Just a few short months ago, we were all glued to our televisions, watching images of the Diamond Princess sail around with 700 confirmed cases of COVID-19 onboard. David Fisman, an epidemiology professor at the University of Toronto, told Vox that the cruise line had “basically trapped a bunch of people in a large container with [the] virus." Then, we were warned that nearly 50,000 passengers may have been in contact with port workers infected with the virus in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Cruise ship ports closed around the world and thousands of cruise industry workers were laid off indefinitely. Some predicted the end of the entire industry.
While much of the world remains in lockdown and many borders remain sealed off to travelers, a surprising number of people are researching and booking cruises. We’re not just talking about a few people booking trips next spring, we’re talking about loads of people booking cruises set to sail—sometimes, with thousands of other passengers—this summer.
When I began researching this article, I was expecting to find a handful of healthy, budget-conscious twenty and thirtysomethings looking to save a buck on cruises next year. While I did find that, I also heard from grandparents and families with young children who were looking forward to sailing in just a few months, some having zero reservations about boarding an airplane to reach the port city. Most people I spoke with expressed having full confidence in existing cleaning protocols and safety measures on cruise ships. They think it’s smart that ships are adding additional safety measures due to COVID-19, but said the new hygiene protocols had little to nothing to do with their decision to book the cruise.
Why, then, are so many people booking cruises? Price has a lot do with it and, despite what many of us snobs think, cruise-goers are incredibly loyal customers. Many of the people I spoke with took annual trips with their favorite cruise line and quite a few even expressed cruising “at least” a couple times per year. This past January, I took my first trip with SeaDream (whose yachts accommodate fewer than 112 people), and seemed to be the only person that hadn’t already sailed with them half a dozen times. Just about everyone on board knew each other and they were discussing which trips they’d book next (many cruise lines also offer substantial discounts to customers who sign up for their next trip while still on board).
Now that prices are dropping even more, frequent cruisers are jumping at the opportunity to get back on board. Cruise companies are offering deep discounts and generous future travel credits to lure in travelers. Several companies are offering 125 percent credits should cruises need to be cancelled. Adventure Canada is offering half off initial trip deposits, and Hurtigruten is offering up to 40 percent off many 2020 cruises and up to $2500 in air credits for 2021-2022 expeditions.
Amber Jaye, of Gainesville, Florida, booked a deeply discounted cruise set to sail out of nearby Port Canaveral this December. Her family had originally planned to visit Mexico but decided to cancel the trip over fears of flying. As the cruise port is a short drive from her home, she felt it was a safer option. Joining her and her husband on the cruise are their two young toddlers and both grandmothers. I asked Ms. Jaye whether the age of the grandparents was a factor in determining their next trip, as the age of most grandparents places them in the high-risk category. She told me that while they did take their age and health into consideration when deciding to take the cruise, both of the grandmothers are “under the age of 65 and healthy, so relatively low risk.”
Ms. Jaye said they primarily chose the seven-day cruise to the Bahamas, St. Kitts, and the Virgin Islands, because the new low price allowed her and her husband to finally treat their mothers to a great vacation. They researched, and were satisfied with, cleaning procedures on the ship and how the islands they were to visit had responded to COVID-19. According to Ms. Jaye, her family’s only concern is a second outbreak “potentially stranding us or causing us to quarantine in another country.”
Vanessa Gordon, the founder of East End Taste Magazine, says that she and her husband booked a half-price four-night cruise to the Bahamas for this August for themselves and their two children (both under the age of 7). Ms. Gordon will be flying to visit family in California next month, which she believes will give her a good idea of new airline safety protocols before she and her family fly from New York City to Orlando for their cruise. Ms. Gordon, who has traveled with Royal Caribbean many times over the past eight years, said she was confident with the company’s existing cleaning and safety measures and said that her family will bring their own travel-size hand sanitizer and disposable masks.
Jaleh Michelle, a nomadic freelancer from California, arrived in Vietnam before the lockdown and has been there ever since. As the borders remain closed, Vietnam is encouraging domestic travel to support the tourism industry. Ms. Michelle booked a five-day cruise in mid-June for “absolutely dirt cheap”, that will go on fishing expeditions and visit local villages around Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba island. Ms. Michelle is confident in Vietnam’s response to the pandemic, which she described as “one of the most decisive and successful” in the world. Though she is still uncomfortable with flying, she felt a small cruise ship felt like a safe option due to the limited number of cabins and the abundance of fresh air. “A cruise ship feels much safer than walking through a busy airport or wedging myself into a small aircraft.”
Despite the tremendous amount of negative coverage that Princess Cruises received as a result of the previously-mentioned fiasco in February, some of their customers remain loyal and undeterred. Frequent Princess cruiser, Ellen Gigliotti, the clinical director of a private counseling center in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, and an aspiring travel blogger, says that she and her husband have never felt unsafe on a cruise. “We even cruised in the middle of February, 2020, when we already knew about COVID-19.”
Ms. Gigliotti and her husband, along with another couple, are booked on a Viking river cruise from Switzerland to France this July and on a Princess cruise to Hawaii this October. As much as they’re looking forward to the cruises, both trips would require long flights and she admits that the idea of flying right now makes them nervous. They are partially hoping the July trip is cancelled because one of them is in the highest risk group for COVID-19. “We aren't stupid,” she says, “In fact, two of us are doctors (Ph.Ds.) and the other two have Master's degrees. We love to cruise and we think the cruise lines have more to lose if they don't make things safe.”
Matthew Brown, an entrepreneur from Australia, told me cruises get a bad rap in terms of guests getting sick, but he believes this is not because of the ship’s cleaning practices, but rather, “because of the hygiene practices of individual guests.” He went on to describe witnessing guests complain when crew deny them entry to an on-board restaurant without first using hand sanitizer. He’s also seen men leave the bathroom without washing their hands, then sneak past hand sanitizer stations in the restaurant. He said he’s witnessed this bad behavior on each of 10 cruises he’s been on, as recently as November, 2019. However, Mr. Brown believes that the same guests who would have bypassed sanitizer stations in the past would now happily line up and make sure their hands are clean before entering a restaurant. “Right now, everyone is hyper-aware of hygiene so that makes more of a difference to feeling safe on a cruise ship than anything the cruise lines could implement themselves.”
It’s possible that increased awareness of how personal hygiene affects others might contribute to safer onboard experiences on cruise ships. However, cruise lines are not about to put all their trust in individual passengers; they’re implementing a range of new safety and hygiene protocols to protect their guests.
Metropolitan Touring, which will resume small cruises (fewer than 99 passengers per ship) to the Galapagos Islands in July, will provide guests with face masks, which they will be required to wear in public areas and on excursions. Binoculars will no longer be available for shared use and they’re encouraging guests to bring their own snorkeling equipment. If they don’t, brand-new snorkel mouthpieces will be provided. Ecuador is exploring how to require travelers heading to the Galapagos to be tested in their home countries 72-hours before they arrive in Ecuador. Metropolitan plans to perform their own health checks on passengers when they arrive in Ecuador and again before embarking to a ship in the Galapagos.
Voyagers Travel Company, who also operates in the Galapagos, won’t resume its 16-person yacht excursions until September but they’ve already issued safety guidelines. Guests’ temperatures will be taken prior to boarding the yachts; high traffic areas (stairs, sun decks, and dining rooms) will be disinfected every two hours; and everyone must wear an N95 mask during zodiac boat transfers to off-shore excursions. As an added safety measure to protect their staff, UV rays will be used on high traffic areas before staff wipe them down with peroxide and alcohol.
Andre Robles, the managing director of Voyagers Travel Company, believes that because Galapagos National Park areas are uninhabited by humans, and essentially isolated from civilization, it’s a very safe destination for travelers. “You cruise in between islands where nobody is allowed to visit unless they are on board one of very few authorized yachts. Each trail will see a maximum of 200 people per day and when a guide stops for a lecture, it’s in an open area where guests can stay safely distanced.” Supplies will be loaded onto the boat by crew members at the beginning of the trip, and aside from crew and guests, nobody else will be able to board.
Royal Caribbean (set to sail in Asia in July and in the Caribbean in August) announced new cleaning procedures that include the sanitization of public venues and restrooms approximately every 30 minutes. Carnival Cruise (set to sail in the Caribbean in August) has increased the temperature of their washers and dryers to “enhance disinfection of laundered goods.” Norweigan Cruise Line (set to sail in the Caribbean in August) is installing medical-grade H13 HEPA air filters that will “remove 99.95% of airborne pathogens” across their entire fleet. Many cruise lines have also discontinued buffet meals and introduced temperature checks and complimentary medical consultations for guests with fever or flu-like symptoms (on-board medical consultations are typically quite expensive).
Essentially, cruise ships—small ships in particular—are trying to create a bubble in which passengers can feel safe. Will it be enough? Truly, only time will tell, but some companies are optimistic.
Windstar Cruises, which operates six yachts that carry 148 to 350 guests, says that they’re seeing “very strong cruise bookings in 2021” and that they’re actually ahead of where they were this time last year. Betsy O'Rourke, the chief marketing officer for Windstar Cruises says they just launched their first sale last week and nearly a quarter of these bookings are for 2020, which she attributes to their small ships, which she believes cruisers find especially appealing in our current environment. “While we aren't currently sailing and won't resume any cruises until a phased return starting in September, these booking trends are making us optimistic for the future of Windstar and small ship cruising in general."