Many travel advisors and industry experts agree that cruising is unlikely to rebound until cruisers feel much safer. After six months of intensive work, the travel industry is taking baby steps towards regaining its former glory and strength.
A few ships sailed in August, but several didn’t complete even their first few cruises. Now it looks like most other cruise lines won’t try again until January. Bookings are reportedly going well, but it’s difficult to forecast how many passengers won’t cancel (or be cancelled) once again.
Here are three things that will likely causes passengers to further defer their sailings and lose confidence in cruising.
Disable Automatic Contact Tracing on Smartphones
After months of intensive work, public health agencies joined forces with Apple and Google to develop software that anonymously informs the owners of smartphones that they have been close to a phone owned by someone who has tested Positive for COVID-19. You won’t know who the cell phone’s owner is; you’ll only know that you need to be COVID-19 tested as soon as possible.
After you get your test results, if you test POSITIVE, all the cell phones with whom yours has been in close contact will receive a message. Their owners should be tested too. As originally envisioned, this system would operate automatically. Since this capability will be part of the smartphone’s operating system, it will function on all IOS and Android cell phones at no extra cost.
The notifications will be part of each state’s public health system, and it will incorporate strong protections against unauthorized use of the system. Each time there is even a minor outbreak, hundreds of hours of contact tracing will be avoided.
More than 260 million Americans owned smartphones in 2018, the last year for which I was able to find data. Now, if only because of the pandemic, the number of U.S. smartphones is probably much larger. If smartphone notifications were used by states to direct the owners to free tests that would yield results in less than an hour, many COVID-19 outbreaks could be contained within a matter of days.
Now, however, the same individuals who have tried to prevent mandatory use of face masks, and prohibit compulsory vaccination programs, are trying to make automatic contact tracing on smartphones “optional.” They want to give you the choice of whether your cell phone should notify you (and anonymously warn others) if you’re in danger of being infected with the coronavirus. The default option they are seeking is “Don’t Permit Contact Tracking.” This will destroy confidence in the system. After all, if a guest on a ship doesn’t want to know whether they have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus, that doesn’t mean that other guests and crew members on the ship don’t want to know if they are in danger too. All it takes is one person to break the chain.
Permitting Cruise Lines Not to Disclose Possible Coronavirus Outbreaks Immediately
The incidents that led to cruise ships being banned from sailing revolved around situations that occurred last winter when coronavirus outbreaks on ships were covered up. Rather than notifying guests, crew members, and port authorities immediately that a possible outbreak was underway, notifications were delayed until more was known about the incident, and corporate executives ashore could make decisions as how the news should be released.
Deliberately delaying reporting caused guests and crew to congregate freely while the virus was spreading. Public health officials in the cities where the ship was scheduled to dock were also not notified. This permitted infections to spread to the locals when infected (but often asymptomatic) guests and crew members toured the city and visited tourist spots. Some also showed up in airports when their cruises ended, where they could spread infections world-wide.
It was probably the blow-back from these incidents that was the direct cause of cruise ships being banned by so many nations. These had become “plague ships,” the name given in the past to ships that spread disease around the globe.
It’s impossible to shrug off these incidents as “ancient history.” Just last week, a Norwegian Maritime Authority audit accused Hurtigruten of acting the same way in late July. It covered up infections that spread to 42 crew members and 29 guests on the Roald Amundsen, the first Hurtigruten cruise ship permitted to resume sailing in Norway.
The audit accuses Hurtigruten of violating the terms of the new EU Recommendations for resuming sailing. The ship permitted possibly infected guests to fly home from the Tromso airport before the authorities were notified. Ironically, Tromso is an ideal place to contain the virus since it has a medical school, a teaching hospital, one airport, and its located very close to the North Pole. Hurtigruten was also criticized for not having a detailed plan for dealing with COVID-19, and not adequately training the crew and officers to deal with these situations.
What might forestall these kinds of incidents in the future will be making it a felony for officers and medical personnel on cruise ships to fail to disclose possible coronavirus outbreaks or discouraging others from doing so. Health authorities, guests, crew members, and owners of the vessel need to be informed even if there are only a few visible cases. All ship infirmaries need to be equipped to administer Quick Tests, that can be read within a few hours, to everyone on board.
The European Union describes how to do this in their Guidelines document summarized in this column several weeks ago. The recommended reporting procedures are covered in Chapter 8, Managing COVID-19 Cases On Board Cruise Ship and at Terminal Stations. No one can claim that they didn’t know what to do.
Permitting Airlines to Fly at Full Occupancy and Without Every Guest and Crew Member Tested
Airlines are the weak link that can sink the cruise industry. No matter how well cruise lines, such as MSC and Regent, modify their ships and procedures to make them safer, passengers still have to get to and from the ships on aircraft which many potential cruisers now deem unsafe.
The airlines are caught in a bind. They know what they must do to restore their reputation for quality and safety, but they feel they can’t afford to do it without drastically raising fares and taking considerable political heat.
There are other measures (such as requiring masks) that they airlines will have to deal with to be deemed safe, but social distancing and testing are likely to be the hardest to swallow.
Jamming a lot of paying passengers into very little space as has been an integral part of mass-market airlines’ business plans since the Pan Am Clippers and the Deli Flights went away. We have known that flying Economy can be unpleasant, now we know – until the coronavirus goes away – it can be dangerous as well.
The most expedient way to remedy social distancing problems is to limit capacity to 50% or 70%. This is what the majors did on their own when few people were flying. Now many are trying to “walk back” these remedies despite the fact that little has changed.
Unfortunately for the airline industry, companies have learned that business travel is often as unnecessary as leasing office space for every employee. For at least the next decade, leisure travel and freight, will probably be the only growth areas on which airlines can rely.
This will make those who cruise every year, or go on Tauck Tours, especially valuable to the airline industry. Right now, it seems that only Emerites and Qatar Airways have seen the light: Unless you make high-end clients sufficiently comfortable to resume flying, you will be begging premium air carriers and charter flights to fill the void.
These charters will likely be made through high-end cruise lines such as Seabourn, Silversea, and Regent at first; and then expand downwards to MSC, Azamara, and Celebrity. When the suite and penthouse passengers on Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean are invited to book flights on the same charters, then the mass-market airlines will know the game is over.
No matter that many of these “charters” will actually use planes from the major carriers. But it’s likely that for these flights to cruise ports and resorts, the flights will be relabeled as charters and only have a slight resemblance to the conditions on normal flights: They will undoubtedly fly at 50-70% capacity, have better food, free wine, bathrooms that will be sanitized whenever it’s necessary, and it’s likely they will have mandatory testing as well.
Yes, the guests will pay more. But the bookings will be sold through the cruise lines, and they will likely be fully commissionable by travel advisors. COVID-19 insurance will likely also be part of the package. Which will travel advisors rather sell: A fully commissionable ‘safer cruise package’ or flights that haven’t been customized for COVID-19 and don’t pay generous commissions?
Also, the premium air carriers such as Qatar and Emerites will be happy to ink their own deals with cruise companies and resorts, providing aircraft with all the desired safety features. This may provide the break that many premium airlines have been looking for: Convincing cruisers leaving from New York, to join ships in Asia and Australia via Dubai, rather than via LAX or SFO.
Mandatory testing will follow a similar route. With many European, Pacific, and Asian destinations already requiring recent tests for all international visitors, mandatory testing will be “the price” that U.S. citizens will have to pay for being permitted to fly or cruise from most foreign nations.
When the airlines will have to provide test results for guests going to international destinations, the question will arise: “What about domestic connecting flights?” Since everyone on a plane will have to be tested for the international flight to be deemed safe, I think this will lead to testing for domestic flights as well.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have sailed on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships on more than 40 cruises. Steve’s company, Cruises & Cameras, LLC, partners with LUXE Travel, a FROSCH Company, and the Signature Travel Network. Since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic, he’s earned two certificates in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s using what he has learned in six courses, along with his earlier training in measurement and statistics, to help his clients deal with the realities of the pandemic. His most recent book is How to Plan Your Next and BEST Cruise (Amazon, 2019, 186 pages). His email address is Steve@CruisesAndCameras.com.