On July 16, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended its No Sail Order for cruise ships until September 30, 2020, citing the ongoing challenges for safely operating cruise ships during the global coronavirus pandemic. The order was previously set to expire on July 24.
The move comes one month after the world’s largest group of oceangoing cruise lines had already agreed to suspend cruise ship operations from U.S. ports until September 15, 2020, as they continue to work to address the public health issues that have resulted from the pandemic.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents more than 50 domestic and international cruise lines, including Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, and Windstar Cruises among others, stated in June that, “Although we had hoped that cruise activity could resume as soon as possible after [July 24], it is increasingly clear that more time will be needed to resolve barriers to resumption in the United States.”
The further delays come as destinations are reopening for travel, hotels and resorts are throwing down the welcome mat for leisure visitors again, and a growing number of air travelers are heading into the skies.
So, why the much longer wait time for cruising?
The early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic were catastrophic for the cruise industry, with several cruise ships having become embroiled in international headline-making coronavirus outbreaks onboard. Now, one of the biggest challenges for cruise lines will be to figure out how they can operate safely amid a pandemic.
As part of its No Sail Order, the CDC is requiring that cruise lines develop robust plans for preventing and responding to the spread of COVID-19 onboard their ships that must then be approved by the CDC in order for cruise ships to be permitted to sail again. According to the agency, seven cruise lines have presented their plans, including Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Virgin Voyages, Windstar Cruises, MSC Cruises, and Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines. But aside from those submitted by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines, the plans were “incomplete,” the CDC reported, and did not fully meet its requirements.
The “areas of major concern” in the submitted plans included inadequate details regarding how COVID-19 testing equipment and procedures would be obtained and carried out; insufficient information about how social-distancing measures will be implemented onboard; not enough medical care facilities; and remaining questions about buffet food service, salons, and gyms onboard. The agency said it has provided feedback to the cruise lines that submitted plans and is working with them on how best to address the concerns.
CLIA has reported that in the months during which its members have suspended their operations they have been focused on developing plans for the future of cruising that include enhanced health and sanitation measures and adequate quarantine and healthcare arrangements for passengers and crew.
The larger hurdle for cruising
Even once cruise lines figure out a way that cruise ships can safely sail, the cruise industry will still have one massive hurdle to scale—one that is far beyond its control.
“The international restrictions, travel bans, and border challenges are far and away the biggest impediment right now. It’s not to say that it isn’t worthwhile. But that is absolutely what is causing us the greatest challenge in conducting more trips,” said Ben Lyons, CEO of EYOS Expeditions, a private yacht and charter line that still has clients sailing with it. They include Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, who in June also become the first woman to reach the deepest point in the ocean, 35,810 feet below sea level, during a journey coordinated by EYOS.
EYOS has another client who sailed to Alaska last month on a charter vessel. The company has been able to continue to operate because its ships are smaller, which makes it easier to implement social distancing onboard. And all of its clients are getting COVID-19 tests taken before they travel.
Whether the ship is big or small, the international restrictions are overwhelmingly complicated to navigate for a product that relies on the ability to easily sail a potpourri of international travelers from one country to another, from one port to the next. Not only do policies vary from one country to the next regarding which citizens can or cannot travel there, but they also vary from one port to the next regarding whether cruise ships are or will be allowed to dock anytime soon. In addition, the policies are subject to changes as the coronavirus pandemic continues on its rollercoaster path of case surges and retreats.
“With many differing restrictions across countries, people’s ability to move freely and safely across borders remains seemingly some way in the distance,” stated Simon Palethorpe, president of luxury cruise line Cunard, which in June announced that it will be extending its pause in operations until November.
Ultimately, cruise lines can do everything in their power to try to ensure that the onboard experience will not be conducive to virus transmission and that passengers have an incentive to embark. But if they can’t go anywhere, they are—quite literally—stuck.
“If you look at, for instance, the Caribbean, a prepandemic itinerary might be visiting two, three, or four islands,” said Fran Golden, a reporter who has been covering the cruise industry for 25 years. “Now, the cruise lines and ships have to negotiate with each of those islands and have to deal with the health departments on each one of those islands. They have to get permission from multiple governments. There are lots of balls in the air as the cruise lines try to bring back cruising.”
Some cruises are sailing, offering a glimpse into the future
After a near shutdown of cruising since mid-March, there are a small handful of sailings that have either started back up or are slated to begin soon that offer a glimpse at what cruising might look like once it’s able to resume on a larger scale. These are mostly domestic cruises, that take place within one country, avoiding the cross-border issues that continue to hamper most itineraries.
For instance, in mid-June, Hurtigruten started up cruises again in coastal Norway, a round-trip voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. The cruise line will be sailing at no more than 50 percent capacity, guests are required to social distance in communal areas, the meals are being served with a greater number of dining sessions so fewer people can eat at one time (with no buffets), there are smaller excursion sizes, and enhanced disinfection procedures are being carried out throughout the ships. Guests at increased risk for COVID-19 complications (those aged 66 to 80, and those aged 50 to 65 who have an underlying health condition) will need to provide a doctor’s note.
“These voyages in Norwegian waters will be our first small steps towards the new normal. As of now, we do not know what the international travel restrictions will look like this summer,” Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said in a statement about the company’s plan for a gradual restarting of operations.
On June 20, SeaDream Yacht Club resumed operations with 7- and 12-day voyages along the Norwegian coast from Bergen to Oslo and up to Tromso above the Arctic Circle.
“The crew took the pause in operations as an opportunity to hone their skills, rejuvenate the yachts, and completed [the World Health Organization’s] official COVID-19 course for hygiene procedures and infection management,” the cruise line said in a release about its return to service.
Small-ship adventure cruise line UnCruise Adventures will start its 2020 Alaska sailings on August 1, 2020, with a new coronavirus protocol in place that will include daily temperature checks for guests and crew, enhanced sanitation of high-touch areas and of the adventure gear and equipment, the use of masks during certain events, and plated meals that will replace buffet service.
The initial seven-night Alaska sailing will travel round-trip from Juneau with a visit to Glacier Bay National Park.
Said Golden, “The first ones out the gate are giving some indications of what the cruising world might look like”—in the age of coronavirus.
“People would go on a cruise today if they were allowed to sail”
Even with a slew of added precautions in place, who would want to cruise anytime soon? The answer: a lot of people.
“All the people who love cruises are booking like crazy,” said Mary Jean Tully, founder and CEO of Tully Luxury Travel, a luxe travel consultant who books nearly $100 million in cruises annually. “People would go on a cruise today if they were allowed to sail. They’re ready to go.”
Travel advisors who sell cruises for a living say that although the remainder of 2020 is nowhere near as strong as it was pre-coronavirus given the ongoing public health crisis and uncertainty, bookings for 2021 and beyond reflect the pent-up demand created by all the canceled sailings.
In light of the countless cruises that have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of cruise lines are handing out future cruise credits often with a higher value—typically around 125 percent of the value of the original booking—to encourage passengers to rebook rather than request a refund. Those who love cruising are doing so.
In regard to future criuse bookings,“2021 is the shining star right now,” said Beth Butzlaff, vice president of global partner relations at Virtuoso, a consortium of luxury travel advisors. She said that Virtuoso travel consultants are advising their clients to secure their cruise bookings for 2021, “because between restrictive occupancy and pent-up demand, you could miss the boat.”
Virtuoso reports that cruise bookings for January 2021 are up 4 percent when compared to cruise bookings for January 2020. The bright spots are river cruising, which is up 30 percent year-over-year 2021 bookings compared to 2020, as well as strong demand for Mediterranean sailings for the last quarter of 2020.
Rob Clabbers, president of Q Travel + Cruise, a Virtuoso agency, said that he, too, is seeing availability become limited on some 2021 sailings due to clients who have rebooked their canceled 2020 cruises in 2021 and those who have simply decided to hold off sailing until then.
On June 15, adventure cruise line Hurtigruten reported that 2021 bookings are 5.6 percent above 2020 bookings for the same time last year. Lindblad Expeditions last month reported that despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis and the onslaught of cancellations brought on by it, the company saw more than $15 million in new bookings made between March and May for travel in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
But ultimately, no matter how badly future cruisers want to go—like many global travelers—they will be at the whim of how the virus plays out in different destinations throughout the world.
“It depends on where you’re sailing,” said EYOS’s Lyons. “I can imagine getting on a big ship in Europe now much more easily than I could getting on a big ship in Miami because Europe has basically contained or controlled the virus in a way that we haven’t in [the] States.”