The coronavirus outbreak has dealt an almost knockout blow to the cruise industry.
While many airlines still are operating (albeit with greatly reduced schedules) and many hotels remain open, coronavirus-related government travel restrictions and port closures have forced pretty much every single cruise ship on Earth to stop sailing.
The outbreak also has ravaged the cruise industry’s reputation, thanks in part to a seemingly endless succession of headline-grabbing coronavirus-related disasters, from the quarantine of the Diamond Princess in Japan to the plight of the long-stuck-at-sea Holland America ship, Zaandam.
Cruising will resume at some point, of course. Ships won’t sit idle forever. But when it does, it may look a lot different than it did just a few months ago — at least initially.
It’s still unclear when cruising will be able to start again. Several major lines already have canceled sailings into the early summer. A few have dropped voyages on specific ships as far out as October, and more cancellations could be coming.
But, based on what we’re hearing from cruise line executives, longtime industry watchers, health officials and the destinations where cruises operate, here are some key changes we think we’ll see when cruise vessels finally return to the world’s oceans.
No more self-service buffets
To some hardcore cruisers, just uttering these words could be considered blasphemy, but we have to say it: The days of the free-for-all, self-service cruise buffet may be over — at least for a while.
While we don’t expect cruise buffets to disappear completely, we expect lines to increase staffing in such venues so that it’s the crew — not passengers — serving food onto plates. This would be an attempt to cut down on the transmission of illness that can happen when multiple people touch the same serving utensils.
This is not without precedence. Cruise ships often restrict passengers from serving themselves at buffet lines during onboard outbreaks of common illnesses such as norovirus. In such situations, they’ll also place crew at self-serve drink stations to hand out drinks, so passengers don’t touch the machines. They’ll remove highly touched items such as salt and pepper shakers from tables.
Already, two Asia-based cruise lines, Dream Cruises and Star Cruises, have said they would suspend self-serve food service when cruising resumes. The lines, which are both owned by the cruise and resort company Genting Hong Kong, said all food and beverage on vessels would be served by crew wearing masks and disposable gloves.
Genting Hong Kong also is the parent company of U.S.-based Crystal Cruises.
Restrictions on who can cruise
When cruising resumes, some cruise ships could be off limits for a time to older travelers and those with preexisting medical conditions — those most at risk of complications from COVID-19.
Before they stopped sailing in March, several cruise lines including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises announced new rules banning travelers ages 70 and up from ships. Only those who had letters from a doctor saying they were fit to travel could board. The lines also said they would deny boarding to anyone with a serious chronic illness of any age on ships.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may require even stricter limits on who can cruise. The above limits on older travelers and those with preexisting conditions were part of an early cruise industry plan to contain coronavirus on ships presented to the CDC. But in a nine-page “no-sail” order issued last week for cruise ships sailing out of U.S. ports, the agency suggested the industry needed to develop a far more robust plan before resuming operations.
New health screenings
Several cruise lines already have announced plans for temperature checks before passengers board. But the CDC’s “no-sail” order also called on lines to develop plans for “onboard monitoring of passengers and crew through temperature checks and medical screenings.”
What exactly that would look like is still unclear. Will cruisers need to undergo periodic in-person medical checks during voyages? Will they need to fill out health questionnaires on a periodic basis? For now, it’s all up in the air. But expect health screenings of some type to be a bigger element of your next cruise vacation.
One possibility is that passengers on some ships will be issued thermometers after boarding and asked to check and report their temperatures regularly. We could see this happening, in particular, on vessels that experience a flare-up of cases of coronavirus-like illness among passengers or crew. During the coronavirus outbreak on the Diamond Princess in Japan, health officials ordered just this sort of regular temperature testing among passengers.
Some industry watchers have urged cruise lines to conduct rapid response COVID-19 tests on every passenger just before boarding, which could help keep people who are sick off vessels. Some airlines already are considering similar measures — and one is already doing it. Earlier this week, Emirates became the first airline to implement such tests, in coordination with the Dubai Health Authority. Emirates is performing COVID-19 tests on departing passengers in Dubai that provide a result in as few as 10 minutes.
In addition to preventing passengers with the virus from boarding cruise ships, such testing would provide passengers with documentation showing they are free of COVID-19: something some destinations are now requiring for entry.
Related: Preboarding screenings and new cleaning procedures: How US airlines are working to keep flyers healthy
Enhanced cleaning on board
Cruise line executives already have promised more robust cleaning on ships, and we expect to see a lot of changes in this area. Not that cruise lines haven’t been on top of cleaning in the past.
It’s already common on ships for crew to regularly wash and disinfect handrails, elevator buttons, gym equipment and other high-touch surfaces on a frequent basis — often several times a day. Cruise lines in recent years also have aggressively pushed customers to regularly wash and sanitize their hands while on ships.
Anyone who has been on a vessel lately knows that it’s almost impossible to get into a dining area without either washing your hands or using antibacterial gel, which is almost always available on stands near dining area entrances. Most cruise lines station crew at dining area entrances to require passengers to wash or sanitize their hands.
Related: You can sail on a self-disinfecting cruise ship with Hyatt points
So far, we haven’t seen crazy deals for cruises scheduled to depart later this year or in 2021. But the consensus among longtime industry watchers is that the deals are coming. Cruise lines are just waiting to see when they can resume service before kicking off heavy discounting.
In a research note sent to investors last week, leisure analyst Harry Curtis of Instinet said ticket prices could fall 25% to 30% on average after cruising resumes.
Related: Big cruise companies can survive shutdown lasting many months, analyst says
Some of the biggest markdowns could come for close-in departures that have a lot of open inventory due to customer cancellations. But further-out voyages are likely to be marked down, too. Many Wall Street analysts think it could take several years for pricing to rebound to the levels of just a few months ago.
Pricing in the cruise world is very sensitive to changes in supply and demand, and — at least initially — demand is expected to be down significantly once cruising resumes.
Less crowded ships
It seems almost unthinkable that cruise lines would run ships at less than full capacity. Operating at 100% of capacity — or even more than 100%, thanks to the filling of “third and fourth” berths in cabins designed for two — has been at the core of the cruise industry business model for as long as anyone can remember.
But some sort of reduction in onboard crowds may be a requirement for cruise vessels to return to operation in at least some parts of the world.
Buried in the CDC’s nine-page “no-sail” order, for instance, is a single line that says the industry’s plan for resuming service must include “social distancing protocols to minimize the risk of transmission and spread of COVID-19.”
The CDC didn’t spell out what sort of social distancing it would require on ships. But on some vessels designed to carry thousands of passengers, it would be tough to implement current social distancing rules requiring a six-foot separation between individuals without cutting the number of people allowed on board.
No line is talking publicly about doing that for now. But both Dream Cruises and Star Cruises already have announced plans to cut the number of people they allow in onboard entertainment and recreation venues by 50%. In theaters, for instance, half of all seats will be left empty. Dream Cruises and Star Cruises also said buses used for port tours will be limited to half capacity.
We expect to see similar moves by other lines.
Industry executives are holding out hope that cruising can resume as early as this summer. But that doesn’t mean every vessel will be back at sea.
In a conference call with media on Thursday, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald suggested cruising could resume at different times in different places, with only some vessels coming back initially.
Ships based in China, for instance, could be among the first to resume departures, if only because China has started relaxing social distancing rules ahead of other countries.
“Because of that — and that alone — it’s possible that China could be one of the first markets where cruise can be renewed,” Donald said. “There are other issues, though, not the least of which is where the cruise is going to go.”
Carnival Corp. is the parent company of Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America and six more major cruise brands.
In his recent research note, Instinet’s Curtis suggested major cruise companies might only be able to get half their fleets back into operation during the second half of the year. Longer term, we expect some older ships to be retired, and the pace of new ship building could slow. That’s something Donald alluded to on Thursday.
Already, several lines including Virgin Voyages, Princess and Crystal have pushed back the inaugural voyages of new ships this year by at least two to five months.
Shorter, closer-to-home itineraries
One thing that’s likely to be different when cruises resume are itineraries. In response to a question from TPG on Thursday, Carnival Corp.’s Donald suggested the routings on the schedule for some of the company’s ships could be revamped — at least for a few months.
In part, this will be because some ports on current itineraries simply won’t be open.
“In the near term, once we start sailing, it’s going to be different because I doubt seriously all destinations will open simultaneously,” Donald said. “There’ll be different protocols and regulations and so on in one place versus another.”
Donald also noted the return of some cruise itineraries will be dependent on a resumption of an adequate amount of airlift to regional cruise hubs.
“We do have a number of brands that are very reliant on airlift to get guests to the embarkation point, so we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “We don’t know which destinations will open up when … until we see more movement, it’s hard to predict exactly what form and shape [the resumption of cruising] will take.”
Many industry watchers expect lines to initially offer more short sailings from “home ports” near major population centers that passengers can reach by car. Shorter sailings offer customers a way to dip their toes back into cruising without overly committing. Sailings reachable by car at least let customers avoid boarding an airplane.
Already, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that one of its ships, Norwegian Sun, will reposition to Port Canaveral, Florida, when cruising resumes to operate short three- to five-day-long voyages. The ship originally had been scheduled to spend much of the next five months operating much longer nine- to 12-night voyages out of Seattle to Alaska.
Relaxed cancellation policies
Nearly all major lines have drastically eased cancellation policies since February, when the coronavirus outbreak began spreading beyond Asia. It’s likely we’ll see lines continue to be more flexible about cancellations for many months to come.
Cruise lines are hoping that, by being more flexible, they can convince customers it’s OK to make a booking even if coronavirus worries remain.
Already, some lines have loosened their cancellation policies as far out as the end of the year. Luxury line Silversea, for instance, says passengers booked on any voyage departing before Dec. 31 can cancel without penalty up until two days before departure. Those who cancel will receive a future cruise credit in the amount of 100% of what they paid.
Other cruise operators that have loosened cancellation policies through December include Celestial Cruises, Emerald Waterways and Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.