TORONTO — Cruising has a huge untapped market – but will those new-to-cruise travellers see cruising as safe in the wake of COVID-19?
And will there be a lasting negative impact from the high-profile ship quarantines early in the pandemic?
Four high-profile cruise line executives – Arnold Donald, CEO, Carnival Corp.; Frank Del Rio, CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH); Pierfrancesco Vago, Executive Chairman, MSC Cruises; and Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO of the Royal Caribbean Group – recently took on these questions and more at the Seatrade Cruise Virtual 2020 conference.
All four execs said they’re onboard with CLIA’s commitment to 100% COVID-19 testing for all passengers and crew – and the agents we spoke with said they are too.
And at least Donald and Fain are optimistic that ships will be sailing by the end of 2020. The agents we spoke to said they like the optimism, even if the feedback they’re hearing from clients suggests Canadian travellers remain wary of sailing out of U.S. ports.
But what about public perception about the safety of cruising itself, post-COVID? Here’s what the cruise line execs had to say about that.
CRUISE SHIPS AS SAFE ‘CITIES AT SEA’
Cruise lines can offer something few others can, says Fain: the ability to control the health and safety environment of a multi-day vacation experience. “We have something no one else has: the ability to control the environment,” says Fain. Along with the 100% testing, what airport, what resort, what theme park has that kind of control, he asked, adding: “We’re a city at sea.”
NCLH’s Del Rio noted that cruising has to adhere to strict rules when it comes to reporting illness outbreaks. The CDC’s regulations require vessels to report when 2% or more of the passenger or crew have gastrointestinal illness, anytime the ship is in the U.S. or within 15 days of arriving at a U.S. port.
“Hotels don’t have to do that. Resorts don’t have to do that. Airlines don’t have to do that. No one does it. We do it. We are completely transparent, we’re happy to do so and we’ve been doing it for years,” said Del Rio.
FEEDBACK: London, ON’s Michelle Whalen with Uniglobe Enterprise Travel says she has faith in the cruise industry’s ability to communicate just how safe cruising can be post-COVID-19. “The technology cruise ships have used to manage logistics and security is outstanding,” says Whalen. “It will only get even better as they use that technology to further manage things like contact tracing and contactless temperature scanning, to name a few.”
Loyal cruise fans know that the crew is constantly cleaning the ship even while guests are sleeping. And this was true even before COVID. “So I don’t think it’s a huge leap of faith to have confidence in the future protocols of the cruise ships,” says Whalen. “With the right controls in place, a cruise ship can be a safe travel bubble as opposed to a floating petri dish.”
Cruise Strategies Ltd.’s President, Vanessa Lee, agrees that ships are fairly self-contained, and that’s a strength for post-COVID-19 travel decisions. “Once all guests and crew test negative and embark the vessel, they are essentially ‘a city (or town) at sea’ with all of the facilities and amenities one could desire: theatres, cinemas, ice rinks, amusements, casino’s, show lounges, restaurants and bars and many outdoor public spaces along with swimming pools and more,” says Lee.
For the duration of the cruise, all passengers will know that they have all tested negative, she adds. “They will remain in a space that should be healthier than perhaps the area in the immediate vicinity of their own home. And temperatures will also be taken frequently to ensure continued good health.”
Lee adds: “I frankly think that ships may be even more safe and healthier places than they were before and perhaps more healthy than an average hotel or resort who cannot undertake these same protocols. I do feel many guests will find this new cruise policy very reassuring.”
FALLOUT FROM SHIP QUARANTINES IN EARLY 2020
Back in February and March 2020, in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, the world watch as passengers and crew onboard the Diamond Princess, and then the Grand Princess, were confined to their staterooms for two weeks while waiting out the COVID-19 transmission period. Then on March 11 the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and travel came to a complete halt.
Once cruising restarts, will the cruise industry be able to get travellers past those images of quarantined passengers, stranded and waving to the TV cameras from their balconies?
NCLH’s Del Rio says he doesn’t think there will be lasting damage from COVID-19’s early days. As proof, he points to all the bookings coming in for 2021 and beyond. No one is sailing right now but the phones keep ringing. “Against that backdrop, with everything that’s going on, that we are booking as much as we’re booking shows that the resiliency of our industry is alive and well,” says Del Rio.
He added: “People want to get back to their normal lives. People love their normal lives. This is a bump in the road and we’re going to come back smarter.”
FEEDBACK: Karen Marsh, Manager, Expedia Cruises in St. John’s, NL, says she somewhat agrees with this. “Diehard cruisers I think will be quicker to forget the high profile news stories,” says Marsh. “We have already rebooked many of our past cruisers for late next year and into 2022. But for those people who have never cruised before I think it will be some time before they even consider getting on a ship.”
Lee notes that, from various surveys and from the cruise line’s information from past guests, at least 75% of cruisers say they want to cruise again and many, sooner than later – at least within the next year. Sales are also strong for spring 2021 through the rest of the year. “There is also some early thoughts, that if the first cruises remain relatively unscathed, that there may be some clients who may consider a cruise for the first time, due to the high level of safety and the accompanying protocols on these ships, as opposed to land based vacations,” says Lee.
Among the cruise lines that have restarted operations in Europe, MSC has had a successful run so far, while seven passengers who had disembarked from Costa Cruises’ Costa Diadema tested positive in subsequent days.
Lee adds: “Time will tell! I also do feel that the unusual circumstances as COVID shut down the world, was an outlier scenario and with all of the information gathered and the incredible knowledge and work that has gone into these 74 [Heathy Sail Panel] recommendations, that cruising will be much safer going forward and there will be fewer knee-jerk reactions.”
TravelOnly agent Mary Lynn Villeneuve says she foresees some lasting effects on the cruise industry but that the recovery in 2022/2023 will be strong. “I think the largest growth will be in small to medium ship cruising. I also think we will see growth in niche cruising ie: Great Lakes, Galapagos,Alaska etc.,” says Villeneuve.
Asked about safety and public perceptions, Uniglobe Enterprise Travel’s Whalen uses an analogy that will resonate with anyone who remembers the Tylenol tampering case in 1982. Then, like now, fear ran high. But as Whalen notes, “controls were created that permanently improved health and safety which we see now after the fact. I believe the same with cruising.”
Easing client fears amid negative news stories is nothing new for travel advisors, she adds, listing everything from the spate of tourist deaths in the D.R., to the tainted alcohol stories coming out of Mexico. “I agree with the cruise execs that there won’t be permanent lasting consequences. My reason for this? Again it goes back to the Tylenol tampering analogy. People don’t think twice now about taking Tylenol. Trust has been rebuilt. I believe the same will happen for the cruise industry.”
The travel industry has an incredible ability to bounce back. And that’s as true for cruising as anything. Expedia Cruises’ Marsh mentions that just a couple of weeks ago she booked two couples who have never cruised before. A cruise fan herself, she says cruising “is definitely the only way to go,” adding that her agency continues to see bookings steadily coming in for late next year and 2022.