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The Future of Cruising

 Future of Travel (Part 5]: Cruises

 

As in the past articles, let’s dispense with what cruises will be like in the short term after the COVID-19 crisis dies down.  Lots of articles have already been written about this; and everyone knows that - like airlines and hotels - cruise lines will be going out of their way to make guests feel safe and to create an acceptable sense of physical distancing.  There will be health screenings, sanitizers everywhere, restrictions on older guests (medical report?), and lower passenger numbers. Keeping numbers down will put immediate pressure on price, but I am guessing cruise lines will opt to take a hit on profits rather than raise prices too high; just to get cruisers back.


Photo credit: Yacht Island Design

I do not agree with cynics, however, who say this is the end of cruising.  After Norwalk Virus appeared they said the same thing; yet cruise lines made a few changes and cruising bounced back stronger than ever.  In fact, the Norwalk Virus has given the cruise industry a head start over airlines and hotels; because they already have aggressive hygiene policies in place, and have carefully embedded this into their marketing for years.  Coping with the latest concern means extra tweaks – in terms of hygiene protocols – but it may not be as massive an undertaking as for hotels and airlines. 

That is not to say, however, that hygiene concerns and the ongoing need for creating a sense of social distancing won’t involve changes, some of which will be permanent.  

 

  1. 1.      Say goodbye to the self-serve buffets.  These have been on the way out even before COVID-19.  The latest crisis will accelerate the transition.  Buffets may still exist, but entirely with crew serving your plates (prison style!).  Similarly, high-touch items on tables, such as condiments, and salt & pepper shakers, will disappear.   Expect to see more cooking stations and table service at breakfast and lunch. 
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  3. 2.       A new deal with port authorities.  The biggest black eye to cruise lines, completely undeserved, was the refusal of ports to give refuge to cruise ships stricken with outbreaks of the virus.  Frankly, this was unconscionable. The irresponsible behaviour of ports (and countries) not to come to the aid of cruise ships almost certainly caused more infections and deaths.   What has to change before cruise lines can restore full consumer confidence is establishing iron-clad contracts with ports to do their duty in an emergency like this.  Expect to see new ports of call and the disappearance of many traditional ones.  Ports will be selected based on how reliably a cruise line (and their customers) can depend on them in an emergency.  For the larger ships, expect them to avoid ports requiring the use of tenders to carry passengers to/from the ship.  To regain cruise business many ports will have to invest in new infrastructure to accommodate the mega ships.
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  5. 3.      If “physical distancing” becomes more than just a temporary issue, expect to see different dining room arrangements.  More small tables for two and four, decorative dividers between tables, wider spaces for staff and guests to walk around tables, and efforts to minimize food handling by the servers.   Expect more outdoor dining opportunities, and perhaps cruise ships will even offer on-shore dining in the future.
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  7. 4.       Similarly, in the public areas, expect to see touchless everything (eg. automatic doors), more spacious lobby and entertainment areas, and strategies such as greater staggering of embarkation & disembarkation times, port and tour departures and returns, meal and entertainment schedules, etc.  to minimize congestion. 
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  9. 5.      It is safe to say cruise ships – large and small – will evolve over time to operate with lower capacity.  This will either mean larger average state rooms or larger public areas (or both).  Expect to see some of those monstrosities which look more like floating apartment buildings than ships to be retired or repurposed.  Needless to say, ultimately this will be reflected in higher prices.  While you can expect screaming deals as the cruise industry tries to ramp up,  in the end when demand exceeds supply higher prices follow.
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  11. Photo credit: Cruiseline.net - SS France

 

Will cruising follow the pattern we predict for airline travel?  While options for mass tourism (eg. the mega ships) may remain; my bet is most cruise lines will chase after the more lucrative luxury travel, which favours privacy, intimacy, and exclusivity.  That equates to small ships.  River cruising will continue to expand in popularity – the appeal of always being close to an airport for quick escape will become important.  And small ocean ships will continue to be the areas of high growth.  Don’t completely write off mega ships.  There will still be a demand in the mass market; but even there, you will see relatively higher prices and permanent changes in passenger density.   

 

The theme of these articles has been “necessity is the mother of invention.”  This crisis will accelerate changes that were already happening.  It will also force cruise ships to innovate in ways we cannot foresee.  When movie-going was dying out in the 1970’s Hollywood turned to technology (CGI) to create new experiences.  Star Wars, Jaws, Toy Story, etc. saved Hollywood.   The same will happen with cruise ships – large and small.  The large ships will become floating entertainment palaces. Small ships will offer even greater levels of personal service and unique shore experiences.  Mid-luxury cruise lines and mid-size ships may disappear.  The market will fragment into luxury and mass market.

 

One last innovation needs to be discussed; and there will be more on this in the next article on the Future of Tourism.   Up until now cruise ships, particularly ocean-going, have had a bad record on sustainability and the environment.  They are shameless polluters.   Because they fly flags of convenience (register themselves in small countries with lax laws), they flout environmental and labour laws, as well as taxes.  As cruising becomes more exclusive and more competitive, this will have to change.  To expand into new, younger markets, cruise lines will clean up their act.  Just as there will be higher expectations for onboard quality, so the new customer will demand sustainability and higher corporate values.  As cruise lines re-invent themselves, they will compete to choose more interesting experiences, and this will be reflected in their choice of ports.  Maybe we will see the end of ships overwhelming heritage cities like Venice, Barcelona, and St. Petersburg.  As important as tourism is to local economies, it can also cause damage and create friction with local citizens.  By choosing new ports and perhaps limiting visits, the cruise industry can better minimize the impact it has on popular towns and cities.  Cruising has a significant impact on local economies.  Despite the problems, most port cities will continue to welcome cruise ships.  There is no reason cruising cannot evolve to have a neutral, or even positive, impact on the environment and the parts of the world it touches.

 

David Elmy, President
The Travel Group

 

 

When a newspaper killed off the very-much alive Mark Twain, he wrote "Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Many are writing-off the cruise industry, but I disagree.  It will once again re-invent itself to adjust to the new realities.

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