The cruise sector is being hit by a change in booking patterns as a result of the current economic downturn, Carnival UK chief executive David Dingle has admitted.

Launching P&O Cruises’ newest ship Azura, which launches in April 2010, he said: “It is a challenging time at the moment. It’s not surprising that customers are thinking hard about spending their money.

“People do seem reluctant to forfeit their holidays but they want to be sure of their personal position before committing themselves. I cannot pretend cruising is not feeling some of this and we are seeing some rebasing of our booking curve; may be people are waiting longer to book.”

He maintained the cruise industry was one of the few able to weather the downturn.

Travel agents agreed the market was proving tough but were not overly concerned about 2009.

Save’n’Sail Cruise Village managing director Phil Nuttall said: “If you are being proactive then the business is out there but it’s challenging and people are buying on price.” managing director Kevin Ivie said there was “inevitably” more availabilty on ships this Christmas because of the downturn, but added: “There is more availability for Christmas than normally at this time but it doesn’t mean the cruiselines are doing badly, but what is left will be difficult to shift. Everyone is sitting on their hands at the moment.”

P&O Cruises’ new ship Azura will increase the group’s capacity by 25% and will be the seventh ship entirely dedicated to British passengers.

The 116,000 tonne ship, which launches in 2010, will carry up to 3,597 passengers. It will feature Indian fine dining restaurant Sindhu, the creation of Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar.

TV wine expert Olly Smith has also been enlisted to help create a new Select Dining restaurant and wine bar concept, The Glass House.