Travel restrictions and port closures put Europe cruise season in doubt

Mar 12, 2020

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It isn’t looking good for the coming cruise season in Europe.

President Donald Trump’s late Wednesday announcement of a ban on travel from Europe, coupled with growing port closures across the continent, is raising the specter of massive disruptions for cruisers who go ahead with European voyages in the coming months.

That is, if the ships even sail.

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Princess Cruises, which is scheduled to have five of its 18 vessels in Europe this summer, announced Thursday it was halting all voyages worldwide for the next two months due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Two of the line’s ships were scheduled to arrive in Europe for the summer season in April, with the rest arriving in May and June.

Princess is following in the wake of Viking, which late Wednesday suspended all sailings worldwide through the end of April. The company operates more than 70 river ships and six ocean ships, many of which operate exclusively in Europe.

A third, smaller cruise operator that specializes in Greek Island trips, Celestyal Cruises, and river line Avalon Waterways, which operates more than a dozen vessels in Europe, also suspended sailings on Thursday through the end of April.

The suspensions at the four lines resulted in the cancellation of more than 100 Europe sailings.

While no other lines have announced broad cancellations of Europe sailings for now, several other cruise operators in recent days have begun canceling Europe sailings on an ad-hoc basis.

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MSC Cruises, for instance, has dropped a March 20 voyage of its 3,502-passenger MSC Divina from Miami to Genoa, Italy, as well as three subsequent sailings of the ship out of Genoa (on April 11, 18 and 25). A March 28 sailing of the 3,274-passenger MSC Fantasia out of Genoa also has been canceled.

All sailings of the Italy-based MSC Opera have been canceled through late April.

Expanded port closures

The cancellations come as a growing number of ports in Europe close to cruise ships.

Ports in Italy, for instance, stopped accepting cruise tourists this week in the wake of its country-wide lockdown. Cruise ships that departed from Italy in recent days are being allowed to dock at Italian ports to let passengers off to go home, but passengers are not allowed to leave the ships for sightseeing.

Other European ports that have temporarily banned the arrival of cruise tourists in recent days include Bergen and Stavanger — two of the most popular ports in Norway. On Thursday, the prime minister of Estonia announced a cruise ship ban, and Monaco also is blocking cruise ship arrivals.

Cruise calls in Israel, which is included on some Eastern Mediterranean itineraries, also are effectively on hold now that the country is requiring all visitors to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

The growing number of port closures in Europe and other destinations around the world is one reason Viking chairman and founder Torstein Hagen made the decision to halt operations.

“An increasing number of ports, including Venice, Monte Carlo and Bergen, have temporarily closed to cruise ships; major attractions such as the Vatican and other museums have been closed; and some countries are imposing restrictions on public gatherings and visitors,” Hagen noted late Wednesday in a letter to customers announcing the line’s suspension of operations. “This is a decision we made with a heavy heart, but with present circumstances what they are, we are unable to deliver the high-quality Viking experience for which we are known.”

Transatlantic flight cutbacks

President Trump’s executive order banning travel from Europe does not extend to U.S. citizens. In theory, if you’re an American, you still can head to Europe in the coming weeks for a cruise without worry you won’t be able to fly home. That said, Trump’s announcement still could have a significant impact on Americans who go ahead with trips to Europe for cruises.

For starters, certain carriers are already reducing operations on transatlantic routes, given the expected decrease in demand. More cutbacks from European and U.S. carriers are likely to follow in coming days. Many flights that cruisers have booked could be canceled.

In addition, Trump’s executive order and other federal directives could prompt more U.S.-based companies to impose restrictions on workers who proceed with travel to Europe. Some companies already are requiring employees to self-quarantine upon return.

The new travel restrictions announced by the president on Wednesday night were accompanied by  a new, higher-level advisory from the U.S. Department of State that recommends Americans reconsider travel to Europe and all other regions around the world due to the new coronavirus.

Many companies consider such advisories when setting rules for employee travel — not just for business, but personal travel, too.

Related: Everything you need to know about the Europe travel ban

The big question now is whether the growing number of port closures, travel restrictions and near-term cruise cancellations in Europe are something that will continue into the peak of the summer travel season. If so, it would set up an unprecedented situation for cruisers and the cruise industry.

European cruises account for nearly a third of all cruises taken worldwide. Only the Caribbean draws more cruisers. And it’s the summer months that are the biggest for Europe cruises.

Many ships that spend their winters in the Caribbean or Asia are just now beginning to reposition to Europe for the summer.

“If the Europe season were to close during the May to October time frame, it would be huge for the cruise industry, as there are increasingly fewer places for cruise lines to move their ships,” said Mike Driscoll, the editor of industry publication Cruise Week. “The early sailings to Alaska from Seattle have already been canceled, China is closed and there’s only so much the Caribbean can handle.”

Related: Start-up line Virgin Voyages delays launch due to coronavirus

Speaking with The Points Guy, Driscoll noted the options for cruisers who want to go ahead with voyages in the coming months are dwindling.

“For Americans, it’s close-to-home cruising right now as the option, and even that is questionable,” Driscoll said.

A fluid situation

For now, most Europe cruises scheduled to take place in the coming months remain on the schedule. But things are changing fast.

As mentioned earlier, more than 100 soon-to-depart river and ocean cruise sailings in Europe have been canceled in just the last week alone.

So, what should you do if you have a booking on a European cruise for the coming season? If you’re just not feeling comfortable about it, in many cases you can cancel now without penalty.

Cruise lines have drastically eased their cancellation policies. Many major lines now will let you cancel a cruise with just a day or two of notice for a full refund in the form of a future cruise credit.

Another strategy is to just wait and see what happens.

“The best piece of advice at this time, for those with upcoming travel plans to Europe, is to keep in close contact with your cruise line as well as any travel advisers you might have booked through,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, the leading online cruise planning site. “Familiarize yourself with the latest travel warnings and restrictions, and follow those closely – as updates continue to be made, often several times a day.”

Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, a travel agency network, offers similar advice, saying the ramifications of what President Trump announced on Wednesday are still becoming clear.

“Cruise Planner’s travel advisors are paying close attention to the European travel ban — especially the clarifying statements on this developing issue as it was a general statement last night,” Garcia told The Points Guy. “Since this is a temporary ban, we are encouraging clients who have future travel to wait and see, or postpone their planned vacations.”

Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:

Feature image courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

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