5 reasons why I’m bullish on the return of cruising
On March 9, my friend boarded the Norwegian Jewel in Fiji to meet his parents for the cruise of a lifetime. By March 19 he was texting me things like, “Have you heard of any plans for this ship? We are clueless and cruising around the Pacific. Might stop in Hawaii, but probably won’t be let off. Might go through the Panama Canal. Who knows, but we are in good spirits!”
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On March 21, he texted pictures from the ship, where folks were enjoying an experience that people on land could only dream of -- sunny days by the pool with frozen drinks. “Life is good; there are ZERO cases of ANY virus on board,” he wrote. His dream trip finally came to an end on March 23, when Hawaiian officials allowed the ship’s passengers to disembark and get charter flights out of the Aloha State.
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While the cruise industry has been hammered with bad news about virus outbreaks onboard and worries about financial health (just this week, the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line warned that its survival was in “substantial doubt” if it didn’t get an infusion of liquidity), I foresee the cruise industry bouncing back before other travel segments like airlines and hotels.
Cruises are mostly leisure-based, and if there’s anything building right now, it’s the urge to go on a relaxing trip -- especially an affordable one. A lack of business travel will keep the airlines and hotels crippled for years, conventions are totally off the table for the time being, and most airlines and hotel chains simply can’t operate on leisure travelers alone. While those companies are planning fleet retirements and employee furloughs, I see a much brighter future for the cruise industry. Here’s why.
1. A controlled, and potentially safe, environment
If cruise lines can get fast and accurate testing for coronavirus and its antibodies, they could essentially create “safe” ships that allow people to enjoy their trip without social distancing. In comparison to a resort -- which has guests, vendors and employees coming and going -- it is theoretically easier to contain a ship that spends much of its time isolated from the rest of the world. On land, we will likely have to practice some form of social distancing until there’s a vaccine. After all, it is highly unlikely we will have enough testing capacity for everyone, every single day, and it’s unclear whether people would even agree to it. On a cruise ship, if passengers and crew get tested as they board and at various points throughout the journey, the lines can create a safe zone within a controlled environment. Cruise ships could become safe places to see a Broadway-style show, gamble in a casino or enjoy a spa treatment. I can foresee cruises avoiding ports where the risk of contracting the virus is higher and instead opting to use their own private islands, where all visitors and imports would be from virus-free ships. Royal Caribbean vessels, for instance, could spend more time at the line’s Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas, which offers lovely beaches, a waterpark with 13 waterslides and the biggest freshwater pool anywhere in the Bahamas or Caribbean.
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2. Hard-core loyalty
Cruisers are among the most loyal travelers out there. Sure, you’ll find plenty of TPG readers who are obsessed with Delta or their Hyatt Globalist status, but just talk to a frequent cruiser and it’s a whole different ballgame. Cruise companies focus on the entire experience for all passengers, unlike airlines and hotels who care most about elites. Plus, they’re loyal without the hugely lucrative loyalty programs that airlines and hotels offer. There is something about cruising that people who love it deeply connect with. That passion has allowed the industry to grow faster than almost any other travel segment, and it isn’t going to go away with COVID-19.
3. A forward-looking group of travelers
Travelers have short memories. The COVID-19 crisis is not the first tragedy to hit the cruise lines or even the first outbreak. Fourteen people from the Diamond Princess ship have died due to COVID-19, but 32 people died in the Costa Concordia disaster in 2012, when that ship struck a rock formation off the coast of Italy. While the two incidents vary greatly in nature, the point is that people kept cruising, even after terrible incidents. COVID19 has thus far been a mysterious, fast-spreading virus that has perplexed the world’s scientific community. As we learn more about how to track it and manage it, people will feel more comfortable going back out to sea.
Cruises are affordable. Given the current economic downturn, with an estimated 16% unemployment (and likely to be much higher) and an unknown timeline for a turnaround, people want affordable travel -- and cruises deliver. Cruises scheduled to sail in August can be found for as low as $21 a night. Even if testing isn’t as widespread as it could be, I can foresee people taking the risk to travel for such a low price. Of course, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. The final price of a cruise, after drink packages and other extras, could be much more than a low-priced hotel room.
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5. There's something for everyone
After months of being holed up at home and isolated from extended family, I foresee a spike in inter-generational travel. Cruises make it easy to satisfy everyone’s needs, whether you’re traveling with toddlers, your grandparents or both. New ships have amazing perks for all ages – Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas and Norwegian’s Breakaway-Plus class ships combine attractions like high-speed go-karts and sky-diving simulators with private beach clubs and elevated cuisine. Unlike airlines, which are parking their big, expensive planes, I foresee cruise lines using their nicest and biggest ships to lure people back on board with experiences they can’t get elsewhere. The first three cruises I went on were with my ex-boyfriend’s mom, who was a widow. Her Christmas gift to us each year was a cruise with her, since he was an only child. It was a great way to spend time with her (in manageable doses) and also for us to be able to have our own time to do cool things. We had done other trips to exotic locations -- Buenos Aires, for example -- and the cruises were much less stressful. After all, we didn’t have to worry about her keeping up or worry about her being safe and entertained on days we wanted to be separate. Simply put, being on a cruise was fun and easy to manage.
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I’m not a frequent cruiser -- I’ve been on five or so in my life. But I’m confident the industry will learn from this crisis and make cruising safer than it ever has been. Cleaning procedures should address COVID-19, but also norovirus and other public health threats we’ll face in the future. While you probably won’t see me on a mega-ship anytime soon, I am interested in trying out Virgin Voyages (if and when it launches…) and also some smaller luxury ships that go to unique destinations like Antarctica and the Galapagos. And maybe I’ll just have to take the Queen Mary 2 on my next trip to visit the TPG U.K. team, since it’s technically not a cruise ship but an ocean liner.
If there’s one thing this crisis has taught me, it is patience, so the idea of spending nearly a week sailing from NYC to the U.K. is not the drag I once thought it would be!
Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak: