Are cruise lines doomed in the wake of the pandemic?

  • Research shows that cruise ships are ripe for spreading disease
  • At least 20 cruise ships contained coronavirus cases
  • Though changes need to be made, experts think the industry will survive

Even before the coronavirus caused nonessential travel around the world to come to a screeching halt, cruises have long had a reputation for conditions that lend exceptionally well to the spreading of disease. With larger ships having a capacity for thousands of passengers, you’ve got a lot of people crammed together, touching the same surfaces, and often dining buffet-style—and the nearest hospital might literally be an ocean away.

From 2008-2014, 129,678 out of 74 million cruise ship passengers became ill with norovirus, according to the CDC. While the norovirus is known for symptoms such as nausea, stomachaches, vomiting, and diarrhea, it’s rarely fatal. But now that we’re experiencing a highly-contagious, deadly global pandemic, one has to wonder just what the future holds for the cruise industry.

At least 20 cruise ships around the world had cases of COVID-19. Likewise, two passengers died aboard the Coral Princess, and another later perished in a Miami hospital after the ship finally docked. Multiple other ships had been stuck out at sea with sick passengers early into the pandemic, having been turned away from ports.

“It’s an inherently high-risk setting,” UCLA School of Medicine infectious diseases expert Claire Panosian Dunavan recently told USA Today. “Everyone was worried about norovirus. Respiratory infection has always been the scariest prospect as far as I was concerned.” She also added that COVID-19 revealed the “inherent vulnerability” of this popular form of travel.

Why there still may be hope for the cruise industry

Before the outbreak, the cruise industry had been experiencing an all-time high after five-plus years of growing profits. A total of 19 new cruise ships had been scheduled to launch in 2020, with industry predictions of 32 million passengers setting sail—up from 30 million in 2019. Now, analysts believe that it could be June at the earliest—but most likely much later—before any of these ships are back in service.

Andrew Coggins, a cruise expert and management professor at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University predicts it will be “many more months” before the cruise industry can even begin to bounce back. “Cruises are very difficult to sell if part of the country or the world is on lockdown,” he said. “Plus, the public needs to be convinced that they are safe.”

That is going to pose one heck of a challenge, yet industry heads seem to be optimistic. 

Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean, reminded travel advisors in late April that “weeks of social distancing are creating the need for togetherness.” With affordable prices and activities for all ages, cruises can be a great option for family vacations. “Making memories and great vacations will be in huge demand when the current situation passes,” Fain said.

Echoing these sentiments is Carnival CEO Arnold Donald, who said in a CNBC interview that cruising will bounce back.

“Social gathering at some point will return, and when it does, people will want to cruise,” said Arnold. He added that cruise reservations are already up for 2021, even as ships were forced to shut down operations when the CDC issued a 100-day “no sail” order that went into effect April 15.

To that point, Cruise Critic editor-in-chief Colleen McDaniel also has high hopes, as cruise fanatics tend to be, well, fanatical about cruising.

“Our members have been exchanging feedback with one another,” said McDaniel. “According to a recent forum poll among members, 66% report that they’ll continue to cruise the same as always. An additional 10% said they’d cruise more than ever.”

Judy Perl, president of New York-based Judy Perl Worldwide Travel, says that some cruise lines are already offering incentives and discounts to fuel demand for late 2020 going into 2021. “The majority of our clients are very well-traveled so they’re eager to resume cruising again,” she said. “I suspect that after six, eight, or 10 weeks of lockdown, they’ll be more eager than ever to resume cruising.”

What the future of cruising may look like

Even if cruising does bounce back as experts predict, the industry is going to have to make some big changes before setting sail again. Although ships already implement strict health protocols, additional screening requirements and enhanced sanitation measures will likely be necessary going forward—such as eliminating obvious health risks. For example, shared buffet serving utensils will almost certainly be a thing of the past. Other changes may include improved air filtration and augmented medical facilities. 

“Ships are currently formulating similar plans to address outbreaks of COVID-19, and these plans could also be modified to prevent and respond to other communicable illnesses in the future,” said Aimee Treffiletti, chief of the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program.

Cruise Week editor-in-chief Mike Driscoll wrote in an industry newsletter that the whole system is currently frozen, and there are “probably 50 things” that need to happen before cruise companies can resume operations. These dozens of issues include crew readiness, securing provisions, implementing passenger health screenings, and determining which ports will be open in the event of an emergency disembarking.

Cruise companies will also have to rely on PR efforts to ensure passenger safety. “They’ll want to have all crew members take an antibody test, if available, to show they are COVID-19 free—and publicize that,” said Coggins.

“If they start up again and the virus breaks out, they have to shut down again. I think for cruise lines, probably the best thing is if a vaccine is developed and then you need to be vaccinated before you come on board.”

Sources: USA Today, Travel & Leisure, LA Times, CDC

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