The global cruise industry is facing its biggest challenge yet, and it could be months before ships are sailing again.

By Fran Golden
Updated May 25, 2020
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Cruise lines started 2020 expecting a banner year. Demand for cruises in the Caribbean, Alaska, and around the world was huge; fares were high. COVID-19 has, of course, changed all that, and cruise companies have been battered by an unprecedented drop in demand, sparked in part by CDC and U.S. Department of State warnings against travel by ship.

Now, the whole industry is on pause. Summer seasons in Alaska and Europe are questionable, according to industry analysts and cruise insiders. Entire countries — including Australia, Canada, Italy, and Mexico — are closed to cruise ship traffic.

All of which raises the question: When will we cruise again?

Major cruise companies have announced plans to return by May, but industry analysts are predicting it will be June — or later — before any ships are back in service.

“The whole system is frozen, and there are probably 50 things that need to happen in order for cruise companies to operate normally,” writes Mike Driscoll in the industry newsletter Cruise Week. Among the dozens of issues are crew readiness, securing provisions, implementing passenger health screenings, and determining which ports will be open — and which might turn away a visiting ship. Then there’s the challenge of simply getting potential passengers to the ship in the first place. “If any one of those 50 things don’t happen, then cruise lines will have to extend the pause,” Driscoll writes.

The Zaandam cruise ship pulls into Port Everglades Port Everglades on April 02, 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Anadolu Agency/Getty

Besides, says Andrew Coggins, a cruise expert and professor of management at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University. “Cruises are very difficult to sell if part of the country or the world is on lockdown,” he says. “Plus, the public needs to be convinced that they are safe.” He predicts many more months until the industry comes back.

Before it can, a number of challenges will need to be addressed, among them repositioning fleets and offering deals and incentives to get skittish consumers back on board.

It will be a challenge, says Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean, but one he thinks the industry can tackle. Late last month, in an iPhone video shot in the tropical garden of his Miami home, he told travel advisors that “weeks of social distancing are creating the need for togetherness.”

“Making memories and great vacations will be in huge demand when the current situation passes,” Fain said.

Rebuilding the Fleet

First, lines will have to clean, staff, and redeploy their fleets. While most of the world’s 300-plus cruise ships are either tied up at a port or anchored nearby, a handful are still actually sailing. (Fans of cruise ships like to track them around the world on sites like www.marinetraffic.com or www.cruisin.me.)

To take one example, the Queen Mary 2 is currently sailing from Durban, South Africa to Southampton, UK with about 264 passengers onboard. A few other ships are still trying to get to places where remaining passengers can disembark.

Onboard the ships that are docked or anchored are either a full crew – in some cases stuck on the ship because ports are wary of COVID-19 – or partial crew, keeping systems such as power and sewage running.

Crew on many ships are being allowed to stay in passenger cabins to enable more social distancing, says Bill Burke, chief maritime officer for Carnival Corporation.

While some ships could spring back into service quickly, others may be mothballed for months. How soon they could take guests again once the decision is made to return to service would be largely dependent on getting fresh crews aboard, Burke says. “Would crew be able to return to ships via air or would we need to set sail to pick up crews?”

Soothing Fears

Any restart of cruises would have to include major efforts to educate the public that cruising is safe, industry experts say.

“PR efforts will focus on cleaning, letting people know the ships have been thoroughly cleaned,” says Coggins, also predicting efforts to show that crew members are healthy. “They’ll want to have all crew members take an antibody test, if available, to show they are COVID-19 free — and publicize that,” he says.

They have to exercise caution with guests too. “If they start up again and the virus breaks out they have to shut down again,” Coggins says. “I think for cruise lines, probably the best thing is if a vaccine is developed and then you need to be vaccinated before you come onboard.”

Winning Public Trust

Even so, it may take a lot of convincing to get new cruisers aboard. One group the lines can count on? Veteran cruisers.

“Our members have been exchanging feedback with one another,” says Colleen McDaniel, the editor in chief of the popular website Cruise Critic. “According to a recent forum poll among members, 66 percent report that they’ll continue to cruise the same as always. An additional 10 percent said they’d cruise more than ever,” she said.

Some frequent cruisers have said that new restrictions might put a damper on their plans, McDaniel adds. Before they stopped sailing, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line were among the brands saying they would institute a new rule barring any guests with chronic illness from their ships. Those lines would also require any passengers age 70 and up to have a physician’s letter saying they’re fit to cruise.

Pricing to “Sail”

When they do return, cruise lines will likely test the waters with a small number of short, three- to five-day sailings to the Bahamas and Caribbean to start, predicts Coggins, the Pace University expert.

But at least one brand is betting big. Crystal Cruises last month announced a new 140-day world cruise from Miami to Barcelona, via the South Pacific and Australia, with stops in Asia and Africa, including such dreamy places as Tahiti, the Seychelles, and the Maldives. “Crystal’s World Cruises have always been among the most highly anticipated itineraries announced each year, and we’re finding the 2023 World Cruise to be no different, despite the unique travel climate we’re currently experiencing,” says Carmen Roig, the luxury line’s senior vice president of marketing and sales.

Some lines are offering discounts — like a 125 percent credit if you rebook a canceled sail — to fuel demand for later this year and into 2021, says Judy Perl, president of New York-based Judy Perl Worldwide Travel, a Virtuoso agency. “The majority of our clients are very well-traveled so they’re eager to resume cruising again,” Perl says. “I suspect that after six, eight, or 10 weeks of lockdown, they’ll be more eager than ever to resume cruising.”