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All at sea: cruise in the age of coronavirus

From cheap deals and health screening, to group charters and party ships, the cruise industry is working hard to rebuild its appeal. In a report made in partnership with Globetrender, Anthony Pearce, co-founder of Cruise Adviser magazine, writes about what lies ahead

Since the beginning of the outbreak of Covid-19, cruise ships have provided visual representations of the pandemic’s devastation – the images of a quarantined Diamond Princess off the port of Yokohama in early February will linger long in the mind. As the virus spread and borders were closed and lockdowns introduced, ships were caught up in a global panic and forced to take circuitous routes back to land after ports refused access regardless of whether cases of coronavirus had been recorded on board or not. In late March, Holland America Line’s president Orlando Ashford accused countries of turning their backs on thousands of people “left floating at sea,” calling for “compassion and grace”, as Zaandam returned to the US through Central America, with four people on board dying from Covid-19 during the journey. Although Cuba offered a safe haven for the coronavirus-hit Braemar, other Caribbean nations refused to let it, and other ships, dock, fearing an overwhelming of their healthcare systems.

At this point, many began to question the decisions made by cruise lines and the overall safety of ships. In April, in a piece that infuriated the travel industry, the Guardian described cruise ships as “floating dungeons” and “ideal incubators of infectious diseases.” The article argued that even prior to the coronavirus outbreak, cruise ships had “fairly common” outbreaks of norovirus, a vomiting bug, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, the institute, which is the leading public health body of the United States, notes that norovirus is relatively infrequent on board and, because health officials track illness on cruise ships, outbreaks are found and reported more quickly than on land. However, as the CDC notes: close living quarters may increase the amount of group contact, while people joining the ship may bring viruses to other passengers and crew, as appears to be the case in Australia, where infected cruise guests helped to spread Covid-19.

Some have since accused cruise lines of being too slow to cancel itineraries, with ships continuing to sail after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared coronavirus to be a pandemic on March 11. But, to put it in context: that same day, Viking Cruises became the first to suspend its operations – some 12 days before the UK entered lockdown – and others followed suit soon after (most promoted by a then month-long no-sail decree in the US). “It’s obvious now, in hindsight, that the whole world should have acted sooner and taken different steps to mitigate the spread of Covid-19,” says Andy Harmer, director of the Cruise Line International Association (Clia), UK & Ireland. “Everybody, including the cruise lines, had to make difficult decisions based on the information that was available at the time, which was admittedly limited given the fact that the world was dealing with a brand-new virus. Still, cruise lines took immediate and aggressive action in response to this crisis – with policies and protocols that went above and beyond the actions of other industries – and continued to strengthen those measures as new information and guidance became available from prevailing health authorities,” he adds.

However, cruise’s proximity to the outbreak and the criticism that has followed will no doubt have a long-term effect on customers’ willingness to get back on board. According to a survey by The Independent in April, of those who have previously sailed, three in 10 said they would not do so again. In lieu of a vaccine, cruise lines must ask: how do they protect their guests, deal with potential outbreaks in future – particularly if this means countries are likely to refuse access to ports – and then convince customers to come back on board?


This feature has been written in collaboration with Globetrender, a trend forecasting agency dedicated to the future of travel. Its new report, Travel in the Age of Covid-19 will be available for download here on June 4


Overcoming stereotypes
The industry has long had to battle preconceptions about cruising, and part of its success over the past decade has been down to not only challenging these stereotypes, but listening to critics. Cruise lines have reimagined both ship design and the overall experience on board, introducing greater informality, more flexibility, longer stays in ports, healthier  programmes, active excursions, higher quality entertainment and, perhaps above all else, better food, with celebrity chef tie-ins now de rigour for even the most mainstream cruise brands. As is so often the case, marketing is half the battle. The word “cruise” still carries negative connotations for many, and there’s a reason that Virgin, when in its planning stages, dropped “Cruises” favour of “Voyages”, promising “cruises for people who don’t cruise”. As evidenced by the futurism of Celebrity Cruises’ Edge-class ships, the Scandinavian modernism Viking Cruises’ ocean fleet or, indeed, the “rebellious” boutique style of Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady, many cruise ships no longer look how people expect cruise ships to look, opening them up to whole new audience.

The industry has had to work hard to convince people that going on a cruise is not only cruising to Venice on theme-park-at-sea-style mega ships, but also sailing down the Ganges with the luxury river line Uniworld, traversing the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica with Aurora Expeditions or exploring French Polynesia with Aranui 5, a part cargo, part passenger ship. As Harmer is fond of saying: there is a cruise for everyone.

The industry’s fine work in these fields mean it had been experiencing record growth, with the number of Britons travelling on cruises eclipsing two million for the first time in 2018. Prior to Covid-19, the total number of ocean-going cruise ships on order was estimated to be at 124 – an investment of about $69 billion; and that’s not counting the 25 ships that were delivered in 2019 or the river market. This investment was spurred on by two things: the fierce loyalty of the cruise customer, who returns time and time again to the holiday type and their preferred brands; and the growing new-to-cruise market, which is estimated to account for about 40 per cent of passengers, according to Clia.

The association’s most recent research found that 75 per cent of people who have been on a cruise before say they are ‘very likely or likely’ to sail again, a slight fall from 79 per cent last year. It is undoubtedly these customers who will provide the launchpad from which the industry re-emerges: Euan Sutherland, the CEO of Saga, which operates cruises for over 50s, has noted that the company has “a pretty stoic and determined group” of guests with a “huge appetite to get back out there”. However, with many cruise lines now extending suspensions until autumn, these customers will have to wait.

New to cruise
The cruise industry is a sector full of buzzwords, and ‘new-to-cruise’ is the biggest among them. With the exception of a few home-away-from-home cruise lines who happily target the traditional cruise demographic – retired time- and cash-rich empty-nesters – cruise lines have attempted to broaden their appeal, variously targeting young families, solo travellers of all ages, millennial couples and the ultra-rich.

The record investment from the industry prior to Covid-19 was based on projections that the year-on-year growth it experienced over the last decade would continue. The bottom line is that for ships to be full – and ultimately for cruise lines to survive – holidaymakers must continue to try cruising for the first time. Clia’s research says that 66 per cent of those who haven’t cruised before said they would in future, but getting these first-timers on board will be a considerable challenge, particularly, as the Financial Times reports, booking cancellations were running at around 50 per cent even before Italy’s lockdown. Covid-19 not only hit ships that carry more than 2,000 passengers, but smaller vessels carrying fewer than 200. As cruise lines offer some of their lowest ever prices, will new and younger customers – who are less at risk of Covid-19 – be tempted to come on board?

“We certainly believe we can get ‘new to cruise’ guests onboard and have seen this through a number of new customer enquiries during lockdown,” Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions, a small-ship adventure specialist, said. “We have always been very transparent with our guests on our strict health and safety policy; this will be even more important moving forwards. There will be a lot of scrutiny around health and safety measures so it is important that we continue to be honest and flexible with new guests – and returning guests – so that they feel comfortable to travel with us.” Zugaro added that small-ship cruise lines and those offering group charter were well placed in future, noting that its ships only visit and navigate into remote destinations, far removed from crowded areas and attractions, with a focus on nature and wildlife regions.

Similarly, luxury lines, who operate ships where space is in abundance and who target customers more likely to have avoided a loss in earnings during lockdown, may be better equipped to weather the storm. Wybcke Meier, the CEO of the Germany brand Tui Cruises, told The Telegraph that she is “convinced that in the long-term the demand for premium and luxury cruises will not change,” predicting that “we will see the demand for cruises return to pre-crisis level within 12 to 18 months”.

Safety measures
Cruise operators, like airlines, will need to be rigorous in their sanitation procedures and inventive in their planning to protect customers. “There are several key learnings from this unprecedented situation that the cruise industry will benefit from as they prepare to sail again,” says Harmer. “The cruise industry is taking a holistic approach to planning for when sailing is allowed, that would ideally entail a door-to-door strategy beginning at the time of booking through the passengers’ return home. Our planning includes engaging the expertise of data scientists and medical professionals and will include port authorities, supply chain providers and others. As we have done throughout this crisis, we will continue to put health and safety first.”

Uniworld has announced that all guests will be required to complete health screening prior to embarkation; disinfectant wipes will be available throughout the ship; while gloves, face masks and bottles of hand sanitiser will be “readily available for all guests.” The luxury river line also added that shared food items – such as butter – and communal snacks – such as cookies – will now be served individually; restaurant dining will be reserved (to ensure guests are sat with the same people each day); and for excursions, the maximum occupancy per bus will be adjusted to reduce the total number of people together at one time.

Avalon, another luxurious river cruise line, has promised similar measures, as well as introducing new technologies including Electrostatic cleaning systems and UV disinfecting systems. It has also said it will reduce capacity on board; a sentiment echoed by Royal Caribbean International, which operates the world’s largest cruise ships. Speaking at a webinar for the line’s trade partners, vice president EMEA Ben Bouldin said: “Until there’s a vaccine, we’re trying to understand what the new normal is. Things will be really different, but be reassured we are looking at absolutely everything. It’s incredibly complex – we have to get the right balance of accommodating changes to make sure everyone is safe, while not undermining our guests’ enjoyment of their holiday.” Bouldin added that the line is “not expecting to have to treat people over 70 any differently” and is confident they can look after them and “support guests with all sorts of disabilities.” The line’s president and CEO Michael Bayley has also said that, to begin with, there will no buffet on its ships.

Carnival Cruise Line has said it plans to resume service on August 1 with eight ships – less than a third of its fleet, which is the largest in the world. In a statement it said: “We are taking a measured approach, focusing our return to service on a select number of homeports where we have more significant operations that are easily accessible by car for the majority of our guests.” It said it would “use this additional time to continue to engage experts, government officials and stakeholders on additional protocols and procedures to protect the health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we serve.”

For now, much is out of the cruise lines’ hands. The CDC, whose no-sail order in the United States was first issued on 14 March, originally for a month, says it does “not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume sailing” and has not discussed timetables with cruise lines. For now, it’s a case of waiting and planning.

“The cruise industry is resilient and I’m confident that when the time is right, we will welcome back people who enjoy cruising and also newcomers,” says Harmer. “People who take regular cruise holidays will already be familiar with the commitment shown by cruise lines to robust hygiene standards and protocols. There is no doubt that the cruise industry will emerge stronger for the challenges we have faced and the lessons we have learned along the way in confronting this unique virus.  The important task for cruise lines and travel agents will be effectively communicating the enhanced protocols and measures that show customers the industry’s dedication to the health and safety of guests and crew.”

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