It should come as no surprise that the main topic on everyone’s mind during this year’s Seatrade Cruise Virtual industry convention was COVID-19, with a particular focus on restarting operations. Despite such daunting challenges, the cruise travel market is the most optimistic it has been since shutting down sailings.
Among the takeaways were the following key points.
Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three
More than anything, testing for the novel coronavirus was presented as the most important step for cruising’s eventual return — specifically, the 100% testing of all passengers and crew before boarding any ship as outlined by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
In fact, Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises, believes testing effectively makes vaccines “irrelevant” as tests will help weed out any instances of COVID-19 regardless of who has or who has not been inoculated.
Another common belief is that while testing is a crucial “first gate,” as stated by Dr. Grant Tarling, chief medical officer, Group Health Services at Carnival Corporation, it is still possible that the virus could make its way onboard. Thus, multiple layers of protection including masking and physical distancing, as well as case isolation as needed, will be implemented.
Protocols Not Permanent
It is also good to remember that the strictest health protocols will not be in place forever. Donnie Brown, vice president of maritime policy at CLIA, anticipates stringent measures to exist at the “initial resumption” but looks forward “to being able to scale them back in time.”
He said what will contribute to the eventual loosening of protocols is a combination of easing restrictions on terrestrial travel; the availability of treatments and vaccines; and the remaining prevalence of COVID-19 in source markets and destinations.
Next Up: The Caribbean
The Caribbean is expected to be one of the first destinations to return for North American travelers, who can look forward to a gradual phasing in of ports, not all of which will likely be available on initial itineraries.
Holland America Line’s new president Gus Antorcha emphasized that cruise lines’ own private islands will come into play more to start, but traditional destinations are not out of the running.
Even if there are more restrictions to begin with, sanctioned shore excursions are not necessarily a bad thing. Josh Leibowitz, president of Seabourn, pointed out that the cruise industry actually started out with “controlled” tours.
Ultimately, “pleasure should not be restricted,” said Clarice Modeste-Curwen, minister for tourism and civil aviation, Grenada Tourism Authority, but the region is rethinking attractions as needed, as well as avoiding mass gatherings with smaller groups. She specifically cited beaches and health-focused tours as good offerings.
It will come down to instilling traveler confidence in destinations and building mutual trust between ports and cruise lines, and those discussions are well under way.
Alaska’s Health Bubble
Both Holland America Line (HAL) and Windstar Cruises have specifically said they are planning for full 2021 Alaska seasons.
Equally anticipating next year’s return are Alaska’s individual ports of call. Skagway, for one, depends on cruising for a staggering 90% of its local economy, according to Andrew Cremata, borough mayor of Skagway.
"We want [guests] to have a completely free experience while they’re in the port,” he said.
Cremata discussed how a health bubble can be created on a ship, but also in a small destination such as Skagway, where visitors can still openly wander beyond shore excursions to hike, shop or dine. Crucial to that will be routinely testing seasonal workers so the local bubble and incoming bubble can safely interact.
Demand and Demographics Remain Steady
Also positive is the news that traveler demand remains high. Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, spoke of the emerging trend of “revenge travel,” and the huge desire there is to get back out there, particularly among those who have cruised before. She said cruising is already their preferred vacation, and they miss cruising with friends.
HAL’s Antorcha does not see demographics shifting either. Those who “took travel for granted,” are raring to go, and, perhaps surprisingly, older guests are disproportionately booking cruises right now, he said.
Similarly, MSC’s Sasso believes loyalists will return. First-timers “may have been moved a little bit away from the fence” he said, but there’s an opportunity to capture a new audience that appreciates all the robust steps the cruise industry is taking to ensure the healthiest of environments.
Travel Advisors Are Key
“Coming out of this, [travel agents] will never be in greater demand,” said Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network.
Sadly, Sharpe does foresee a smaller community that is “leaner and meaner,” but also one that has a chance to quickly grow back as consumers need help understanding everything. The additional silver lining, he added, is the potential for greater revenue per advisor with fewer in the market.
To that end, Dan Blanchard, owner and CEO of UnCruise Adventures — who said “God bless agents” — remains very thankful for advisors’ continued support and advised them to become as knowledgeable as possible about all the new protocols to keep their edge moving forward.