From cheap deals and health screening, to group charters and party ships, the cruise industry is working hard to rebuild its appeal. Anthony Pearce, co-founder of Cruise Adviser magazine, reports on what lies ahead
Since the beginning of the outbreak of the Covid-19, cruise ships have provided visual representations of the pandemic’s devastation – the images of a quarantined Diamond Princess off the port of Yokohama in early February will linger long in the mind.
As the virus spread, borders were closed and lockdowns introduced, ships were caught up in a global panic and forced to take circuitous routes back to land after ports refused access regardless of whether cases of coronavirus had been recorded on board or not.
In April, in a piece that infuriated the travel industry, The Guardian described cruise ships as “floating dungeons” and “ideal incubators of infectious diseases.” The article argued that even prior to coronavirus, cruise ships had “fairly common” outbreaks of norovirus, a vomiting bug.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes these outbreaks as “relatively infrequent”, but does note that close living quarters may increase the amount of group contact, while people joining the ship may bring viruses to other passengers and crew, as appears to be the case in Australia, where infected cruise guests helped to spread Covid-19.
Some have since accused cruise lines of being too slow to cancel itineraries, with some ships continuing to sail after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared coronavirus to be a pandemic on March 11. But, to put it in context: that same day, Viking Cruises became the first to suspend its operations – some 12 days before the UK entered lockdown – and others followed suit soon after.
“It’s obvious now, in hindsight, that the whole world should have acted sooner and taken different steps to mitigate the spread of Covid-19,” says Andy Harmer, director of the Cruise Line International Association (Clia), UK and Ireland. “Cruise lines took immediate and aggressive action in response to this crisis with policies and protocols that went above and beyond the actions of other industries.”
However, cruise’s proximity to the outbreak and the criticism that has followed will no doubt have a long-term effect on customers’ willingness to get back on board.
According to a survey by The Independent in April, of those who have previously sailed, three in ten said they would not do so again. In lieu of a vaccine, cruise lines must ask: how do they protect their guests, deal with potential outbreaks in future, and convince customers to come back on board?
Prior to Covid-19, the cruise industry had been experiencing record growth: the total number of ocean-going cruise ships on order was estimated to be 124 – an investment of about US$69 billion.
This had been spurred on by two things: the fierce loyalty of the cruise customer, who returns time and time again to the holiday type and their preferred brands; and the growing new-to-cruise market, which is estimated to account for about 40 per cent of passengers.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Voyages has been particularly designed to appeal to this younger demographic, but it’s launch has been (unsurprisingly) delayed until at least October. With pent-up hedonism abound among more virus-resistant millennials and Gen Zs, it hopes to do well.
It is undoubtedly past customers who will provide the launchpad from which the industry re-emerges. Getting first-timers on board will be a considerable challenge – even with cruise lines promoting incredible offers.
“We certainly believe we can get new-to-cruise guests onboard and have seen this through a number of new customer enquiries during lockdown,” Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions, a small-ship specialist, adding: “We have always been very transparent with our guests on our strict health and safety policy; this will be even more important moving forwards.”
Zugaro says that small-ship cruise lines and those offering group charter were well placed in future, noting that its ships only visit remote destinations, far removed from crowded areas, with a focus on nature and wildlife regions.
Similarly, luxury lines, who operate ships where space is in abundance and who target customers more likely to have avoided a loss in earnings during lockdown, may be better equipped to weather the storm.
Wybcke Meier, the CEO of the Germany brand Tui Cruises, told The Telegraph that she is “convinced that in the long-term the demand for premium and luxury cruises will not change,” predicting that “we will see the demand for cruises return to pre-crisis level within 12 to 18 months.”
Cruise operators will need to be rigorous in their sanitation procedures and inventive in their planning. Uniworld has announced that all guests will be required to complete health screening prior to embarkation; disinfectant wipes will be available throughout the ship; while gloves, face masks and bottles of hand sanitiser will “readily available for all guests”.
The luxury river line also added that shared food items – such as butter – and communal snacks – such as cookies – will now be served individually; restaurant dining will be reserved (to ensure guests are sat with the same people each day); and for excursions, the maximum occupancy per bus will be reduced.
Avalon, another luxurious river cruise line, has promised similar things, adding that it will reduce capacity on board; a sentiment echoed by Royal Caribbean International, which operates the world’s largest cruise ships. The line’s president and CEO Michael Bayley has also said that, to begin with, there will no buffets on its ships. (Interestingly, Virgin Voyages banned buffets from the outset.)Carnival Cruise Line has said it plans to resume service on August 1 with eight ships – less than a third of its fleet, which is the largest in the world – noting that it is “taking a measured approach, focusing our return to service on a select number of homeports where we have more significant operations that are easily accessible by car for the majority of our guests.”
For now, much is out of the cruise lines’ hands. The CDC, whose no-sail order in the US was first issued on March 14, originally for a month, says it does “not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume sailing” and has not discussed timetables with cruise lines. For now, it’s a case of waiting and planning.
“The cruise industry is resilient and I’m confident that when the time is right, we will welcome back people who enjoy cruising and also newcomers,” says Harmer. “There is no doubt that the cruise industry will emerge stronger for the challenges we have faced and the lessons we have learned along the way in confronting this unique virus.
The important task for cruise lines and travel agents will be effectively communicating the enhanced protocols and measures that show customers the industry’s dedication to the health and safety of guests and crew.”
CLOSED FOR BUSINESS
Although cruise ships might be able to get people on board, the reality is, they might not be welcome to unload their passengers when going port to port. In anticipation, the Seychelles has announced it will be closed to cruise ships until 2022 in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19 across its islands. Globetrender predicts that it won’t be the only one.
Rheanna Norris, associate analyst at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, says: “The decision to ban cruise ships from visiting the Seychelles via its Victoria port could spark a major downturn for this tourism-reliant economy. Cruise ships do not only bring visitors to its 115 islands, but also encourages spending on entertainment and food service, alongside accommodation and inspiration for repeat trips.
“Arrivals to the Seychelles via cruise ships quadrupled between 2017 and 2018, with further increases forecasted for 2020 and beyond. This new legislation will eradicate this increase and the islands will rely on tourism by air travel only.
“According to GlobalData, tourism accounted for 25.5 per cent of the Seychelles’ GDP in 2019, making it one of the most tourism dependent countries in the world. Alongside existing travel restrictions and a global slowdown in travel, banning cruise ships is further bad news for this luxury destination.
“This strategic move will help the Seychelles’ other key economic sector: fishing. As its port in Victoria is its only point of entry for the rest of the world, its priority is to not compromise the maritime industry and to protect the nation from the global pandemic at all costs.
“The Seychelles still have a point of entry for tourism via air, and it has already embarked on the road to recovery. With assistance from the government, civil society and Seychelles Investment Board, tourism businesses can look to adapt to the future and inevitable changes in travel.”