Back to Travel – Part III.1 Cruising

This is the third and final topic in my COVID-19 “Back to Travel” series and it deals with the type of travel that hooked me and Janet on the travel business over ten years ago…cruising. Of all sectors in the travel industry, COVID-19 has had the greatest impact on cruising and there is so much to cover that I’ll need to break it up into two parts. For this first part I will address the impact of COVID-19 on the cruise industry at a macro level, and then in a week or so I’ll follow up with an article about some specific changes you are likely to notice the next time you cruise.

Will the Cruise Industry Survive?

That question is about as macro as it gets, but yes…absolutely the cruise industry will survive. Cruising is and will continue to be a lucrative business. Nothing about COVID-19 has changed that in the long term, though to be sure there are some serious short-term impacts. Unlike other forms of travel, cruising is purely leisure in nature and households pay for it out of discretionary money. Between loss of employment due to stay at home orders and 401K funds tanking, COVID-19 has made discretionary income scarce for many.

To make matters worse, the cruise industry stands alone as the only sector of the travel industry to be effectively shut down by the U.S. government with no safety net. Airlines, hotels, and rental car companies are all still operating and generating revenue, albeit less than before, and those sectors of the travel industry have the added benefit of federal assistance under the CARES Act. Not the cruise industry. Passenger cruise lines that sail in and out of U.S. ports fall under U.S. regulatory jurisdiction and since mid-March have been under a mandated no sail order. At the same time, those cruise lines are incorporated outside of the U.S. which makes them ineligible for the federal financial assistance that has benefitted the rest of the travel industry. So in addition to not making money because they aren’t allowed to sail, the cruise lines have had to pay back revenue they had already committed to their downstream supply chain in the form of passenger refunds and future cruise credits. All of this with no help from the U.S. or any other government.

The major cruise company executives are nothing if not incredibly shrewd business people. Janet and I have met most of them, talked with them, and admire their passion and devotion to their trade. Very shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the major cruise lines started lining up access to lines of credit and funding sufficient to keep them going for the next 12-18 months. Each company took a different approach, some accepting outside investment and others leveraging their assets to the max. Not knowing how the crisis would resolve, the cruise lines made the assumption that they would not be able to resume sailing until mid to late 2021 and worked up their financial plans accordingly. There is every reason to believe cruises will resume yet in 2020, and according to all industry experts there is a significant amount of pent up demand. So yes, I think it is safe to say that the cruise industry will survive.

Is it Safe to Cruise?

As a travel agent I would love to answer this question with an unqualified yes, but in all honesty I can’t. One of the things Janet and I pride ourselves with our business is that we keep it real. We aren’t cheerleaders for the industry, we work for our clients. If I am being honest, I can’t wait to get back on a cruise ship. At the same time, I also know that isn’t the best decision for some of our clients who are immune compromised or who fall into one of the high risk demographics associated with COVID-19 complications. At the end of the day a cruise puts you into a public environment where many aspects are outside of your control, and that makes the decision of whether or not to cruise very personal. It is a decision complicated even more by this novel virus that to many is so benign while to others can be so deadly.

Making the decision of whether or not to cruise is a bit challenging these days considering how information gets spun and distorted by the news, politicians, and through social media. Media outlets and politicians alike have described cruise ships as being incubators for disease. That’s Codswallop…they aren’t. All cruise lines operating out of U.S. ports are required to follow the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) which outlines cleanliness and sanitation standards exceeding anything you will find in a public facility on land. Hygiene standards at your favorite restaurant, corner marketplace, local snowball stand, or even your child or grandchild’s school don’t come close to the level of cleanliness the CDC requires cruise lines to maintain on their ships.

As part of the VSP, the CDC requires cruise ships to endure exhaustive no-notice inspections with costly penalties for non-compliance. If you’ve ever been delayed boarding for a cruise, chances are the ship was undergoing a surprise CDC hygiene inspection, a U.S. Coast Guard safety inspection, or both, as was the case in one cruise we booked where boarding was delayed by several hours. If that happens to you, be patient and be grateful. It means the government and the cruise line is putting your safety first. In addition to the inspections, the CDC requires cruise lines to self-report when more than a handful of passengers become ill on any cruise, and this is where the bad rap comes from. These reports are public record which means no matter how insignificant the problem may be, the media turns them around in the form of a sensationalized breaking news headline. If you dig beyond the splashy hyperbole, which of course I do being the critical thinker I am, the CDC reports will tell you that you are far more likely to catch a disease at your local big box restaurant or at a friend’s house than you are on a cruise ship. But again, risk is a very personal decision and every traveler needs to follow their own doctor’s guidance.

COVID-19 and Cruise Ships – By the Numbers

Context is everything when it comes to numbers, and the main complaint I have about reporting related to COVID-19 is that politicians and the media shove numbers down our throats without context. For the six-week period between the first appearance of COVID-19 on a cruise ship in February and the CDC’s stop sailing order in mid-March, about 100 ships reported a total of roughly 3,000 cases of COVID-19. That sounds like a lot. BUT…during that same timeframe over 3,100 cruise ship sailings took place carrying about 6,000,000 passengers. I tried to do the math on the percentage of cases vs passengers, but my calculator doesn’t carry that many places to the right of the decimal. Of the reported cases of COVID-19 on cruise ships, well over half occurred as the result of outbreaks on just four ships, and of those cases, three quarters involved crew members and not passengers.

The most widely reported outbreak of COVID-19 on a cruise ship involved the Diamond Princess in early February. That outbreak came about at the beginning of the pandemic where the virus and its spread were poorly understood. Because a cruise ship at sea represents a relatively controlled environment, the Diamond Princess outbreak provided CDC researchers with near laboratory conditions to study the spread of the virus, and the results are helping to inform the decisions being made about how cruise lines can return to sailing while minimizing the risk of another COVID-19 outbreak.

The Diamond Princess carried 3,711 passengers and crew on that particular cruise. A total of 713 people, mostly passengers in that case, became infected with COVID-19 and 14 died. The ship was sailing an Asian itinerary that included passengers from China, likely including the Wuhan area though I haven’t seen that confirmed. What has been confirmed is that the virus was brought aboard by a passenger. After studying the outbreak and the ship’s response, the CDC determined that the passenger quarantine the Diamond Princess crew put into place was effective, at least as far as it went. Prior to the quarantine every infected passenger aboard the Diamond Princess went on to infect an average of seven additional people, which is why the outbreak initially spread so rapidly. After the passenger quarantine was implemented that transmission rate dropped to less than a 1:1 ratio.

What made this particular outbreak so troubling is that the quarantine was limited to passengers. The ship’s crew continued to eat and socialize during their off hours in common dining, recreational, and sleeping facilities. Accommodations on a cruise ships are tight, and even more so for crew members. Add to that the long hours crew members work with few breaks, along with the added stresses of working through the passenger quarantine, and it should come as no surprise that even as the passenger rate of infection was dropping, COVID-19 began to spread through the crew rapidly. To compound matters, Princess followed a common practice in the cruise industry of transferring crew members from one ship to another without any quarantine time on the gaining ship. In effect, after the Diamond Princess outbreak was well under control it still seeded outbreaks on two additional Princess cruise ships.

Cleaning and Hygiene Cycles

The CDC is working with a major trade organization representing the cruise industry to develop COVID-19 enhancements to the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program specific to addressing the risk posed by COVID-19. I’ll address some of those measures in a few days when I post my next article. One of the things not likely to change is the turn around time. There has been quite a bit written about the pressure cruise ships face when it comes to taking the time to sanitize and clean between sailings. A cruise ship has about six hours to disembark passengers, clean all cabins and public spaces, and go through mandatory CDC hygiene and Coast Guard safety inspections before boarding begins for the next sailing. Some media outlets have jumped to the conclusion that the short turn-around time between cruises makes it impossible for a cruise ship to be adequately cleaned. The thing is, unlike land-based resorts cruise ship crews don’t wait for guests to check out before thoroughly cleaning cabins and public spaces.

Cleaning and maintenance on cruise ships is an ongoing endeavor with hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly cleaning practices. Passenger cabins are cleaned twice daily top to bottom, and public areas are cleaned multiple times throughout the day. High traffic areas with frequent passenger contact like restrooms, stair rails and elevators are cleaned and sanitized frequently, in some cases hourly. Over the course of a single sailing a cruise ship is thoroughly cleaned top to bottom multiple times, and the CDC is working to refine their cleaning timelines and procedures to reduce the risk of illness even further. Can they do better? Of course. But again, context is everything. I worry about contracting an illness when I cruise far less than when I go to the local grocery store.

Itineraries

Cruise lines are taking a crawl, walk, run approach to their return to sailings, and that means limited itineraries for the first few months. The Alaska and Canada/New England cruise seasons have been cancelled for all cruise lines through the end of 2020, and worldwide itineraries will also be limited. The future of Mediterranean itineraries is questionable given the EU’s recent continuation of their ban on travelers from the U.S. and itineraries that cruise to Australia and New Zealand will likewise be limited, possibly into 2021. Asian itineraries will probably resume late in the year out of ports such as Hong Kong and Singapore. When cruising resumes targeting the U.S. market, the bulk of the sailings will depart from Miami and Fort Lauderdale with other ports resuming operations in the ensuing months. Ships sailing from the Florida cruise ports will initially sail Bahama and Caribbean itineraries with limited port calls.

Each major cruise line has their version of the private island experience, and you can expect that to figure prominently in itineraries for the first 3-6 months after they resume sailing. You could see repeat stops at a private island on a single itinerary, or in some cases even overnight stays. There are some very practical reasons for this. First, though the islands are “private” they are all part of the Bahama Islands and fall within that government’s jurisdiction. Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part, but I believe any COVID-19 related immigration restrictions will be a bit more relaxed on those private islands since the risk of seeding outbreaks in population centers like Nassau or Freeport is more limited.

The other reason I think you’ll see more of an emphasis on port calls at the cruise lines’ private islands is money. Simply put, the cruise lines hold on to more of your money when they stop at one of their private islands than they do at any other port. Most of the private islands offer basic food service and activities that are included in the cruise price, but they also offer an extensive range of additional experiences on a schedule of premium fees. Trust me when I tell you the cruise lines will be looking to take full advantage of that.

Cruise Pricing

One of the issues Janet and I have noted as clients seek to either book a new cruise or rebook a cruise that was cancelled, is the expectation that it will be a buyer’s market. Believe me when I tell you nothing could be further from the truth. In spite of the bad press cruising has received since the beginning of the pandemic, there is a strong core of die-hard cruisers who are prepared to put up with whatever social distancing measures the CDC imposes, as long as they can do so on a cruise ship. And each time the return to sail date gets pushed back, more cruisers seek to reschedule which only further increases demand. I’ll address the issue of capacity restrictions in my next article, but for now I’ll just share that when Carnival announced they were prepared to resume sailing in August (now pushed to October), they noted a 600% increase in sales the week following their announcement. With that much demand you can kiss any “deals” goodbye.

What you will get is marketing. Cruise lines will market and package offers to make it appear that you are getting a “deal” but that is only to appeal to that human desire to score a bargain. You’ll continue to see the usual BOGO offers, 2fers and the like, but pricing for a cruise going forward will be higher than last year across the board. From what Janet and I have been seeing, the actual price you’ll end up paying even for the “best” deal out there is going to be on the order of 20-50% higher than pre-COVID pricing. I don’t expect that pricing trend to change until the pandemic is over. Even then one of the topics of discussion between the CDC and CLIA is whether to continue to allow cruise lines to build and operate ships that have the capacity of a small city.

Wrap Up

Cruising will survive COVID-19. In fact, as a business sector the cruise lines are far more healthy than airlines and hotels in spite of the extra hardship they have faced. Sure, there will be some adjustments to the cruising experience because of COVID-19, which I will address in my next article. But overall, cruising remains a healthy industry, and you can count on the cruise lines to work closely with the CDC to adopt hygiene practices that ensure your safety. The media will do what they always do, report with breathtaking hyperbole the least significant issue or illness. None of that will stop me from booking my next cruise!

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