A harmonised return to cruising - procedures and protocols, a view from Michael McCarthy, chairman Cruise Europe
The gap between the hope of the cruiseships returning and reality, with still rampant coronavirus and slower than expected roll out of vaccines, is a grave concern to the whole industry.
The cruise companies and many organisations and people have shown great resilience even though, through no fault of their own, their lives and livelihoods have been totally upended. COVID-19 is truly an unprecedented event.
Global travel was flying high in 2019, a peak year in the modern travel era with 1.5 billion international tourists recorded globally. This was part of an upward trend since 2010 and was expected to continue, despite Brexit and other world events, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (WTO).
COVID-19 brought it sharply back down to earth. The stark reality of economic paralysis into which the cruise and hospitality industry had fallen moved sharply into focus. The scale of the devastation that lies ahead and economic recovery is difficult to quantify.
We will never forget the unprecedented adverse and unwarranted publicity early in 2020. The world knew more about how COVID-19 impacted cruiseships than any other sector, even though suspension of all cruising occurred within 48 hours of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) pandemic declaration.
By mid-March 2020 no one was travelling. By April, global air passenger numbers were down 94%, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines. Initial optimism, that the effects of the virus on travel could be sidestepped or overcome, quickly dissipated.
The importance of the world’s aviation industry, particularly to the cruise industry, has never been more evident in the last nine months when it comes to the economic movement of passengers and crew, travel connectivity and supply chains.
A September 2020 report from Accenture, entitled Defining the Future of Travel, states: “Travel as we know it is not coming back”. The study notes that a 60-80% decline in tourist footfall is expected initially - according to the WTO - due to lack of confidence in booking, concerns about health, finances and safety, with people cautious to resume normal activities.
The cancellation of 30-40% of all global air routes will not be reversed quickly while some may not return at all. Consolidation will be a big component of the resurgence of the industry.
There will be a latent demand for international tourism and cruise tourism. However, options for cruise travellers to make their own way to a departure or return port may be a problem, due to the unavailability of connections and potential increased flight costs.
This will affect the cruise industry but, as we all know, this industry has proved itself to be resilient. The knowledge in dealing with this pandemic will undoubtedly inform and shape the future of cruising.
COVID-19 can spread in any setting, where people come together to socialise and enjoy shared experiences, from the retail, hospitality and transportation sectors - such as airlines, ships, trains, buses and events - to those where people have close contact with others who are infected.
The cruiselines are being agile and resilient and are working under the guidance of international and national health authorities to adopt policies and protocols, such as travel, contact, and symptom screening.
These are above and beyond the actions of other industries. They have to be, as they develop plans for the future, including consideration of enhanced boarding procedures, additional public health and sanitation protocols, monitoring capabilities, quarantine arrangements and shoreside care for guests and crew.
The cruise industry is regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), flag and port states and the return to operations will be based on a number of factors, including guidance from prevailing global health authorities and governments.
But we need more harmonisation of procedures and protocols. We have many organisations, from the WHO, the EU and governments to the cruiselines, cruise associations, Cruise Lines International Association and ports, responding to this very difficult and ever-changing problem.
It is exacerbated by the continued spread of the virus, the mutation into different and more contagious strains, numerous national/regional lockdown durations and restrictions, international travel restrictions and the roll out of the numerous vaccines.
It is clear that one size fits all procedures and protocols are not feasible. However, after studying different documents, it is clear that there is over 70% commonality across the protocols. Why not start with that and adapt across the modes of transport making due allowance for an ever-changing 30% landscape?
The other issue that also needs urgent clarification is the duration of protection, once a vaccine is received and if/when it needs to be re-administered or topped-up. This then raises the issue of a COVID-passport, date stamped, again assisting confidence to travel and cruise.
The cruise industry and tourism businesses that offer a customised experience, with the right combination of technology and personal service, are most likely to survive and prosper.
The return to a cruiseline offering a total package, from home to a ship and return, will be very important to a lot of cruise travellers, particularly the more elderly due to guarantees of health and travel protocols.
For people fortunate enough to be financially secure, there has been a build–up of involuntary savings as restrictions limited many peoples’ spending outlets, so that social spending will bounce back on travel, hospitality, entertainment and retail, once a semblance of normality returns.
People will want to travel again but it will depend on national and local protocols that welcome ‘responsible’ visitors, while ensuring their safety. Even as restrictions are relaxed, many leisure travellers are not ready to take a flight, stay in a hotel room, take a cruise or rent a car.
This may mean a combination of rapid testing, vaccine passports, enforcement of social distancing, and mask wearing. But can full flights guarantee social distancing and will there be a falloff of business and premium travellers who have traditionally subsidised the costs of economy seats on long-haul flights? And, with the rise in remote working and virtual events and conferences, business travellers don’t need to get on the road anytime soon. It is reported that over 50% plan to reduce their travel in the future.
The sustainability of all leisure activities has been brought sharply into focus. In many countries, where people are forced to staycation, there has been a reawakening of what is available at home, particularly regarding less-crowded locations, outdoor activity, over-tourism and tourism’s role in climate change, particularly aviation.
People are walking, cycling and exercising more, watching nature, while socially distancing. Will this mean a future structural shift, filtering down to ship design, size and a wish to cruise on less crowded ships as the industry strives to zero emissions?
We have seen cruise companies unfortunately forced into liquidation, while many continue to downsize their fleets and accelerate the removal of older ships in 2020, which were previously expected to be sold over the coming years. Future capacity is being moderated by the phased re-entry of ships and delays in new ship deliveries.
The cruise industry will prevail and work hard to get their business back up and running as soon as practicable. In the current environment, cruise companies that source the majority of their guests from the geographical region in which they operate look like the first to resume operations in the mid-latter half of 2021.
Most of our Cruise Europe members are hurting badly with huge loss of revenues. The year 2020 was full of highs and lows for many ports and terminal operators, which, despite a disastrous first quarter, saw a pick-up over the rest of the year in port activity across many sectors, other than cruise and ferry passengers. However the losses incurred by the cruiselines themselves is mind-blowing.
I often think about what the return to business will look like, who will survive and what measures will have to be introduced on the mega ships with reduced numbers of people. What will the price of a ticket cost? Will a small destination welcome a few thousand people from a ship? Will everyone have to have a COVID passport, etc?
Human nature has evolved over thousands of years as has the craving people have for other human interaction. Hopefully when COVID is a long distant nightmare/memory, the interaction will recover strongly and full cruiseships will sail again. There is no denying how all our lives have been affected and our outlook shaped with the times changing before our eyes.
We have also seen that ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. This rings true for many businesses which have had to find creative solutions and innovation to survive. Many work practices, from the need to travel and office occupancy to business travel, have changed and will never go back to the way they were. Modifications and alterations through technology, social media, Linkedin and other platforms offering fast, targeted and cost-effective communication have made this possible.
Businesses have proved their ability to be flexible and agile replacing structure, discipline and expectations. While companies have to develop business plans and strategies, predicting the future is now a mug’s game. It is stated that: “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell him your plans”.