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Courtesy of Hurtigruten
Hurtigruten this month became one of the first cruise lines to resume limited sailings along coastal Norway.
As hotels and resorts reopen across the world, and a growing number of fliers take to the skies, cruising out of U.S. ports remains on hold. When will cruises lines be able to start back up again? It’s complicated.
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Earlier this month, the world’s largest group of oceangoing cruise lines agreed to suspend cruise ship operations from U.S. ports until September 15, 2020—well beyond the July 24 expiration date for the No Sail Order that was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this spring.
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 that, “Although we are confident that future cruises will be healthy and safe, and will fully reflect the latest protective measures, we also feel that it is appropriate to err on the side of caution to help ensure the best interests of our passengers and crewmembers.”
The decision came 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?
CLIA stated that while it had hoped that cruise activity could resume as soon as possible after the CDC’s July 24 order is lifted, “It is increasingly clear that more time will be needed to resolve barriers to resumption in the United States.”
Among those barriers is the fact that the CDC has not yet issued updated guidance for cruise lines since the agency extended its No Sail Order in April. The question now is what kind of guidance it will provide to the cruising industry—and when.
“The whole industry is holding its breath to see what the CDC says,” said Fran Golden, a reporter who has been covering the cruise industry for 25 years.
“What’s really holding cruises up? Everything,” said Golden. “The cruise lines are even holding it up themselves because they have unanswered questions—such as what the CDC might impose in the way of regulations. The cruise lines are creating their own new health and safety plans, but that all could change based on what regulations the CDC comes out with.”
She said that it’s not just about cleaning and disinfecting and making sure that the handrails on staircases are virus-free. “Will the CDC require a COVID-19 test or a doctor’s permission note before you get on a ship? These are the kinds of questions out there,” said Golden.
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.
With a lack of marching orders from the CDC, it has been up to the cruise lines themselves to offer some clues as to what cruising will look like in the era of coronavirus. Not many have offered very precise details yet on all the measures they are planning to implement as they await further guidance.
One exception is Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), which has set out a rather detailed plan for enhanced health and safety protocols once it starts sailing again. They include possible COVID-19 testing for passengers prior to embarkation; the installation of medical-grade HEPA air filters onboard to remove the majority of airborne pathogens; enhanced health screenings of passengers and crew such as touchless temperature checks and continuous medical monitoring; increased cleaning and sanitation measures onboard and in port terminals; reduced guest capacity and social-distancing measures such as staggered embarkation and guest check-in; onboard medical centers equipped with testing kits and larger medical teams; and dedicated quarantine accommodations.
NCL has canceled all of its sailings through August 31 and will begin with some Seattle-based Alaska cruises in September. The line said it is working with the CDC to develop stringent protocols “to meet and exceed their standards once those have been finalized by them.”
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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.
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 earlier this month 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 is currently sailing to Alaska 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 earlier this month 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 Golden. “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.”
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 earlier this month said that it 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.
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.”
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