If you Google the term "cruise" right now, you'll see dozens of stories not about new Alaskan routes or ship launches, but about how coronavirus is stranding thousands of ships and their passengers around the world. One ship, the Diamond Princess, has been on lockdown in Japan's Yokohama harbor for two weeks. Meanwhile, Holand America's MS Westerdam was turned away by five countries despite no known cases among its 1,455 passengers.

And people are talking about it: mentions of Princess cruises on Facebook are at their highest levels in at least a year.

Coronavirus fears are likely to affect vacationers' interest in cruises in 2020. We track stateroom prices and inventory at Carnival Cruise lines ($CCL), the largest in the industry, and a likely bellwether for others.

What we are seeing — a very recent but very real rise in inventory — could spell a tough year for the industry and a good year for cruise lovers looking for a deal. Here's what we know.

Prices remain stable for suites, flat for balcony and other rooms

We took a more in-depth look at how Carnival fluctuates prices throughout the year last month. Despite rumors to the contrary, we found that there isn't much of a seasonal pattern as to when cruise line prices rise or fall outside of what appears to be a slight rise during winter months when bookings accelerate during a time often called "wave season" as cruisers begin planning vacations.

So far, prices this winter aren't showing anything terribly unusual. Suite stateroom prices are seeing the same slight increase as they saw in early 2019. However, balcony, oceanview, and interior stateroom prices have yet to see a seasonal bump in pricing. While we only have one previous winter to compare to here, this flattening of prices is worth noting as we watch how the coronavirus continues to be conflated in the news with cruising.

Last year, suite prices moved from an average of $1,050 at the end of January to $1,090 by February before settling back to $1,060 by February. This year, suite prices started at the same $1,060 and currently sit at $1,080, mirroring last year.

However, balcony prices last year moved from $805 to $837 in the same time period. This year, the move is more flat, from $792 to $800 on average. Meanwhile, oceanview averages have declined slightly in the past week. Interior stateroom prices have been flat this year at $466, compared to last year when they saw a move from averages of $471 to $503.

Inventory spikes, precipitating potential price drops

While pricing data shows only minute movement, we're seeing more fluctuations in inventory count via the number of available staterooms as listed on Carnival's booking site over time.

In early 2019, stateroom inventory showed a steady decline. When we compared inventory to pricing, we saw that low inventory precipitated drops in price as Carnival presumably looked to clear unsold rooms before adding newly available cruises.

This year, however, we are seeing an unusual uptick in-stateroom inventory.

At the end of January, inventory had been on a steady decline. But as of this week, unsold room count appears to be moving up. If this is an early signal that booking has slowed, at least via Carnival's e-commerce operation. we may see deeper moves in prices as unsold inventory forces Carnival's hand. In other words, something's gotta give.

We'll keep an eye on it.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online - jobs, social and web traffic, product sales and app ratings - and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales. 

Further Reading: 

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