Cruise Lines Remain Berthed
Hopes for a quick resumption of global cruise operations are fading as the world continues to struggle to overcome the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In their original announcement, the cruise lines had anticipated a 30-day pause in operations targeting mid-April to resume sailing.
Many industry observers had questioned if 30 days would be long enough to come to grips with the public health crisis. Following President Donald Trump’s announcement that the recommendation for social distancing would continue in the U.S. until the end of April, and with airplanes grounded and world ports closed to passengers, it has become apparent that the disruption to the travel and leisure industries will be prolonged.
Carnival Cruise Line became the latest of the major cruise lines to announce on March 30, 2020, that it would be extending its pause in operation until mid-May. Other Carnival Corporation & plc brands, including Cunard Line, Holland America Line, and P&O Cruises, followed suit also targeting mid-May to resume sailings. Princess Cruises had previously said it would suspend sailings till mid-May while MSC Cruises announced that it is canceling sailings until the end of May.
Last week, Royal Caribbean Cruises said that its brands would delay their return to service until mid-May. Disney Cruise Line extended the suspension of all new departures till the end of April, while a few lines have yet to announce their plans.
While the vast majority of the global cruise ship fleet has already safely returned to port, several cruise ships remain at sea, some under difficult or dangerous conditions for their passengers. Further, while the cruise lines had attempted to minimize the risk for their crews, a number of the idled ships are also reported to have cases of the virus among their onboard crew members.
The ships themselves have mostly been sent to ports or anchorages but in some cases have shifted between locations. Addressing crew members that were at the end of their contracts, and anticipating that the resumption of service would be longer in coming, some of the cruise lines have quietly begun efforts to airlift crew members home. The ships, of course, will maintain navigational and engineering crews to continue safe operations during the suspension but are signing off hotel and service crew members.
According to the website Crew Center, Carnival Cruise Line, for example, has been arranging for a charter air flight to send Indonesian and Filipino crew members from the Carnival Breeze home. Additionally, Royal Caribbean International is also reported to be making arrangements for some of its crew members.
While the cruise lines remain hopeful that they will resume sailing during the spring, the plans may be complicated by individual ports or in certain regions of the globe. For example, Singapore will remain closed through May 2020, while the Port of Seattle has stated it expects a delay to the start of the 2020 cruise season “until the resolution of the public health emergency.” Combined with Canada’s plans to keep its ports close until July 1, the summer Alaska cruise season currently appears to be in jeopardy. It is also impossible to predict when the ports in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe might again accept cruise ships.
“The only way the cruise and travel industry is going to recover is when there is some certainty,” predicts travel writer Anthony Bianco. He believes it will require a decline, or disappearance, of the virus along with the airlines restoring capacity and “when the travel insurers know that their risk profile has dropped considerably.”
Informal canvassing of consumers and observations of the discussions on social media, however, shows that people remain interested in travel and are still seeking out future travel destinations. The cruise lines’ generous future cruise credits are also encouraging those on canceled sailings to rebook for a future departure date.
“I’d highly doubt if the entire cruise industry is turned back on like a light switch,” says Tanner Callais the founder of a consumer website Cruzely.com. “My guess is that all the cruise lines will come back at around the same time, but do so on a limited basis.”
Based on the latest developments, it appears that the first sailings are at least four to six weeks away, and parts of the cruise industry may not recover until well into the year with some ships and markets further delaying the full resumption of cruises.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.