TORONTO — Few sectors within the travel industry have been hit as hard by COVID-19 as cruising.
Even airlines, as tough as they’ve had it, are still operating on a limited basis. For cruise lines, the pandemic has brought operations to a complete halt.
Last month the CDC extended its No Sail Order to Oct. 31 for ships sailing out of the U.S. According to reports, the CDC was pushing for February 2021.
The cruise lines have stepped up to COVID-19’s challenges with vigour and innovation, forming working groups like NCLH and the Royal Caribbean Group’s Healthy Sail Panel, to meet and exceed new requirements for safe sailing.
With so much work on the new protocols already underway, and with cruising resuming in Europe with cruise lines like MSC and Costa, top executives were asked at the recent Seatrade Cruise Virtual 2020 conference if they think ships could be sailing from the U.S. by the end of the year.
The four 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 – tackled the 2020 question, and also talked about 100% testing for all passengers and crew, as well as the ‘city at sea’ advantage that cruise ships have over just about every other form of travel.
The cruise execs also weighed in the potential for lasting damage to the industry from all that high-profile ship quarantine new coverage back in February and March 2020.
Here are two of those key takeaways from the cruise line execs, along with feedback from front-line agents and Vanessa Lee, President, Cruise Strategies.
100% TESTING OF PASSENGERS AND CREW
CLIA’s ocean-going cruise line members say their highly-controlled return to service in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America will include 100% testing of passengers and crew prior to boarding. The protocol will apply to any ship with 250 or more passengers, and a negative test will be required for embarkation.
“No other industry in the world is doing 100% testing,” said Royal Caribbean Group’s Fain. Added MSC’s Vago: “The 100% testing promise is unique, it’s amazing. A vaccine won’t be the magic wand. Testing will be the solution.”
FEEDBACK: Cruise Strategies’ Lee says the 100% testing commitment is a big step forward, one that will hopefully help convince the CDC that cruising from the U.S. can return safely and slowly in the coming months.
“There will be no other segment of the travel and tourism business that can accommodate such a safety protocol and with care and suitable guidance, I see it as being a game-changer for the resurgence of cruises later this year and in 2021,” says Lee.
Could the cruise lines take the testing one step further? Michelle Whalen with Uniglobe Enterprise Travel in London, ON says cruise companies should look at testing even more frequently: “Consider testing between port stops? Prior to disembarkation? Not sure how feasible that is. Bare minimum 100% testing for all passengers and crew prior to embarkation. I guess in my mind I thought that should have been the protocol all along,” says Whalen.
SHIPS SETTING SAIL BY END OF 2020
Reaction from the cruise line execs was mixed on this one. Carnival Corp.’s Donald said he’s optimistic cruising will resume by the end of 2020. So is Fain. “The sailings in Europe have served as a test bed for us and they’ve been very successful,” said Fain.
NCLH’s Del Rio was more cautious. “This is not a race and I’m in no rush to be the first one out of the gate,” he said. Del Rio added that the Healthy Sail panel’s 74 recommendations are a tall order, “and some are easier to do than others.”
NCLH recently extended its brand-wide suspension of operations through Nov. 30, impacting NCL, Oceania and RSSC. “It takes time to stand up a ship,” said Del Rio. “This is not like turning on a light switch, there are lots of steps.”
Del Rio added: “Whether it’s Dec. 22 or Jan. 3, I think it’s in the ballpark.”
FEEDBACK: Cruise industry execs have made miracles happen amid the pandemic, collaborating like never before to get their ships sailing again.
Is their optimism for the end of 2020 well-founded? Agents hope so.
But agents also hear a lot of input from their clients. And at least here in Canada, even if ships start sailing again from the U.S., many Canadian travellers would be hesitant. There’s also the matter of the still-closed Canada-U.S. border, recently extended until Nov. 21.
“I don’t feel we are anywhere near being ready to sail prior to end of 2020. I love the optimistic spirit, however the numbers in the U.S. are still far too high to justify that optimism,” says Whalen. “When it comes to being ready to sail let’s get it right the first time.”
Karen Marsh, Manager, Expedia Cruises in St. John’s, NL, says that until the U.S. gets its caseload under control, many clients say they won’t be cruising any time soon, “because they don’t want to risk sailing from a U.S. port right now.” Many also tell Marsh that they won’t cruise until there is a vaccine.
And TravelOnly agent Mary Lynn Villeneuve says the restart won’t happen on a dime. “I think it’s great that our cruise industry is optimistic for a restart before the end of 2020 but do I see it happening? Probably not. We are already seeing postponed cruises now till the end of November and even into next spring. We are already in the middle of October. In my opinion the redeployment of crew, training for new health and safety protocols will take longer than expected. So I think early spring 2021 is more realistic.”
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? Check back next week in Travelweek Daily for more executive insights and cruise expert feedback.