarters, and investors should watch closely to ensure this momentum continues.

Lindblad also runs several land-based companies including Natural Habitat, DuVine Cycling + Adventure, Off the Beaten Path, and Classic Journeys. Along with Lindblad's expanded fleet of explorer cruise ships, its land-based trips were major revenue drivers.

Lindblad generated $71 million in 2019 land-based revenue (then with just Natural Habitat). In 2022, the company delivered more than twice that figure -- hitting $143 million in consolidated land-experiences revenue.

But while revenue surged last year, so did operating expenses. In fact, 2022 brought an 88% year-over-year jump in total operating expenses, caused by higher fuel, labor, and land-based operating costs. Ultimately, Lindblad took a non-GAAP adjusted loss of $2.7 million in the fourth quarter and $11.5 million in all of 2022, on the basis of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA).

The company anticipates this year will produce continued growth over pre-pandemic levels. During Lindblad's earnings call late last month, CEO Dolf Berle mentioned that full-year bookings (reservations for future travel) for 2023 "are currently up 47% versus 2019 on the same date, that year."

The case for Norwegian Cruise Line 

After driving higher revenue last quarter than in the fourth quarter of 2019, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH 0.66%) appears to be on a recovery from its collapse in early 2020.

Norwegian's fourth-quarter 2022 revenue of $1.5 billion more than tripled the same period in 2021, and surpassed the fourth quarter of 2019 by 2.6%. And full-year 2022 revenue of $4.8 billionwas seven times higher than the 2021 figure. But last year's revenue was 25% lower than in 2019.

In the fourth quarter, Norwegian's total revenue per passenger cruise day (a key industry measure) increased by 24% from 2019, helped by onboard revenue generation and strong fare pricing. Like Lindblad, performance improved as 2022 progressed, and the company delivered the bulk of its revenue in the third and fourth quarters.

Despite surging revenue in the second half of 2022, Norwegian finished last quarter with a net loss of $482 million. And it took a full-year net loss of $2.27 billion. Rising operating expenses such as fuel, salaries, and other variable costs were primarily to blame.

Undeterred by last year's challenges, management anticipates positive EBITDA earnings of $1.8 billion to $1.95 billion in 2023, with the expectation that costs will ease as the year progresses. Norwegian started the year with a record-high booked position of 62%, and occupancy remains on pace to reach pre-pandemic levels by the second quarter, according to CEO Frank Del Rio.

If Norwegian Cruise Line can reenter profitable waters in 2023, its stock could soon follow.

Which cruise line stock is a better buy right now?

While both cruise line stocks appear to have stabilized, one of them is on more of an upswing. Norwegian shares still trade a mere 9% above its March 2020 lows. By comparison, Lindblad Expeditions stock is up almost 200% from its lows around roughly the same time. Perhaps investors have caught wind of the flourishing adventure travel market.

Let's look at several more measures to compare these companies, including their price-to-sales (P/S) ratios, revenue gains, earnings expectations, and expanding debt levels.

Metric Lindblad Expeditions Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings
Market capitalization $512 million $6.45 billion
Price-to-sales ratio 1.19 1.32
Year-over-year revenue gains in 2022 187% 648%
2023 earnings expectations as a percentage of 2019 actual earnings 113% 96.6%
Long-term debt percent increase since 2019 148% 109%

Table data: Yahoo! Finance, Seeking Alpha, company reports.

Norwegian achieved much higher year-over-year revenue growth in 2022, but Lindblad has a more appealing P/S ratio and better earnings expectations compared to 2019. That being said, by percentage Lindblad's debt has widened more significantly than Norwegian's since pre-pandemic 2019.

Despite a slightly higher P/S multiple and mildly lower earnings expectations, I call Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings the better buy. Lindblad Expeditions should continue to benefit from a growing segment of thrill seekers, but Norwegian's well-established, high-end, and mainstream business model maintains a high level of demand from older (and more affluent) cruisers.

And considering that its stock still resides near its lows of 2020, company improvements could spark a dramatic recovery for Norwegian Cruise Line stock.