Gains and recovery: The year of cruising’s comeback

Gains for the cruise industry, but challenges remain with omicron concerns

TORONTO — What a year it has been for the cruise industry.

At first, it seemed as if 2021 would play out much the same as 2020, with little to no activity from any of the major cruise lines due to ongoing border closures, travel restrictions and, most notably, the CDC’s ongoing ban on cruise ships in U.S. waters and the many burdensome requirements set forth in its Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.

But then in the spring, several lines like Holland America, NCL, Royal Caribbean and more took their operations elsewhere, to non-U.S. ports in the Caribbean and Europe, as a way to get around the U.S. ban and salvage the summer season after more than a year’s pause due to the pandemic. With vaccination policies in place and rigid health and safety protocols onboard, these early adopters were by and large successful, proving that cruising could be done in a safe and responsible way.

By mid-summer, the cruise industry really hit its stride after the CDC finally started permitting cruise ships to operate in U.S. waters, so long as 95% of passengers onboard and 98% of crew are vaccinated against COVID-19. Celebrity Cruises was first out of the gate with the Celebrity Edge departing Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on June 26, and in the days and weeks following, other lines like Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean celebrated their own sailings from ports in Florida, New York, California and more.

The return of cruise ships in U.S. waters propelled the industry forward in its recovery like never before, ushering in a wave of bookings for travel agents.

But then, just as the industry was hitting its stride, along came omicron. The new variant, though generally causing milder illness, is far more transmissible, and in these final days of December the CDC has more than 90 cruise ships under investigation or observation due to COVID-19 cases. The CDC is now warning U.S. travellers not to go on cruises.

“WE CERTAINLY SAW AN UPTICK IN BOOKINGS”

Earlier this month Caroline Hay, Cruise CEO President, looked back on the ups and downs for cruising in 2021.

“2021 started out with most lines formulating their plans for their return to safe sailing and during that time, bookings were happening and business was slowly rebounding quicker than any of us anticipated,” says Caroline Hay, Cruise CEO President. “In June we saw the first sailings out of North America commence with lower capacity.”

Hay notes that the road to recovery has not been without earlier challenges, namely the CDC’s early stance against mixed vaccines for travellers (the organization eventually changed their stance in October to recognize those with mixed doses) and Canada’s ongoing Level 4 advisory against cruise travel. But even with such hurdles, Hay recalls seeing World Cruises sell out in 24 hours, key dates in 2022 for river cruises being snatched up, and numerous bucket-list longer sailings being booked.

“We certainly saw an uptick in bookings and many clients setting sail in the latter part of this year and securing space for voyages in 2022 and beyond,” she says. “We’re seeing a huge press for space in 2022/2023 and all indicators point to forward bookings breaking records.”

Hay credits two factors for driving forward bookings: the hardline approach cruise lines have taken to health and safety, and travel agents booking their own travels.

“I can certainly attest to the fact that cruise lines have managed this crisis better than any other segment in the industry. They’ve not just ensured, but clearly demonstrated that they can resume safe operations. Every single cruise line has implemented testing, tracing and enhanced cleaning protocols, but beyond that cruise lines have gone the extra mile to ensure some resemblance of normalcy whilst on a ship,” says Hay.

On how travel agents have played an essential role in cruising’s recovery, she adds: “One of the amazing things to see over the past few months has been the number of travel advisors getting onboard and reporting what an incredible time they had. Cruise lines need to be recognized for opening their doors to the travel agent community to get the word out that cruising is safe. Clients seeing their travel advisors onboard put their minds at rest, and that has certainly helped bolster bookings more and more each week.”

“NO SETTING CAN BE IMMUNE FROM THIS VIRUS”: CLIA STATEMENT

In the wake of the CDC’s decision to raise the advisory level for cruising, on Dec. 30 CLIA issued a statement of its own:

“The decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for cruise is particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard – far fewer than on land – and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore,” said CLIA.

“No setting can be immune from this virus – however, it is also the case that cruise provides one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus. Cruise ships offer a highly controlled environment with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccination levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incidence rates than land.

“While we are disappointed and disagree with the decision to single out the cruise industry – an industry that continues to go above and beyond compared to other sectors – CLIA and our ocean-going cruise line members remain committed to working collaboratively with the CDC in the interest of public health and safety.”