Prior to the introduction of wider restrictions against all but essential travel, in March, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) took the unusual step of warning against a particularly holiday type, advising the over 70s and chronically ill to avoid cruises. That advice has effectively remained in place since but, on July 9, the FCO updated its guidance, advising all Britons against taking cruise ship holidays “at this time”.
The new advice can be read as the government reinforcing its message that the cruise industry is not part of its wider travel relaxations introduced with the exemption list of 74 countries. This allows inbound tourists and returning Britons to enter the UK without having to self-isolate, ending the much-maligned blanket 14-day quarantine policy. Of course, not all of these arrangements are reciprocal – and some overseas territories and countries on the list remain nigh-on impossible to visit. But, the wider travel industry is agreed: it is an incredibly welcome start.
Contrast that with cruise holidays. Although the change in FCO advice was initially met by disbelief, many soon noted that, in practical terms, little had changed. In a statement, the Cruise Lines International Association, UK & Ireland (Clia) said: “Since the voluntary suspension of operations, we have been working collaboratively with the government on the road map to resumption involving a ‘door to door’ strategy – from the time of booking through to the passengers’ return home – with enhanced health protocols. We look forward to completing this planning exercise with government and for the advice to be updated.”
Edwina Lonsdale, owner of Mundy Cruising, called the advice “redundant”, given no cruises are currently operating which Britons can actually book, while Simone Clark of Iglu said it was “disappointing” but no surprise. However, after months of delayed launches, cancelled itineraries, refunded and rebooked cruises, and updates to flexible bookings policies, the delicate green shoots of recovery have been appearing. SeaDream Yacht Club has operated its first cruises in Norway, as has Hurtigurten – which, days before the FCO announcement, revealed plans to sail British Isles cruises in September; on the continent, CroisiEurope and A-Rosa are giving hope to an earlier return to river cruise. According to our research, bookings were up in May (from a standing start) and early responses from Cruise Adviser’s Future of Cruise survey for June suggest another spike.
The research shows that the lion’s share of new bookings are for summer 2021 and beyond, and will be unaffected. But, aside from the fact that minister Caroline Dinenage has indicated that the advice will stay in place “probably until October”, which may prevent late summer and autumnal sailings, what will this change in advice mean for the long-term perception of cruise – and will it stop these booking surges in their tracks? As we have written, since the beginning of the outbreak of Covid-19, cruise ships have provided visual representations of the pandemic’s devastation. Cruise lines, which are introducing swathes of new measures to ensure their guests are safe (variously: health screenings and pre-boarding testing, reduced capacity, closure of buffet areas and staggered excursion times), will have to work even harder to rebuild their appeal now.
It’s worth quoting the – incredibly brief – FCO advice in full, given it fails to differentiate between small and large ships, river and ocean, or even give thought to the grey area of overnight ferries:
“The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against cruise ship travel at this time. This is due to the ongoing pandemic and is based on medical advice from Public Health England.
“The government will continue to review its cruise ship travel advice based on the latest medical advice. If you have future cruise travel plans, you should speak to your travel operator, or the travel company you booked with, for further advice.
“The Foreign & Commonwealth Office continues to support the Department for Transport’s work with industry for the resumption of international cruise travel.”
Thankfully, cruise guests are incredibly loyal, both to the holiday type and their preferred brands and, when the time is right, they will be back on board – of that we can be sure.