Pre-COVID-19, cruise liners were called Ships of Dreams. Post COVID-19, critics are dubbing them Ships of Fools.After all, who in their right mind would ever again board a cruise ship after witnessing the tragedy, heartbreak and uncertainty passengers were forced to endure when they were left abandoned at sea for weeks at the height of the pandemic?
How long will it take for the images to fade of body bags containing COVID-19 victims being carried down gangplanks and desperate passengers pleading from ship balconies for ports to accept them?
It's not a matter of if a virus like COVID-19 will board a cruise ship again, but when?
No matter your opinion, one thing is for sure, after being torpedoed by the killer virus, the cruise industry, more than any other travel-related business, is facing rough seas ahead:
Above: No other travel industry has suffered more because of the pandemic.
• Pre-bookings have sunk to their lowest level ever;
• Most cruise lines are facing titanic financial losses and experts expect some lines to be dragged under;
• Even the biggest cruise lines are drowning in a sea of red ink — Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean saw their stocks drop by as much as 80 per cent during the crisis;
• And governments are in no hurry to toss cruise companies an economic lifejacket like they will the airline industry. Planes are a necessity, cruise ships are not.
We are now in unchartered waters for a $50 billion (U.S.) industry that in 2019, thanks to strong demand from emerging countries like China, saw nothing but clear sailing.
That said, there are some who feel cruise lines will recover quickly. After all, the industry has dealt with many viral outbreaks in the past. In fact, there were 10 infectious disease outbreaks reported on ships in 2019 even before COVID-19 came on board, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Previously, the industry’s exit strategy for a crisis like this was to tempt passengers back onboard with cheap fares, free land excursions, upgraded cabins and even free flights to ports.
However, this time they may not have the financial resources to launch such recovery plans.
The bigger question, though, is will elderly passengers, the backbone of the cruise industry but the most vulnerable to a virus like COVID-19, be willing to ever again dice with death for a cheap holiday? Especially when some medical experts say the virus could remain in our midst for another two years.
Predictions are passengers won’t return for the rest of 2020, no matter how sweet the deal is, and probably not until the early part of 2021. A Harris Poll survey conducted for Forbes magazine found that 57 per cent of respondents said they won’t even consider taking another cruise for at least a year.
Cruise companies can’t wait that long.
Above: Scenes of passengers on ship balconies pleading to be rescued will be hard to erase.
“This will be a disastrous time for the (cruise) industry,” Dr. Christopher Muller, a senior professor at Boston University’s school of hospitality administration, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in February when cruise ships were being ordered back to ports and locked down.
“When you have 3,500 people booked on one of these mega cruises and the boat doesn’t go, it’s an enormous expense. Someone’s paying for that boat that’s sitting idle in the harbour and it’s very hard to recapture those ongoing fixed-cost losses,” said Muller.
The bigger problem for the industry post COVID-19, according to Muller, is the lasting images of passengers being stuck at sea on coronavirus-infected ships and confined to tiny cabins for weeks on end.
“The problem is the concept of cruising is that they sell luxury and safety at sea while the recent bad publicity has highlighted the fact that the rooms themselves are very small and that most of that luxury is out and about in crowded, captive places.
“They (the industry) will highlight the things you can do that you can’t do anywhere else, the luxury of this floating hotel going from place to place. But If you’re stuck in your cabin, it’s a zombie prison, and that’s the perception (of cruising) right now.”
The industry got nothing but bad press during the pandemic. Example: A The New York Times story claimed that agents at Norwegian Cruise Line were instructed to mislead potential customers with false information about coronavirus to secure a sale.
Above: It's not a matter of if but when another virus will infect a cruise ship and passengers will be quarantined.
The most negative headlines, though, were reserved for ships belonging to Carnival Cruise Line — most of the vessels infected with COVID-19 are owned by the mega operator, which handles 50 per cent of all cruise passengers worldwide.
Carnival, which has cancelled all salings until the end of July, is no stranger to such mishaps. Who can forget the Carnival Triumph farce? (In 2012, while at sea an engine room fire aboard the Triumph caused toilets to back up and human waste to flow into staterooms and hallways.) The incident was dubbed the “Poop Cruise” by global media and Carnival was forced to spend $200 million (U.S.) to repair the ship and its image.
Even though the last decade has seen record growth for cruise companies, Carnival has seen its stock steadily decline since 2018 and started 2020 with a lower stock price than it had in 2016, according to media reports.
To add insult to injury, rating agency S&P downgraded Carnival in March as the pandemic spread like wildfire through its ships.
The company, which is also facing millions in lawsuits from angry passengers who felt abandoned at sea during the pandemic, is now trying to raise $6 billion to get it through this cash crunch.
How quickly things have changed for cruise lines.
Before COVID-19, an industry trade group predicted a record 32 million passengers would set sail in 2020, up from 30 million the previous year. To meet the growing demand, cruise lines ordered 19 new ships in 2020 to add to a fleet that has grown to 278 vessels worldwide.
Now, all bets are off and the 1.2 million jobs that are dependent on the cruise industry are in limbo.
Cruise expert Stewart Chiron, whose cruiseguy.com website reviews cruises, says the pandemic “may be the worst blow the industry has ever seen.”
Even those hoping for a quick recovery would have to agree that ship has sailed. The cruise industry is now treading water and the chances of it being pulled under because of COVID-19 are very real. •