There's money to be made on the high seas. Cruising has become a viable option for travelers, and thankfully for investors, there are plenty of publicly traded companies that are cashing in on the bon-voyage movement.
As ships grow larger, we're seeing on-board options expand dramatically. More vessels also translate into more ports of call, opening new access points for those who don't live near traditional starting points.
There are 421 ships in the global fleet of the members of the industry group Cruise Line International Association, with 482,000 beds. A whopping 23 million passengers are expected to go cruising this year, well above the 14.4 million guests who set sail in 2010.
Let's take a closer look at three of the stocks to watch in this dynamic industry.
There are three leading cruise lines accounting for more than 90% of the industry's volume. Carnival, Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL), and Norwegian Cruise Lines (NYSE:NCLH) are the titans of the industry, combining for $27.1 billion in revenue last year.
Carnival is, by far, the largest player, and it's not just the namesake vessels in its fleet. This is also the company behind other global cruise lines including Holland America, Princess, Cunard, and Costa.
Yes, this is also the same Carnival that has been tied to some of the more notorious mishaps in recent years. We're talking about the catastrophic Costa Concordia grounding of 2012, and the infamous "poop cruise" sailing of the stalled Carnival Triumph a year later.
Carnival's reputation isn't great, but that often comes with the territory of being the mass-market player. Carnival doesn't offer the fine cuisine that Norwegian is known for, or the rock walls and active lifestyles that set Royal Caribbean apart; but it is often the most economical provider.
It's the slowest-growing company of the three, but it also packs the highest dividend yield, at 2.2%. Favorable trends -- an improving global economy and cheap fuel -- should help expand margins in the near term. Analysts see earnings per share at Carnival climbing 27% this fiscal year and 31% in fiscal 2016.
The entire industry is reasonably priced, with the three leaders trading at less than 15 times next year's projected earnings. They should all beat the market if the fundamentals hold up, but Carnival is the one that will make the most of first-time cruise passengers.
The family-entertainment giant became a player in the cruise-line market when the Magic and Wonder entered service in 1998 and 1999, respectively. The richly themed cruise experiences are sold at a premium to the industry, and unlike other vessels, there are no floating casinos on these ships. Disney doubled its fleet when the Dream and Fantasy started to set sail in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Disney has been one of the better blue chips in recent years, and the same dynamics that are propelling it at its theme parks and studio -- the billions that it has spent on Pixar, Marvel, and more recently Lucasfilm -- are also paying off with themed opportunities aboard its four ships.
Steiner Leisure (UNKNOWN:STNR.DL)
The third stock to watch is one that's familiar to passengers who seek some pampering once aboard. Steiner operates the floating spas on 150 of the industry's largest ships. History is on Steiner's side, as the cruise lines that have tried to take their spas in-house have largely faltered. Steiner's ecosystem of training centers and dozens of real-world spas help arm it with the trained employees for this high-end niche.
Annual revenue at Steiner has grown from $620.4 million in 2010 to $863.5 million last year, according to data from S&P Capital IQ. Steiner offers an interesting play on the state of the industry. It doesn't have to suffer the volatility of pricing pressures as cruise lines compete to fill berths. It's there for those already on the ship, and the pampered spa experience is also a great way for Steiner to market its spa product lines.