Hundreds of cruise ships without passengers are tied up at docks or anchored at sea, and most will not resume operation until the “no sail” ordered issued on March 14 by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is lifted. In the meantime, the cruise industry is racing to come up with new and more rigorous health measures that will make cruise ships less likely to become floating petri dishes, and get the “no sail” order lifted. But how far will cruise lines need to go, and how will potential passengers react?
There are currently 80,000 crew members stranded on some 120 empty cruise ships in U.S. waters alone, earning zero revenue for their owners who are losing millions of dollars a day and watching share values plummet. This is the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a CDC order that prohibits cruise ships with more than 250 occupants (passengers and crew) from operating in U.S. waters until at least mid-July. And this situation won’t change until the CDC feels there is a low risk of further COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships, and if an outbreak does occur that it can be controlled.
That’s a powerful incentive for change, and one that major cruise lines seem to be embracing. However, if new measures are taken too far, cruising could get very weird.
Take for example a policy introduced in March by major cruise lines that would have required anyone over the age of 70 or those with chronic health problems to obtain a doctor’s note saying they were “fit to sail” before taking a cruise. Conceivably, this would have prevented people with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart or lung disease, or those with compromised immune systems caused by issues such as cancer, Crohns or diabetes, to be eligible for cruising. And would doctors be prepared to take on the legal liability of providing a “fit to sail” form to cruise lines, and what would they need to charge to cover their increased risk?
Luckily, this bone-headed idea was dropped by most cruise lines in mid-April when they realized that a large percentage of their passengers are retired people, many of whom are over 70 years of age and have pre-existing health issues.
Some other proposed measures are not quite so dumb, but will change the face of cruising – literally!
For example, Genting Cruise Lines (which operates China-based Star Cruises and Dream Cruise Line), has decided that all passenger-facing crew members will have to wear face masks in future. And Royal Caribbean is trying to trademark a special face mask called “Seaface” which may be available for use by crew and passengers on future voyages.
Can you imagine your dinner being served or having your martini mixed by a waiter or bartender in a face mask? That may work in Asia where people are used to seeing face masks in public, but it would be a hard sell in the West where it might feel akin to sailing on a hospital ship. Genting also owns Crystal Cruises which caters to wealthy westerners, but has smartly held off implementing the face-mask policy there – so far.
Then there are the enhanced measures being introduced to screen passengers before they board a cruise ship. These will include pre-boarding health declarations, mandatory thermal temperature screenings, and visual inspections for excessive sneezing, coughing and sweating. (Thankfully, there are currently no plans for colonoscopies and prostate exams!) Anyone with fever or flu-like symptoms will be denied boarding, although they will now get a refund. In the past, passengers refused boarding for suspected illness did not get a refund, which led many people to hide or lie about their condition. However, if a passenger is later found out during the cruise to have mispresented their condition upon boarding, they can be put off the ship at the next port and sued by the cruise line.
The embarkation process for most cruise lines will also be changing. Rather than have passengers wait in a crowded terminal to board their ship, they will be given boarding times and prevented from entering the terminal early. Boarding will also commence later so that ships have more time to do more thorough sanitizing of cabins and public facilities, which means many passengers will no longer board in time for lunch.
Food service on board many ships will also be changing. In the past, most ships offered self-serve buffet options for breakfast and lunch, where passengers stood cheek-by-jowl in a line and handled the same serving utensils. In future, most buffet stations will be manned by crew members who will dish out food to passengers. In addition, some cruise lines will be replacing reusable cutlery and cups with single-use plastic or Styrofoam.
While temporary until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, most cruise lines will also be cutting back on capacity in their public facilities such as dining rooms, bars, theatres, spas, pool areas, and shops. This means that making advance reservations to attend a show or have dinner may become a necessity. And many ships may sail well below capacity for a year or more. This could benefit smaller cruise ships, which boast more space, fewer passengers and higher quality service. It might also impact the size of ships being built for the future.
There will also be more frequent sanitizing of cruise ship facilities including surfaces that are touched frequently such as elevator buttons, handrails, door handles, fitness machines and more. And some frequently used doors will be permanently propped open (hopefully, this will not include cabin doors!). Even the laundry on ships will be made safer with the temperature in all washers and dryers increased for enhanced disinfection of bedding, tablecloths, towels, napkins, etc.
Shore excursions will also be capacity controlled to ensure social distancing, which means fewer tour options and less time on shore. And medical facilities on ships will be getting make-overs to ensure they have the ability to quarantine infectious passengers, and that there is enough personal protective equipment for medical staff.
Then there’s the issue of where ships can sail to once they resume operations. For example, with Canada banning large cruise ships until at least July 1, most lines have cancelled or curtailed their sailings to Alaska this summer. Several other countries currently have cruise ships bans in place, and some officials are calling for permanent embargoes on large cruise ships visiting fragile environments like Venice.
While many of these changes and enhanced health measures are welcome improvements, one has to wonder if collectively they will destroy the joy of being on a ship. And even with these enhancements, will it be enough to bring back new passengers in sufficient numbers?
According to the Los Angeles Times, people are still looking to book new cruises, and they are doing it in record numbers.
For example, in the 45 day period leading up to April 9, a major cruise retailer reported a 40 per cent increase in cruise bookings for 2021 over the same period a year ago. In a recent analysis about the cruise industry, Swiss investment bank UBS reported than cruise booking volumes for 2021 was up nine per cent. Furthermore, an online poll by CruiseCritic of 4,600 cruise passengers found that 75 per cent plan to take cruises again at the same frequency as before, or more!
So while the cruise industry appears destined to survive COVID-19, the onboard experience is going to change. And short of keelhauling passengers who tell lies on their boarding forms, cruise lines will do whatever it takes to get the CDC to lift its “no sail” order as soon as possible. Even if that means cruising may get a bit weird.
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As this story from Reuters shows, some cruise lines may be in financial trouble, and reports of strong new bookings for later this year and into 2021 may be over-blown.