EVEN for an industry that routinely deals in superlatives, this year is going to be huge.
The arrival of mega-cruise ship Radiance of the Seas at the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Friday morning marked the start of another record cruise season for Sydney - where a swathe of liners will make 265 visits to the harbour before the season ends in April.
A peak of 40 ships in just 29 days in ''Super February'' will help this year overtake the record of 198 total ship visits to Sydney, set last season, by 30 per cent.
Even the new record is not expected to stand long. The NSW Ports Minister, Duncan Gay, says the number of visits is likely to reach 300 next season, ''and if this trend continues by 2020, it is conceivable that nearly 1 million cruise passengers will be visiting Sydney each year''.
And many of those passengers are Australian. The Radiance of the Seas' passenger manifest reveals 90 per cent of the 2100 people disembarking yesterday, after a 17-night voyage from Hawaii, were Australian.
Gavin Smith, the managing director of Royal Caribbean Cruises Australia - which counts the liner among its fleet - said he expected up to 750,000 Australians to take a cruise during 2012.
That figure would eclipse last year's 620,000 Australian cruise ship passengers, which was a 34 per cent jump on 2010.
By comparison, industry figures recorded a 4 per cent rise in American passengers and a 5 per cent increase in British passengers during the same 2011 period.
Mr Smith, who is also the chairman of the International Cruise Council of Australasia, said the industry is following the strength of the Australian dollar. It has found the local market receptive to the idea of a holiday at sea.
''The stronger economy is providing a better return, and the better return is attracting a better quality of ship,'' he said.
This includes Voyager of the Seas, the largest cruise liner to visit Australian waters, due to arrive in Sydney on November 22. It will bring with it an ice-skating rink and an indoor entertainment ''street'' that runs the length of a football field.
This season will also be marked by the opening of the $57 million cruise passenger terminal at White Bay in March. However, the new terminal will remain inaccessible to mega-liners too tall to pass under the Harbour Bridge, fuelling ongoing debate about the need for access to Garden Island despite a planned $30 million upgrade of the Overseas Passenger Terminal.
The chief executive of Carnival Australia, Ann Sherry, said access to Garden Island for three ships during the next two cruise seasons was a ''step forward''.
But Ms Sherry said the developments would not go far enough to support long-term growth, and access to Garden Island for ship overflow during the peak season should be part of the permanent three-berth solution for the harbour.
A spokesman for Mr Gay said Sydney would be able to cope with future demand.