Carnival Corporation chief executive Arnold Donald has challenged travel agents in this country to propel the UK back to number two in the world cruise rankings – at least until China’s expected market surge.

Donald tasked agents with growing UK passenger numbers to overtake the German market.

The UK, currently third in the world rankings, carried a record 1.89 million passengers in 2016, behind Germany’s 2.08 million.

The UK last led Germany in 2013 (1.73 million versus 1.69 million).

The US and China are yet to release passenger numbers for 2016 but posted figures of 11.3 million and 986,000 respectively for 2015. China is predicted to expand to 5.6 million by 2024.

Speaking on the maiden voyage of Majestic Princess, which will homeport in Shanghai from May, Donald said: “A lot of what cruising is today started in the UK, and then the US eventually passed the UK in passenger numbers,” he said.

“Now Germany is at number two, so I would like to throw a challenge out to everyone in the UK to get it back to number two.

“There is no question that China will end up at number one, and of course we look forward to that day, but for now the challenge is to get the UK back to number two.”

Carnival Corporation chairman Micky Arison also attended Majestic’s first sailing. He said agents should take advantage of cruising’s value, especially lines that set prices in sterling.

“With the weaker pound post-Brexit, cruising with us has become of much greater value to British customers and our business from the UK has been extraordinary,” he said.

“This is especially the case for P&O, where everything is in pounds and customers start to compare that with going to Spain on a land-based holiday where you have to convert to euros at a less favourable rate than a year ago.”

Princess Cruises plans to add three new ships, in 2019, 2020 and 2022, and group president Jan Swartz said there was “always room for the UK market to grow”.