2020 was perhaps the toughest year in generations for the cruise industry. With Covid-19 striking last March, all cruise activity was subsequently halted, forcing cruise liners into survival mode – ships were being sold, scrapped or otherwise moored around the shores of Europe. But as we head into 2021, the question is, could there be some cause for hope?

With the announcement of at least three vaccines against the corona virus and immunisation campaigns already underway in the UK, some parts of the cruise industry are beginning to show signs of optimism. Commenting on both the vaccine and the industry outlook in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December, Associated British Ports (ABP) CEO Hendrik Pederson, stated that, “…we need to have the vaccine in play, but the long-term for the cruise industry is [that it’s] still a very healthy industry.” 

This year, we have gotten off to a sobering start, with tougher restrictions once again coming into force. However, as Cruise Industry News recently reported, a number of cruise ships are set to start sailing in January, with a focus on regional start-ups. 

So, as the wider rollout of vaccines slowly gets underway and ships start to sail, is the cruise industry through the worst of the storm? Well, not quite – and in this article I’ll explore why and what’s needed to get the industry going again in earnest.

Vaccination isn’t a quick fix

As with many industries around the world, the prospect of vaccination has been something of a light at the end of the tunnel. Since the announcement of vaccine trial successes, cruise liners are reporting boosts in booking figures which suggest that customers will be ready and eager to sail as vaccines becomes more widely available.  In the US trade media, reports are coming through of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) factoring in the vaccination of crew and passengers as part of their restart. 

However, the rollout of any vaccine will not be so straightforward given the complex logistical problems that need to be overcome. With distribution likely to take some time to reach all parts of the world, the months-long world cruises that are a feature of the industry, will still remain out of reach – perhaps for much of 2021. On top of that, the rise in COVID cases in the United States has seen a ‘no sail’ order extended – making it unlikely that one of the cruise industry’s largest markets will be welcoming visitors or cruises any time soon.

So, as the vaccines make their way around the world, what we’re beginning to see instead, is an expansion of the ‘local’ cruises that were seen in Germany, France and Italy towards the end of last year albeit with varying degrees of success. We are also likely to see shifts in the makeup of passengers. Royal Caribbean International which recently resumed sailing from Singapore with its vessel, the Quantum of the Seas,  is a case in point where cruises are running with 30% occupancy and with Singaporean passengers only. 

In fact, the Quantum of the Seas recently had their protocols put to the test when a COVID-19 case was reported on board. Passengers notified immediately and confined to their cabins and the ship returned to port within six hours. Three subsequent tests carried out on the suspected case, returned negative results suggesting the initial result was a false-positive.

So, although we are beginning to see a return to sailings within ‘local’ waters, it is clear that cruises still need to operate a delicate balancing act in a post-COVID, pre-vaccination world. And,  even with the incorporation of close vetting and co-operation, we might still be far from seeing a resumption in day calls. . 

Testing may be the new normal

The issue of risk remains particularly difficult for the cruise industry to navigate. Unlike the airline industry where precedents are in place for dealing with delayed or cancelled flights, delays and cancellations in the cruise industry can leave passengers stranded. Worse still, a Covid-19 outbreak could see liners moored and passengers unable to disembark for days. Such concerns highlight the need for ongoing caution; and it is one of the reasons why remote testing, as discussed in our previous article, will remain crucial to a good re-start for the industry.
In practical terms, this could mean passengers taking short-turnaround COVID-19 tests at locations close to, but separate from, the cruise terminal; then remaining in their vehicles or socially distanced from others, until they receive the negative results that would allow them to proceed to the terminal and boarding.  Understandably, this may come as a surprise to those who feel that the vaccine should spell the end of most of the COVID-19 safety measures.  But logically, some degree of restriction and testing will need to remain in place for the coming years until the vast majority of people – passengers, terminal employees and crew alike – have been vaccinated.  Indeed, proof of vaccination will inevitably be a further requirement. 

Time for a re-brand?

A good restart for the cruise industry, is also contingent upon understanding whether the market appetite for the industry has changed or should change. The rollout of vaccines is being prioritised according to a number of factors, from age to vulnerability.  So, will traditional cruise demographics be among the first to be vaccinated? And if not, then which demographics are future passengers likely to come from? Perhaps broadening the demographics of the traditional cruise passenger could prove to be one route via which the industry can improve its resilience in the face of incidents, crises or change. 

Right now of course, cruise liners would welcome any and all passengers – and the positive news from vaccine trials should be celebrated, as it brings this goal closer. However, the seas ahead are still choppy – if 2020 was the year of survival, 2021 will be the year of recovery and rehabilitation for the cruise industry. And, the decisions made this year will determine the success of the industry in the years to come.

To read our previous articles on the state of the cruise industry – follow this link.

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