As everyone is keenly aware, the coronavirus pandemic stopped global travel and international borders snapped shut very quickly in March 2020. When virus outbreaks on cruise ships occurred, ports would not allow foreign national passengers to disembark or in many cases, even denied the ship docking privileges. Hundreds of cruise ships were forced to remain at sea with passengers quarantined to their cabins for their safety. Spoiler alert – cruising is not dead! But to restart cruising, lines will need to complete comprehensive safety protocols.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said that most of its 270 member ships docked within two weeks, although it took longer for all passengers to get repatriated. The NY Times reported, “As of (June 26, 2020), there were still 68 ships at sea with 21,506 crew members on board in the U.S. jurisdiction alone.” Needless to say, the cruise industry has born a lot of negative press throughout the pandemic.
No Sailings Until Fall
The CDC initially issued a warning against cruise travel on March 8, but cruising is so popular, passengers were not deterred and kept sailing. On April 9 with ships stranded around the globe, the CDC warning became a no-sail order which is still in effect. To lift the order (in U.S. jurisdictions), cruise lines are required to develop a comprehensive, detailed operational plan to help prevent, mitigate, and respond to the spread of COVID-19, by:
- monitoring of passengers and crew medical screenings
- training crew on COVID-19 prevention
- managing and responding to an outbreak on board
- submitting a plan to USCG and CDC for review
We’ve learned throughout the pandemic that social distancing, washing hands, and sanitizing surfaces reduces the spread of the virus. But it remains to be seen how cruise ships will effectively enforce these principles. Now the cruise industry has ‘voluntarily’ postponed restarting, at least partially because they do not have highly detailed protocols yet.
Several major cruise lines report that they are developing safe service programs. Genting Cruises, parent of Crystal Cruise Line, has unveiled a specific eight-part safety guide. Princess, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines, published their Cruise with Confidence protocols. At the date of publication, other cruise lines have not announced comprehensive models.
In the future, all cruise passengers should expect temperature screenings at the time of boarding. Genting goes a step further and requires guests over 70 to provide a doctor’s certificate of fitness for travel.
“If passengers lose their cruise investment when they don’t go because they are ill, they may try to travel anyway,” says Covington vacation advisor Cindi Brewer. “When the cruise line has a more lenient cancellation policy, my client doesn’t feel as much pressure to make a choice that could infect others.”
To provide more flexibility to guests, Crystal has instituted a temporary cancellation policy that allows refunds and/or Future Cruise Credits (FCC) for cancellations up to seven days prior to sailing. Genting and Princess have also committed to providing full refunds or FCCs to passengers who fail health screenings at embarkation, a policy we hope all cruise lines add to their safety programs and help restart cruising.
Epidemiologists say reducing the number of guests on each cruise is the most important factor in limiting community spread of the virus. This, of course, poses a financial burden on cruise lines since this extremely popular travel segment has enjoyed very high occupancy and the resulting revenue for years.
Genting’s safety guide includes sailing with up to 40 percent fewer passengers to allow guests the physical space to socially distance from others. Time will tell if the mega-ships adjust their capacity, but cruisers seem to indicate that they find smaller ships more appealing now.
Ships are likely to reconfigure some areas to allow more outdoor dining spaces before they restart cruising. It’s also safe to assume that self-serve buffets will be a thing of the past on cruise ships.
Cleaning and Sanitizing
The CDC already operates a Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) as part of the National Center for Environmental Health. The program originally addressed the prevention and spread of gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships, but the hygiene recommendations overlap with coronavirus preventative measures. Inspected ships receive a VSP score, with the individual ship’s ratings available to the public. Although cruise ships were already cleaned more frequently than most other public settings, sanitization will be stepped up. For example, disinfecting elevators every two hours could become standard.
Implementing exhaustive cleaning between voyages will be another challenge for cruise lines. Most ships have less than a 12-hour turnaround between disembarkation of one voyage and embarkation of the next. We can expect cruise cleaning to adopt electrostatic sprayers and blue-light disinfectants that airlines and hotels are using.
Genting has pledged to reduce crew transfers between ships to limit the possibility of cross-contamination. Their crew will wear masks, although they do not plan to require guests to wear masks onboard.
Of course, passengers have a responsibility for their health, too. The CDC issued specific recommendations for keeping your hands clean on a cruise which guests should follow.
Will Demand Restart Cruising?
The no-sail status affected thousands of cruise bookings. Generally, cruise lines offered generous rebooking policies of up to 125 percent to apply to a future cruise to encourage passengers no to cancel completely. Covington found that the majority of our cruise clients did rebook, rather than cancel. As a result, many 2021 sailings are quite full.
In addition, cruise lines are offering very attractive deals for sailings through 2021. Covington advisor Doug Floyd says, “Some of the rates are incredible! I’ve booked Crystal’s 2021 European river cruises at about half of the normal price. That means two can cruise for the price of one.”
This pandemic pause does not deter loyal cruise fans. So many people have a deep love for travel by ship and can’t wait until they can get back out on the water and restart cruising. Add a great deal from the motivated cruise lines, and you have a win/win solution for a cruise comeback.
To inquire about special cruise offers, contact our expert vacation advisors soon.