Cruise Industry CEOs Express Confidence in the Future of Cruising

outlook for cruising in North America
PortMiami was the cruise capital and likely to lead the resumption of cruising (file photo)

Published Oct 6, 2020 7:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

Coming together in the first public forum since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic sidelined the global cruise industry, the chief executives of the four largest cruise companies expressed an optimistic yet reserved outlook for cruising. While remaining confident in the long-term outlook for cruising, they were less definitive on when cruising in North America would resume.

Speaking at Seatrade Cruise Virtual, the CEOs of Carnival Corporation, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and Royal Caribbean Group, each expressed their confidence and optimism for a return to cruising while noting the complexity of working with a range of regulators, destinations, and partners, along with the need to restore consumer confidence. They reiterated the depth of the efforts the industry has taken to develop health and safety protocols.

“We are all eager to get to work, when it’s safe and healthy,” said Richard Fain of the Royal Caribbean Group. He noted that the return of cruising in Europe has been a “testbed,” for the industry. While experts and the industry has learned about managing with the virus, the belief is that regulators have also been closely observing the successes and challenges of the first cruise ships that returned to service. They reported that over 100 sailings have taken place successfully with over 50,000 people since cruising resumed.

Before the opening of the CEO forum, the industry trade group Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) announced that its members have committed to universal testing for everyone before they board a cruise ship. This has been the policy for the first cruise lines that returned to service and the North American lines had committed to testing, while the framework developed in England and Europe did not necessarily incorporate universal testing. By instituting mandatory testing for COVID-19, the cruise industry believes it can create a safety bubble to further reassure travelers.

Arnold Donald of Carnival Corporation, however, noted that statistically, it was likely that there would be cases of the virus aboard cruise ships when they returned to service. He said the issue would be following the protocols outlined to mitigate the spread and isolate cases. The health policies produced by the cruise lines also outline steps to ensure that they have the medical facilities and capabilities to handle a passenger who might be ill during their cruise. 

“It is not a race,” said Frank Del Rio of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, highlighting that the industry was coordinating not competing in its efforts to resume operations. He reported that it would take the company 60 days to “stand up a vessel before sailing. It is not like a car where you just turn the key.” He pointed to the need to implement the changes aboard the ships outlined in the cruise lines’ protocols as well as the time required to restaff the ships.

Yet, all of the executives were confident that cruising would likely restart in North America before the end of 2020 or possibly early 2021. They continue to expect a slow ramp up with it taking time to get the industry back on pace.

The confidence in the future comes in part from the strength of books they have been experiencing even during the pause in operations and with minimal marketing. Pierfrancesco Vago of MSC pointed to the strong satisfaction that passengers are reporting even with the restrictions that are in place on the cruises MSC is currently running. He said that people are finding that they can enjoy their surroundings, relax, and meet people. Vago said some people have even opted to take two cruises back to back saying it was better than conditions at home.

Donald highlighted the continuing interest from previous cruisers who remain loyal to the industry. The executives believe that there is pent up demand from people who are looking to travel. The executives admitted that there will be a challenge to restart air-sea cruises pointing out that they might need the airlines to also begin a testing policy similar to the cruise lines. However, the executives were confident that longer-term the pace of growth would once again resume.