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Cruising abroad is expected to be slow to start back up, mainly due to destination reopening restrictions. But Greece-based Celestyal Cruises is preparing for its inevitable return. In fact, the line is seeing a 65.5% increase in new reservations for 2021 over last year, excluding rebookings of canceled voyages, and half of its overall business is now coming from the U.S. market.
TravelAge West had the chance to discuss these statistics and more with Leslie Peden, Celestyal’s chief commercial officer.
Update (June 30): Celestyal Cruises has since decided to delay its return to service until the 2021 season beginning on March 6, 2021.
“As the core of our season runs from the spring through the autumn, we were optimistic that we would be able to resume our cruise operations later this summer,” Peden said in a press release. "However, given the prevailing uncertainty regarding travel restrictions through the balance of our operating season from our largest international source markets coupled with the continuing discussions at the European Union (EU) level regarding the enhanced health protocols that will apply to EU cruise operations, we made the difficult but prudent decision to postpone resuming cruise operations until the scheduled start of our normal spring season next year. We felt that as a company, we have already put our travel partners and guests through enough date changes on when cruising could return safely. By voluntarily pausing operations until our scheduled departures of next year, Celestyal will be better positioned to offer more clarity and certainty to our valued partners and guests, as well as peace of mind. We will now shift our full attention to developing both 2021 and 2022 business where we are already seeing encouraging signs of pent-up demand and be well prepared to implement all enhanced health protocols that will ultimately be established by the EU and the countries where we operate. While we appreciate and share in the disappointment this decision has on our guests, their wellbeing, as well as that of our loyal crew and the local communities we visit is always our top priority.”
Why are travelers looking to Greece?Greece as a destination has been acknowledged globally for the proactive and decisive early measures put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19, and in doing so, has very low numbers (lowest in the E.U.) of confirmed cases, with the majority of islands remaining 100% COVID-19 free.
This has allowed Greece to reopen much quicker, while still adhering to strict monitoring and containment measures. Greece as a destination even prior to COVID-19 was achieving record visitor numbers, and pent-up demand for both Greece and cruising is evident.
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What do you think is contributing to entirely new bookings for 2021 versus rebookings?Over the past three-and-a-half years in North America, Celestyal Cruises has built a strong field sales, marketing and PR presence that has led the charge on building new preferred distribution that understands and values the differentiated cruise experience that Celestyal offers. This same strategy has been replicated in key source markets around the world, which has led to two consecutive banner years of guest and revenue performance for Celestyal pre-COVID-19.
Celestyal is known for being a great value for money through our all-inclusive concept. In times of uncertainty, given that we are in the midst of both a health and economic crisis, knowing what your vacation is going to cost right from the outset — and that there are no hidden charges — makes for easier budgeting.
Has Celestyal made any COVID-19-related changes to its product?We have reimagined our 2021 and 2022 itineraries to focus on introducing smaller islands and extended time in destination, ensuring a less crowded experience. Our mid-size ships are also proving a more considered choice for guests in the “new norm” with lower overall guests compared to larger ships that are also unable to visit the undiscovered islands that we take our guests to explore.
Guests are understandably looking for reassurance regarding both health and sanitation protocols on ships, and I point to how Celestyal was outperforming the industry with guest satisfaction scores consistently in excess of 96% for our outstanding housekeeping and hygiene standards. This — coupled with additional protocols we put in place during the commencement of our 2020 season, before being one of the first to voluntarily announce our suspension of cruise operations — ensured we have had no cases of COVID-19 on our ships.
Is the U.S. becoming a greater source market for Celestyal overall?Yes. Three-and-a-half years ago, North America accounted for 27% of our total global business, and since that time, we have grown this to 50%. Even since COVID-19, U.S. consumers have proven resilient with North America remaining consistent at this level. We also invested early on in the establishment of a contact center dedicated to servicing our North American trade partners in this time zone, making it easier to do business with us.
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What will it take for Greece to reopen to U.S. visitors, and when do you first foresee welcoming international guests onboard?Greece is already reopening for business from June 15 to 29 to select countries mainly within Europe that are deemed lower risk. That said, we anticipate that early July will see U.S. travelers being permitted to enter Greece again. For that to happen the U.S. State Department will also need to revise its international travel restrictions.
Attractions, historical sites and hotels in Greece have already commenced reopening by observing social distancing measures and restricting capacity where necessary for the moment. A key additional factor in Greece reopening to U.S. visitors is the return of viable airlift between the countries. We currently intend to recommence our cruise operations on July 31, 2020, but this remains subject to ports reopening in the destinations we visit.
We currently intend to recommence our cruise operations on July 31, 2020, but this remains subject to ports reopening in the destinations we visit.
What precautions will Celestyal take in the short term as well as the long term to instill cruise confidence?During this period of suspension of operations, we have taken time to determine ways to go even further in our efforts to protect the health of our passengers and crew — considering new and enhanced health protocols, technologies and sanitation solutions informed by some of the world's leading experts in science and medicine, in coordination with public health officials, governments and ports.
While specific details are still being developed, Celestyal is fully committed to identifying viable technologies that help to avoid the introduction of COVID-19 onboard our ships, thus enabling us to quickly detect and respond to risks and combat transmission.
In the short term, we are actively engaged with our partners at the local, national and international levels to facilitate alignment and inform cruise industry protocols as they advance through our planning process to return to service, which is currently set for the end of July. This includes expanded cleaning and sanitation practices for our ships and terminals where we operate as well as comprehensive shipboard prevention, surveillance and response measures that are effective in protecting the safety and health of our passengers, crew and the residents of the communities we visit.
We believe that our extensive and stepped-up health, sanitation and safety protocol will give travel advisors the confidence they require to recommend Celestyal not only in the short term as we return our operation, but also into next year and beyond as Greece is seen as a safe destination and one of the first to rebound from the pandemic.
What is new from the line that guests can look forward to?Due to increasing demand for next year, we have released details for our 2021 and 2022 deployment earlier than usual. Our new itineraries feature new ports of call in Syros, Agios Nikolaos (Crete) and Thessaloniki; additional seven-night Steps of Paul sailings; and amended itineraries to ensure guests enjoy as much time ashore as possible.
With the continued extension of Celestyal Cruises’operating seasons each year, we are excited to launch an amended version of our hugely popular three- and four-night Iconic Aegean cruises. Aptly named “Iconic Discovery,” these roundtrip winter sailings from Athens take into account the shorter daylight hours and areas of interest during this time of year. On both the three-night and four-night itineraries, Syros is introduced as a new destination, and a full day in Santorini is also included in all departures. Syros is the administrative capital of the Cyclades and is one of the smallest islands within the group. With its rich history and culture, Syros provides visitors with a slice of Greek lifestyle without the crowds.
On the seven-night Idyllic Aegean roundtrip itinerary from Athens, Heraklion (Crete) is replaced with Agios Nikolaos (Crete) which is a picturesque harbor town situated on the northeastern side of Crete overlooking the peaceful Mirabello Bay and Lake Voulismeni.
We’ve also reimagined our Eclectic Aegean itinerary to maximize time ashore and to enable Thessaloniki as a new embarkation/disembarkation port for the added convenience of drive markets from the Balkans and additional airlift from Western and Northern Europe. Thessaloniki has replaced Heraklion, and there is now a full day in Santorini. Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece with a rich history (home of Alexander the Great), cultural and culinary heritage, stellar nightlife and laid-back authenticity. With midnight departures from Thessaloniki, guests will have the whole day to enjoy everything the city has to offer.
On our “Three Continents” itinerary launched late last year, we’ve removed the technical call into Alexandria, Egypt, and will sail directly from Athens to Port Said, Egypt, maximizing the included full-day excursion to Cairo with a visit to the Pyramids of Giza.
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