Demand for cruises on small ships jumps in wake of COVID pandemic

Oct 9, 2020

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Is a cruise on a smaller ship the safest way to go in the era of COVID-19?

A growing number of cruise fans apparently think so, judging from the high number of bookings that are coming in for 2021 sailings at cruise lines that specialize in small ships.

In session after session this week at Seatrade Cruise Virtual, an online version of the cruise industry’s annual meetup, small-ship cruise line executives said bookings for the coming year were booming, thanks to a newfound interest in smaller vessels.

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“They’re huge guys. They really are,” Susan Shultz-Gelino, vice president for trade relations at small-ship specialist American Cruise Lines, said of bookings for the coming year at a press event for the brand. “I think it’s the size of our ship. I think people are going to smaller, not larger, at first until (the case counts are) down and a vaccine is for sure.”

Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines operates 14 small, spacious vessels along the U.S. coasts and on rivers such as the Mississippi and the Columbia. None of the ships hold more than 190 passengers.

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American Cruise Lines operates a fleet of small ships such as the American Song that each carry fewer than 190 passengers. (Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)

Also reporting strong bookings for 2021 was AmaWaterways, one of the leading river cruise lines catering to North Americans. It markets trips in Europe, Asia and Africa on 25 vessels that typically carry around 160 or fewer passengers.

“The big-ship clients are looking for smaller vessels, and that leads them onto river cruising,” Gary Murphy, senior vice president of sales and co-owner of AmaWaterways, said during a press event. “They’re discovering it for the first time.”

Rudi Schreiner, the president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, said the company had an all-time record booking month in June. One of the line’s vessels, a new ship scheduled to debut in 2021 on the Nile in Egypt, already is 70% booked for the entire year, he said.

Schreiner said AmaWaterways had opened bookings for 2022 sailings about six months ahead of schedule to meet demand.

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“There’s quite a lot of demand (for 2022), and charter and group business is doing very well,” he said.

Alberto Aliberti, the president of Atlas Ocean Voyages, also reported strong bookings. The start-up luxury cruise brand, which is scheduled to debut in July, will operate vessels that hold just 196 passengers.

“The booking trend has been fantastic,” he said.  “We had to hire a number of new people in our reservations department to handle (the surge).”

The rosy booking reports from the small-ship cruise operators jibe with recently released data from Cruise Critic, the leading online site for cruise fans. Cruise Critic said interest in luxury and river cruising had spiked to 30% of their search requests since September. That compares to 9% of search requests this past January.

Luxury and river cruise lines typically operate far smaller vessels that mass-market ocean lines.

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“Our readers are showing renewed — and expanded — interest in small ships, particularly luxury and river cruises,” Cruise Critic editor-in-chief Colleen McDaniel told The Points Guy this week. “For many, the lure of sailing with fewer people on well-appointed ships is appealing.”

McDaniel noted that a recent survey of more than 4,600 Cruise Critic readers found that 19% of them considered ship size to be a top consideration for their next cruise, and they were looking to book on a smaller ship.

Like McDaniel, the small-ship cruise line executives suggested that the idea of sailing with fewer people is appealing right now as COVID-19 remains an issue. They suggested cruisers feel less at risk from COVID-19 in an environment with small numbers of people as opposed to an environment with large numbers of people. But there also are other factors at play.

AmaWaterways’ Murphy said the line’s small-ship river cruises also appear to be drawing ocean cruisers who are uncomfortable with the idea of being far out at sea during the pandemic.

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“We’re discovering that travelers are concerned about being quarantined out in the ocean (and) not being allowed into the destination,” he said. “With river cruising, you’re already within the destination itself, so that is not an issue.”

Executives at one of the small-ship lines, American Cruise Lines, said they thought they also were benefiting from the desire of travelers to remain closer-to-home during the pandemic.

American Cruise Lines offers Americans easy-to-reach itineraries in places like New England, the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River and the Pacific Northwest.

“I think that a lot of people that have cruised (in) Europe before are now looking to do something closer-to-home,” Shultz-Gelino said.

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Featured image of courtesy of American Cruise Lines

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