Will cruise industry recover? Some passengers yearn to reboard.

Why We Wrote This

Cruise lines face a perfect storm of problems in the pandemic. Yet to some loyal clients – itching to reboard while also staying safe – it’s a test of patience and prudence.

Dean Lewins/AAP/Reuters
The Ruby Princess cruise ship, the subject of a criminal investigation with Australian authorities after allowing passengers infected with COVID-19 to disembark in Sydney in March, departs Port Kembla in Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia, April 23, 2020.

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The cruise industry is in free fall – facing debt, lawsuits from passengers sickened on board, and indelible images of people stuck at sea after ports refused to take coronavirus patients. Even as states begin easing lockdowns, cruise operators can’t restart until a 100-day no-sail order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires in July.

Cruise ships rely on retirees to fill longer routes. But medical experts say that loyal demographic is most vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease because of their age and underlying health conditions. What would it take to convince travelers, particularly the retired boomers who cruise the most, that it’s safe to sail again? And will their wanderlust eventually win out, despite their health concerns? 

Some passengers are itching to sail again. But Arthur Birken in Broward County, Florida, is loath to board until there’s a vaccine or cure. He’s resigned to a year or more without travel. But he and his wife may soon have a new companion. 

“We haven’t gotten a dog because of all the traveling we’ve been doing,” he says. “Now we’re [talking about] getting one.”

Jules Sher, a retired insurance agent in San Juan Capistrano, California, still remembers his first Caribbean cruise in 1973. “I love cruising. I love to get away and to unwind,” he says. 

Like other pre-pandemic cruisers, though, he’s had to rethink his travel plans. He recently canceled a 61-day Pacific cruise scheduled for September, figuring it may not sail anyway. But he reckons the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak may already be over in California, and is itching to get back to sea. 

“The minute things turn around I’ll be on a cruise,” he says.

His wife Carole’s voice crackles in the background. He laughs into the phone. “She says she’s not going with me,” he explains.

That, in a nutshell, is the cruise industry’s acute challenge: What would it take to convince travelers, particularly the retired boomers who cruise the most, that it’s safe to sail again, and will their wanderlust eventually win out, despite their health fears? 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Just as cruisers like Mr. Sher and his wife are weighing the risks of cruising during a global pandemic, so too are leisure travelers in general, prolonging the pain for near-empty hotels, airlines, and theme parks as summer season looms.

“It’s not just the cruise ships. Are people willing to travel? Are people willing to go to restaurants? Movie theaters? If they’re not prepared to do those things then they’re not getting on cruise ships,” says Andrew Coggins, a professor of management at Pace University who studies the industry.

For now, the cruise industry is in free fall, unable to sail and sinking into debt, amid lawsuits from passengers sickened on cruises and indelible images of people stuck at sea after ports refused to take COVID-19 patients. Even as states begin easing lockdowns, cruise operators can’t restart until a 100-day no-sail order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires in July.

Cruise ships carry around 30 million passengers a year, and while families and younger travelers book short cruises and may take summer vacations on board, the industry relies on retirees to fill longer routes, particularly in winter and spring. Some retirees book back-to-back sailings and barely touch land. “People like to cruise. The industry has a very high repeat rate,” says Professor Coggins, a retired U.S. Navy commander.

But medical experts say that loyal demographic is most vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age and underlying health conditions, putting the industry in a bind as it tries to rebuild.

Arthur Birken’s next cruise is booked for November, a 20-day sailing from Athens to Dubai, via Israel and Egypt. “I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids,” he says. After that, he and his wife Judy had committed to three more long-haul cruises in 2021.

Courtesy of Arthur Birken
Arthur and Judy Birken pose for a photo during a Mediterranean cruise in April 2018. Mr. Birken, a retired judge in Broward County, Florida, likes to take long cruises but has put his plans on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Mr. Birken, a retired judge in Broward County, Florida, is loath to board, not until there’s a vaccine or cure for a deadly virus that spreads in confined spaces like cruise liners. “You don’t want to be with crowds. It’s not just on the ship. What about the excursions? What if you get sick in the middle of nowhere?” he asks.

Cruise companies are vowing to sail again. On Monday, Carnival announced plans for new excursions starting at the beginning of August. Companies have promised a raft of measures, from advanced ventilation and enhanced health screenings, to win back customers. At least one carrier now requires all over-70s to produce a doctor’s note about chronic conditions before boarding. Other changes may include ending self-service buffets and social distancing in restaurants and other venues.

A social-distancing cruise may be a tough sell, says Chris Owen, a travel agent in Florida. “A big part of the ship is the shared experience,” he says. For an industry that needs roughly 85% occupancy to break even, it’s also not clear they can afford to carry fewer passengers. “Until there’s a vaccine the cruise business doesn’t have a chance of coming back to where it was. Not a chance,” he says.

Ellen Silverberg, a retiree in Boston who winters in Florida, says she won’t take another cruise until the pandemic ends. “We’ll stay home for a while,” she says. Even traveling back to Boston isn’t risk-free. She debated with her husband if it was safer to drive than fly. Then she thought about the motel stops and decided to stay put for another month.

Mr. Owen had clients on board the ill-fated Princess Grand, which was held for several days off California in March amid a coronavirus outbreak. Two passengers died and over 100 tested positive. Princess Cruises has denied negligence in not warning passengers about an outbreak on the previous voyage that may have been spread by cruisers who stayed on board.

Even that debacle probably won’t deter diehard cruisers, says Mr. Owen. “The clock is ticking. We’ve only got so many years left to do these things.”

Singling out cruises as infection hotspots is unfair, given how hard crews work to sanitize ships and keep passengers safe, says Harry O’Donoghue, an Irish musician who performs often on cruises. “It’s cleaner on a cruise ship than on an airplane. We all know that,” he says.

Mr. Birken agrees. He’s not flying anymore and is resigned to a year or more without travel. But he may soon have a new companion. “We haven’t gotten a dog because of all the traveling we’ve been doing,” he says. “Now we’re [talking about] getting one.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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