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According to sailing lore, just when the sun sets over the ocean and darkness looms beyond the horizon, a vibrant green flash appears over the sea.
Today, with the industry prevented from sailing until Sept. 15 by order of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), many travel advisors are hoping for that bright burst of light. But all anyone can do is gaze into a crystal ball, unsure of what exactly the future of cruising will look like.
Yet, even as the pandemic rages, we are starting to get a sense of how cruise ships will slowly phase back into service, and what the onboard experience will be like in the near-term.
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When it comes to the long term, however, we can only make educated guesses as to what is to come, thanks in large part to predictive insights from cruise line executives and advisors.
As Bill and Ann Christman, advisors with Cruise Planners in Colorado Springs, Colo., reflect on previous global events, they recognize that no one knows for sure which passenger protocols will be temporary — or permanent.
“Still, a positive attitude, a passion for travel and a willingness to comply with changes will make it easier to adapt and enjoy a cruise vacation,” Bill said. “Travel advisors will be crucial in providing accurate and timely information about health and safety protocols, as well as personal experiences and feedback for travelers navigating all these new procedures.”
Ricki Le Vine, of Cruising With Ricki, LLC, a member of Avoya Travel, agrees.
“Once we have a proven vaccine, a successful treatment and herd immunity for COVID-19, we may see some relaxation of the most stringent health actions,” she said. “But I do feel some changes are here to stay.”
1. Onboard ExperiencesBuffets are expected to remain, at least temporarily, in a full-service capacity, but casinos, pools and spas can be equally problematic. Katina Athanasiou, chief sales officer for Norwegian Cruise Line, believes they will still be offered in some form.
“We absolutely plan to continue all of our onboard activities in accordance with CDC and various international requirements to ensure that what we offer is safer than ever,” she said. “We have acted on what we know right now — adding social and physical distancing precautions, such as reducing capacity in public areas, eliminating foot traffic and other up-close interactions and so forth — but honestly, it’s really too early to say definitively that there will be long-term changes in some of those areas.”
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Ken Muskat, executive vice president and chief operating officer for MSC Cruises USA, also sees onboard activities changing, but not completely disappearing from all ships.
“Naturally, there will be adjustments to the onboard experience to ensure that the health and safety of our guests and crew is protected,” he said. “However, these changes have been designed so guests can continue to enjoy the rich experiences that have been a mainstay of an MSC Cruises vacation.”
2. New Medical FacilitiesEven once the coronavirus is squarely behind us, there’s talk of enhancing onboard infirmaries to better manage future outbreaks of all kinds. This might mean isolated medical zones for quarantining passengers.
“We’re making several enhancements, including advanced on-site, point-of-care testing; dedicated isolation accommodations should the need arise; and increased inventory of medication and medical equipment,” Athanasiou said. “We also announced a dedicated officer physician across all of our ships and a public health officer.”
A common refrain heard throughout the industry is the need to remain flexible. Muskat recognizes that, in the long term, MSC will evolve its protocols as circumstances change in conjunction with guidance from regional and international authorities.
As for travel advisors and their customers, Bill Christman believes education is key.
“Individuals who buy into the negative rhetoric of cruise ships simply do not know the high level of cleanliness and sanitation protocols that ships have already incorporated into their daily maintenance,” Bill said. “Cruising was one of the utmost regulated channels of travel, and now with even more sanitation protocols, I would undoubtedly invite those individuals to take a cruise and see for themselves the superb level of hygiene.”
3. Passenger Space RatiosFollowing in the footsteps of reduced guest capacity — as is currently the case on airplanes — may be an increased focus on ships’ passenger space ratios (calculable by dividing a vessel’s tonnage by its capacity).
However, Marc Bokoff, a Cruise Planners advisor in Norwich, Conn., does not believe more space on flights will necessarily translate to less packed cruise ships.
“Overall, the experience onboard a cruise ship does not feel confining, like it does on a plane,” Bokoff said. “Smaller ships actually often win in the space ratio area. While they are smaller, they often offer much higher space ratios.”
In fact, the highest ratios are typically found on more intimate upscale and luxury vessels, but some larger standard and premium ships can be surprisingly spacious, as well. Also, some larger vessels may actually be better equipped — and have more resources — to handle outbreaks.
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Ultimately, the economy of scale has to be taken into account. Generally speaking, the larger and denser a ship, the less expensive it is to operate per guest, making for lower passenger fares and a better industry income — a win-win.
Still, a frequent complaint of cruise naysayers is the notion of being crowded in with thousands of other travelers onboard a “floating petri dish.” While certainly an overstatement, for better or worse, public perception is often considered reality, and there is a possibility that megaships will fall out of favor.
Bokoff thinks that many lines may indeed have second thoughts about building megaships in the future.
“To state the obvious, this is a business, and for the model to work with these very costly ships, the revenue streams need to be robust,” he said. “So, precisely what happens with ship size will be directly tied to financial modeling. How much smaller can you go, in terms of passenger count, and still maintain a profitable operation that offers a world-class guest experience?”
Nonetheless, even before the pandemic, there was a trend in the industry toward building fewer megaships, and focusing on smaller ships with capacities in the hundreds, instead of thousands.
4. Retirements and NewbuildsOne result of the pandemic will be adjusted fleet counts. Already, Carnival Corporation is accelerating its retirement of cruise ships. A total of nine that were originally earmarked for removal in ensuing years are expected to be removed in 2020 “in connection with its capacity optimization strategy,” according to a statement shared by the company.
“I am really sad to see this, but I also totally understand why it’s happening,” said Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter in Houston. “The industry will have a better business model when it returns. Some older ships were already long outdated. The new ships will be improved once delivered, and, frankly, it is time to reinvent the cruise experience so it’s better and safer.”
On the other hand, Norwegian has no plans to retire any vessels right now.
“We have the youngest fleet in the industry, and we really pride ourselves on that,” Athanasiou said. “We look forward to returning all of our 17 ships to sea.”
Plenty of newbuilds and redesigns will be delayed. Carnival previously had four ships scheduled to be delivered between May and October of 2020, but COVID-19 has impacted shipyard operations that will result in delivery delays.
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For example, the release of Carnival Cruise Line’s latest ship, Mardi Gras, will be delayed until February 2021. Similarly, the Carnival Radiance transformation from Carnival Victory is expected to be completed by next spring.
Also initially expected at the end of this year, Royal Caribbean International’s new Odyssey of the Seas is now slated for April 2021. Other delayed newbuilds on the list this year include Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Apex, Princess Cruises’ Enchanted Princess, Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Splendor and Silversea Cruises’ Silver Moon, plus many more smaller ships.
5. The Role of AdvisorsRegardless of how a long-term course correction will eventually look, everyone agrees that travel advisors will take on an even more crucial role in the industry’s success.
“I am definitely in the camp that believes the travel advisor’s role has never been more important,” Athanasiou said. “An advisor will be able to assist guests with all the different protocols, all of the different requirements — not only with cruise but with air — how their shore excursions are going to look, and everything else that is cloudy in consumers’ minds right now. So, having a dedicated advisor to help them navigate all of that is going to help.”
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Le Vine of Cruising With Ricki knows her luxury clients are anxious to return to cruising once a vaccine is available.
“In addition to shorter cruises in 2021 and 2022, I have booked full world cruises on Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises for 2022,” she said. “The other products that are gaining traction are domestic cruises, such as those offered by American Cruise Lines and Viking’s new Mississippi cruises. I have clients on both of those lines in 2021 and in 2022.”
Whatever the future holds, it would be a mistake to count the cruise industry down and out.
“In the end, I have no doubt we will come back smarter and stronger,” MSC’s Muskat said. “We will provide guests with an even better cruise experience in the future.”