Australia is about to experience its largest ever cruise season with the country’s biggest cruise operator, Carnival Australia, announcing that a record 168,000 passengers will sail on its ships locally during the next six months.

An unprecedented 12 cruise ships from Cunard Line, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises Australia and P&O Cruises UK – all represented by Carnival Australia – will make 227 calls around Australia during the cruise season, which starts this week and continues through to April.

The figure represents a significant increase in passenger numbers compared to the 201 calls made by 11 Carnival Australia ships during the 2007-08 cruise season.

“In all, our ships will visit 20 different ports around Australia over this cruise season, carrying a record 168,000 passengers – up 20 per cent on our numbers last cruise season,” Carnival Australia CEO Ann Sherry said.

“We estimate that every time one of these ships docks $500,000 sails into the economy, with this contribution more than doubling when one of our large international cruise liners visits – resulting in a direct $140 million boost to the Australian economy in just six months.”

According to Access Economics, the cruise industry contributed $734 million to the national economy in the 2006/07 fiscal year. Economic activity generated by the cruise industry is forecast to grow to $1 billion by 2010.

“The economic impact of cruising in Australia is growing each year, and it’s the cities and towns that are maintaining their cruise infrastructure and encouraging ship visits that stand to gain the most.”

Princess Cruises, the setting for the hit TV series ‘The Love Boat’, will have the biggest presence, with an unprecedented five cruise ships sailing in Australian waters.

Key among them will be the 77,000-tonne liner Dawn Princess, which will become Australia’s second ‘Love Boat’ when she debuts in Sydney late October to join her twin sister, Sun Princess, cruising year-round from Australia.

Meanwhile, the 116,000-tonne megaliner Diamond Princess will return to Australia for a season of cruises, which includes her maiden visits to Adelaide and Fremantle. The boutique 30,000-tonne Royal Princess and Tahitian Princess will also make their maiden visits to Australia, calling in Queensland, NSW and Tasmania during their first world voyages.

Australia features on P&O Cruises UK’s cruise itineraries, with the cruise line sending a record three superliners to Australia this cruise season, including Oriana, Aurora and the 83,000-tonne Arcadia which will be making her maiden visit Down Under.

Cunard Line will be another visitor to Australia, with its luxurious 3090-guest Queen Mary 2 and her younger sister, the 2000-guest Queen Victoria, bringing more Cunard travellers than ever before.

Ms Sherry said the massive number of cruise ship visits reflected the increasing popularity of Australia as a destination as well as growing interest in cruising amongst Australian holidaymakers.

“Australians are becoming more aware of the diverse cruise itineraries now on offer as well as the range of vessels, from boutique ships to megaliners, so we’re seeing unprecedented interest in cruise holidays,” Ms Sherry said.