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Cruise travel in 2020 may have been a bust due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s looking to return in 2021 — and parents and children alike have reason to hop onboard. However, a resumption in cruising will come with new health protocols (and a mixed bag of public opinions).
What will cruise travel for families look like next year?
MSC Cruises As a Case StudyWhen predicting what a restart may look like, it can be helpful to reference a case study in the space.
MSC Cruises is one such example; it has been sailing successfully in Europe after a restart this summer, and a full roster of family-friendly programming is back along with it.
“We’ve seen many families choosing to cruise with us since our restart in August with MSC Grandiosa — and recently with MSC Magnifica — especially in recent weeks [over the] school holidays in many European countries,” said Matteo Mancini, corporate kids entertainment manager for MSC Cruises. “We are regularly recognized for the quality and variety of our family product offerings, so naturally, maintaining kids and family activities was a key element of our restart cruise program.”
He emphasized that as a family company, MSC activities are geared to entertain all ages, and the line’s kids’ clubs and family entertainment have been operating since resuming operations. Still available, for instance, are The Drone Academy teen program, Cabin 12006 web series and MSC Dance Crew talent show.
Several important health and safety modifications have also been implemented.
At a minimum, guests can expect the onboard safety protocols that are working in Europe — including those in the kids’ clubs — to also be implemented in North America.
For now, these include a reduction of kids’ facility and individual room capacities; physical distancing; streamlined registration and quick check-in via pre-completed forms; regular enhanced sanitization of equipment and rooms; mask wearing for children over 6 years of age (when participating in inside or group activities, and before entering the club); hand and shoe sanitization; temperature checks upon arrival; and a rule prohibiting personal belongings in the kids’ club. Plus, there are more activities hosted outside on open decks.
“Since restarting in August, we have noticed that more parents and families want to take part in activities together with their children,” Mancini said. “We already offer many options for this joint fun, and will constantly evolve our products to make sure that we give families and their kids an unforgettable cruise in the safest possible way.”
Children can still be checked into the kids’ club if parents wish to disembark on shore excursions, but guests are now required to make a reservation in advance so the staff can manage the club’s overall numbers.
Regarding the eventual return of MSC Cruises to the U.S., Ken Muskat, executive vice president and chief operating officer for MSC Cruises USA, says the line is working closely with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to address specific regional standards.
“At a minimum, guests can expect the onboard safety protocols that are working in Europe — including those in the kids’ clubs — to also be implemented in North America,” he said. “The health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit are our top priorities. In the U.S., we will only start cruising when the time is right, and following approval by CDC and other relevant authorities across the region in observance of their requirements and guidelines.”
What’s to ComeMSC Cruises is just one of many brands waiting for permission to sail stateside again, and most companies are still working out the details before making any official announcements as to what new protocols will be in place for passengers. However, we can look to signs elsewhere for hints of what to expect.
Royal Caribbean International, for one, is planning to restart limited operations from Singapore this month, and it has updated The Royal Promise to provide healthy protocols for all passengers, including families.
The company will offer its Adventure Ocean youth program, albeit with some changes. Mentioned on its Singapore-specific website are smaller room capacities to allow for physical distancing; frequent hand-washing for participating kids; and sanitation of the room, toys and equipment after every session. Royal Caribbean requires face masks to be worn by children ages 2 and older, and the line further encourages those younger to wear one as well.
Overcoming ConcernsOf course, whether families feel comfortable enough to actually proceed with a cruise is another matter.
“We know that families do want to get back on the road and travel in 2021 — the key term being ‘on the road,’” said Rainer Jenss, founder of Family Travel Association, who said that domestic and non-air travel will likely continue to dominate, an unfortunate outlook for families who have been wanting to book a cruise.
Recent polling data from Phocuswright gives insight into what families are mulling over when considering upcoming travel options. (Note: Phocuswright is owned by Northstar Travel Group, the parent company of TravelAge West.) According to the research firm, more family travelers (48%) worry about losing money from trip changes or cancellations, compared to non-family travelers (39%). Also on the list of concerns are potential quarantines — with nearly half of families opting to put off travel to avoid quarantines at the destination (44%) or quarantines at home (48%). Finally, 23% of families traveling domestically (versus only 14% of non-family travelers) prefer to delay trips until after more of a destination’s attractions and activities reopen.
“It seems simple, but the challenge for most families is to get kids into schools, nevermind onto ships,” Jenss said. “I would not expect to see families back on cruise ships until well after a COVID-19 vaccine is available. There will be outliers and more intrepid families that will jump onboard when they can, but not enough to help fill ships.”
Cause for OptimismOthers have a more optimistic outlook. But the question is ultimately whether cruising comes back next year, in 2022 — or even later.
“Here in Texas, and in many other areas of the country, schools have successfully had in-person learning, so parents with children are gaining confidence that with proper safety and social distancing protocols in place, fun can still be experienced,” said Shirley Morris, a travel advisor at Houston-based Fairy Godmother Travel. “I am cautiously optimistic, but I sense some growing desire to get back out there and live life, while appreciating the need to do so safely. I do think that 2022 will see a bigger increase in families returning to cruises, but I also believe the summer of 2021 holds a good amount of promise that more adventuresome families will opt to travel.”
Danny Genung, CEO of Harr Travel in Redlands, Calif., believes things will start to come back sooner, if only to make up for canceled or overdue celebrations.
“Many families missed out on their family trip of a lifetime and are eager to rebook for 2021,” Genung said. “Kids keep getting older and milestones are passing, and they still want that dream vacation. Royal Caribbean’s two-bedroom Aqua Theater Suites are the best family experience in the business, and they are virtually all sold out for 2021. For each family, the timing will be different, [but] families are eager to get back out there and make those memories that will last a lifetime.”
Genung says his agency has continued to be busy over the last six months reserving future cruises for families, and he doesn’t envision it slowing down. Morris, on the other hand, is making fewer bookings for spring and summer travel than normal.
“My belief is that if you are not ready to travel now, then waiting to book would be ideal, or pushing it out to 2022 or into 2023,” Genung said.
Many families missed out on their family trip of a lifetime and are eager to rebook for 2021.
Morris says she is focused on helping families understand the many changes in the cruise industry.
“I have clients with a range of comfort levels, but I do feel confident that I can help them navigate the many new requirements set in place by CDC, and which our CLIA partner cruise lines are addressing,” she said.
Next StepsFor cruise travel to come back to the U.S., CDC needs to allow it. After the agency released its “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order,” many lines are looking to resume in early 2021.
And in addition to fulfilling CDC’s expectations, U.S.-based cruise lines are preparing their own set of standards. Broadly, CLIA has a set of mandatory core elements — including COVID-19 testing for all guests and crew — and Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. have teamed up to establish a Healthy Sail Panel to outline their own recommendations.
Genung expects cruises in the first half of 2021 to follow these recommendations, especially “masks in areas where you can’t socially distance, COVID-19 PCR tests for everyone and limited capacity.”
“Also, you’ll mostly see cruises to private islands and short cruises to start,” he said. “I’m still waiting to see the final return-to-service plan, and will feel more comfortable once more is known.”
Morris expects to see more families traveling soon.
“I see an ever-present hope ... to get out and explore somewhere this year,” she said.
Advisors and executives throughout the industry believe families will have fun again at sea. It’s just a matter of when. In the meantime, advisors should continue engaging with clients — and planning for the future.