As COVID-19 spread across the world, cruise ships found themselves moving quickly to react. A virus that spread through the air and could sit on surfaces for hours on end made cruising impossible. The nature of cruises makes close contact a part of life, a factor that many passengers choose to take a cruise specifically for. Cruises are about camaraderie, they bring people together from all around the world to delight in natural beauty, special events, and luxury. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is an isolating sickness that has kept cruise ships docked.
With the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of State warning against travel by ship, the entire industry is on pause. But for cruise lovers, it’s never too soon to start looking into the future. When can you expect to hit the high seas again, and how will the industry have changed in response to this global pandemic?
Booking Is Up
The start of 2020 was strong for the cruise industry, with huge demand for the Caribbean, Alaska, and European cruises. An Industry Outlook Report released in December of 2019 predicted 32 million passengers for 2020 and overall industry growth.
This high was followed by an abrupt and unprecedented drop-off tied to the rise of the new coronavirus. The year 2019 saw 30 million cruise passengers worldwide. At the time of writing, there is only one cruise ship at sea with just eight passengers. All major cruise companies have suspended service, with tentative reopening dates being pushed back from April to May, May to June.
Despite, or maybe because of all of these factors, cruise bookings for 2021 are up. One booking website reported a 40% increase for 2021 bookings as compared to 2019 bookings. A poll recently conducted found that 75% of people are planning to book cruises as usual as soon as the outbreak is over and life can return to normal. The CEO of Carnival said in an interview with CNBC that the global cruise line expects the industry to bounce back along with the rest of the travel and leisure industry. Cruisers are eager to get back on the sea.
Outbreaks Have Happened Before
The cruise industry has weathered infectious diseases before. Bringing people together into one space for lengthy periods of time, and then mix with people in different cities and return to the ship, has made the industry-wise to how to deal with and respond to infections.
Cruise lines have added a number of sanitary and hygienic measures throughout the years to keep passengers protected and to offer a clean environment. Cruises have sailed since 1900 and weathered a number of infectious disease spreads since then, offering them over a hundred years of industry practice to pull from as they respond to this latest issue.
One thing to keep in mind as you consider cruising is that the majority of cruise ships were not affected by COVID because of aggressive measures put into place by the industry. Cruises have used guidance from the CDC and the World Health Organization to enhance sanitation procedures, sharpen screening measures, and boost the availability of medical treatment and care on board. These measures will remain in place once cruises are able to get back to work.
This is the first-ever complete suspension of cruising operations, and the industry intends to use it as a way to improve their services for the future.
Cruising After COVID: When Can You Next Sail?
Right now, it is unclear when exactly cruises will be able to leave the dock. Initially, many cruise lines reported a cessation through April 1st. Once it became clear that this would not be enough time, that date was pushed back to May. Recent communications have indicated that the earliest start date now is June, but there is a convincing reason to believe that this date is optimistic and again will be pushed back.
Experts expect that it will be months yet before cruises can again set sail. What will it take to get them able to continue services? Aside from the most obvious reason that is entirely out of the cruise industry’s control – the lessening impact of COVID-19 – there are a number of things that will have to happen.
What has to happen first
Currently, cruises are working to clean their fleets top to bottom to show passengers that the ships will be safe once the infection dies down. Many ships are also planning on testing cruise members before setting sail again to ensure that all staff is COVID-19. If a vaccine is released, there is a possibility that people will have to be vaccinated before coming onboard to prevent another spread.
There is also the issue of staffing. Most staff members have been under quarantine or been let go while the ships are stuck in port, although some have been allowed to stay onboard in passenger cabins as long as social distancing practices are followed. There is also the question of air travel. Many cruisers use planes to arrive at ports, but if the airlines are not flying, or if they are considered unsafe, this will create an obstacle.
Even with these obstacles, veteran cruisers are promising that the cruise lines can count on them to return. A recent poll on a cruise forum found that 10% of veteran cruises said they would cruise more than they ever have after the pandemic is over.
In order to entice cruisers to book after COVID-19 and its effects have passed, many lines are offering enticing incentives. Some lines are offering a credit of 125% if a canceled sail is rebooked. Some are beefing up their packages, including free drinks, specialty dining, internet connection, and shore adventure credit in one low-priced package. Read more here about cancellation policies and line changes due to the coronavirus.
Although for now, cruises and cruise-goers are stuck on land, the industry is doing everything it can to prepare for the upcoming season through improved hygiene practices, incentives, and a focus on the future.