A few months ago, a seventh cruise ship arrived in Torbay, in the county of Devon, England. The 12-deck Nieuw Statendam from Holland America Line was christened just a year ago by U.S. star, Oprah Winfrey. Now, it joins the ranks of cruise ships, anchored along the shores of countries around the world; an unmistakeable indication of a crisis that has shaken a generational industry to its core.
Whilst recent weeks have heralded the results of three potential vaccines, the coming “winter” season will be crucial for the cruise industry.  In this article, we’ll explore why.

A promise yet to be fulfilled

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cruise industry was one of many industries that hoped the disruption would only last a few months. The aviation industry, music festivals and sports events alike had set their sights on normality by July/August. As the reality of the pandemic began to sink in, some even managed to adapt. We have seen sports leagues playing in bubbles, steady increases in flight numbers as health measures were put in place; and for the hard-hit music and live event industry, there government funding has been provided in some cases.

The cruise industry stands on a lonely island, however.  Its greatest selling point – weeks-long voyages around the world, stopping off at different cities and countries every day – now becoming its biggest weakness in the face of this virus. In exploring the prospects of adaptation in our recent articles, it has become apparent that there is still work to be done, and with little help coming from national governments at this time.

Amidst this turmoil, cruise liners have been forced to revise and re-revise their timelines – the July/August timeline was shifted to October; October became November. And, now some have even announced they will not be cruising until March 2021. So how much certainty can there be that March will be any different?

There is at least some news of potential vaccines with both the US and UK reporting vaccine trial results of up to 90% efficacy in the past few weeks. But even with this optimistic news, there is still a long way to go.

A crucial winter to come

The frustration and anxiety in the industry is palpable and understandable. From early October to December, cruise passengers are usually climbing on (P&O-style) luxury ships on the way to warmer climates, returning early the following spring. Instead, Carnival, one of the world’s biggest cruise liner companies, has begun selling its older fleet; images of cruise liners on the beaches of Turkey waiting to be scrapped are not uncommon.

There can be no doubting that this three-four month period will be perhaps the most important in the industry’s history. There may be glimmers of hope in the restarting of AIDA and Costa Cruises sailing around Italy – but these cruises are for Italian passengers only and are sailing, at most, at half capacity. In October, the French cruise company Ponant, running its own small cruises with French-only passengers, reported 17 positive COVID-19 cases – including 14 crew members. This comes despite Ponant’s robust COVID-19 protocols, including health checks and screening of passengers by the ship’s own medical team.

Ponant’s experience is a stark reminder of the difficult road ahead. While many cruise liners are confident in their bookings for 2021 and beyond, in the details, many of these bookings have a COVID get-out clause. It’s a great deal for cruise passengers, but there is an inherent uncertainty for cruise liners.

With the arrival of Nieuw Statendam adding to the many ships on the English coast, for example – the question remains, how many more ships can be anchored? And can they last a winter in the English Channel? The answer is probably not.

Who will steer the ship?

Even with the progress made on vaccines, one miniature crisis that may yet lay ahead for the industry is exactly how crews will return to their ships? 

Around one and a half million people work on cruise ships around the world – from waiters to chefs, entertainers to cruise staff. While Captains, Masters and Helmsmen will be awaiting their ships, these day-to-day hospitality crews have largely been returned to their homes across the world – particularly in Asia.  With their jobs uncertain, these potential crew members may have found alternative jobs. So, there are questions around whether they will be attracted to working on ships again. The prospect of more rigorous protocols and work rosters under COVID-19 guidelines may be off-putting for some. This is an issue that is waiting in the wings for cruise liners when, and if, things get back to normal.

The new reality - test, test, test 

The cruise industry is no doubt on the edge right now. Despite the positive news around the vaccines, which could see some normality returning to the world in the coming months, the sheer scope and scale of the cruise industry means true normality may not return for another twelve months, as countries gradually vaccinate their populations. This will also mean that cruises will likely resume locally before expanding to international routes. Post-vaccination, we may still see the need for testing to ensure those boarding ships have been vaccinated or have tested negative for COVID-19.

We have discussed in previous articles that the strongest route ahead for now remains in rigorous remote testing for passengers – buoyed by the development of quicker and more accurate tests. In this, there may be hope for a stronger restart than the one we see today, but there will need to be commitment and possibly investment from the industry, or beyond, to make this happen. 

One thing’s for sure, the industry must continue to take the initiative and act to keep sight of any light at the end of the tunnel. It may just be a flicker, but there is still a chance that it can become a flame.

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