For travel advisors, 2021 will be divided into two seasons: Pre-Vaccine (Pre-Vac) and Post-Vaccine (Post-Vac). The Pre-Vac season starts immediately and will extend until (as Dr. Anthony Fauci says) about 75% of the people in the United States, and in the nations that we visit on cruises, are vaccinated. The Post-Vac season extends from then through the rest of the year.
Let’s assume that the dividing line will be at the start of the Memorial Day Weekend, May 29, 2021. Selling cruises that leave before and after that date will be entirely different.
Pre-Vac guests are the proud pioneers. They will want to demonstrate to their family and friends (and themselves) that they can cruise safely and have lots of great experiences. These will likely be experienced cruisers who will be seeking to explore regions of the world that they haven’t seen, or that they’ve grown to love. They will prioritize safety, luxury, and traveling with people who are like them. There will likely be several passengers onboard they will know from previous cruises.
They will already be accustomed to paying top-dollar for what they will receive. The likely tab will be about $500-$1200 per day for each guest. These cruises will be “all-inclusive” and advertised as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to return to cruising early. The ports they will visit will be small, relatively isolated, and very responsive to pioneering cruisers.
These guests won’t tolerate stops at private islands or resorts for more than one or two days each cruise. They will expect their experiences to be authentic and involve the local populace, as long as everyone is safe. They will also expect the level of service they have enjoyed on the small ships for many years.
Three types of guests are likely to be attracted: 1) Seniors who are accustomed to traveling on the small luxury ships; 2) Younger guests who are able to work remotely from the ships; and 3) Those that are attracted to a new genre: luxury expedition ships. Many of the new breeds of luxury expedition ships have garages (rear platforms that are used to launch Zodiacs and kayaks) that do away with having to board small crafts from platforms hung off the sides of the ships.
It’s likely that the luxury expedition ships will find ways of accommodating guests with less mobility by figuring out how they can be helped to board Zodiacs, disembark onshore, and sit inside and take photos easily and safely.
It’s probably only a matter of time until someone replaces the Zodiacs with a small electric landing craft that can be stored in the ship’s garage, go up on the shore, and venture inland – without guests having to get in the water or walk on steep slopes. Anyone up for developing a small landing craft with both props and treads similar to those being used by U.S. Marines?
Many guests will relish expedition cruises to Antarctica, the Whitsundays, Alaska, and what’s on every experienced cruiser’s bucket list: The Inside Passage.
All of these cruising grounds are now available on the small expedition ships, and these cruises won’t have to be port-intensive. That translates to improved safety. All that’s required is for cruise advisors to get their clients to try these new vessels and for the cruise lines to continue to modify them so that they can meet the needs of adventuresome seniors.
The client profile of guests who are likely to go on a Pre-Vac ship closely resembles the guests who usually travel on the small ships of Azamara, Crystal, Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Ponant, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking, and Windstar.
Starting with these lines, first eliminate the ships that are more than 15 years old with many inside cabins and outmoded ventilation systems. These ships won’t meet the COVID-19, Pre-Vac, safety standards established by the CDC and the EU – without extensive re-engineering.They probably will not be able to be quickly modified, so that they can start sailing this February or March.
Now add other small ships that are just being launched, such as those from Atlas and Scenic. You can also add some of the highly advanced, medium-sized German luxury ships, such as those from Hapag-Lloyd (Europa 1 & 2) and TUI (Mein Schiff 1-6) that might be re-tasked to carry English-speaking guests. While many American cruisers don’t know about these medium-sized vessels, some have already cruised safely in the Med by taking extensive precautions against coronavirus infections.
These precautions include onboard labs which can Rapid Test all guests and crew daily if desired; using each cabin on only every other cruise so that half the cabins are open for deep cleaning; having all cabins and public areas vented directly to the outside of the ship; permitting only escorted tours to go ashore; having single quarantine cabins that are reserved for possibly infected guests and crew; and using charter flights to take flights to, and from, the ships.
Yes, this costs big bucks. But these precautions will be considered necessary – along with compulsory masking and social distancing – if Pre-Vac ships are to sail safely. The Pre-Vac ships will be those that can carry passengers both luxuriously and safely, and be ready to travel during the critical period of February to May.
The luxury expedition ships may be even more expensive. “All-inclusive” rates of $1000-$1500 per guest per day would not be unexpected. That’s because these ships typically carry fewer than 150 guests and enjoy close to a 1:1 guest/crew ratio. These cruises must carry sufficient onshore specialists to put one in every Zodiac or amphibious vessel. This is in addition to the cabin staff, deck staff wait staff, engineering staff, and the officers that all ships carry. Even the fuel and ship’s mortgage are more expensive, since they can’t be shared among as many guests.
The Pre-Vac cruises will likely extend from 10-23 days, since longer cruises reduce guest turnover – which results in increased safety. This is one of the few situations in which the CDC has it wrong: Limiting cruises to less than seven days adds opportunities for infected guests to join the ship.
It’s notable that SeaDream 1 didn’t run into any problems sailing from Great Britain to Barbados. The problems started when she took on people who had flown to Barbados to join the ship. The infections could have probably been avoided if every guest and crew member had been tightly quarantined for 5-7 days before joining the cruise. That’s what some Pre-Vac ships may require, if they want to assure even more safety.
After the Pre-Vac cruises, these ships will likely proceed into the Post-Vac season. Both the luxury and expedition ships will be testbeds, charged with trying out innovations before they are employed on the additional ships used in the Post-Vac season.
When vaccinations reach more than 75% both in the United States, and in the nations the ships are visiting, the Post-Vac season will begin. However, it is unlikely that many safety precautions will be eliminated immediately, since no knows how long vaccines offer protection – or if unvaccinated individuals can be infected by vaccinated guests. In fact, one new precaution might be added: All guests and crew members will have to be fully vaccinated.
Inexpensive pandemic insurance policies will be required by many cruise lines and nations. This will assure that no person, cruise line, or port will be defenseless if the pandemic returns.
Hopefully, around Memorial Day, the larger cruise ships will return to service. The guests will likely first sail on the premium-price, medium-size lines such as Celebrity, Cunard, Disney, and MSC; and those will be followed a few months later by the mass-market mega-ships of Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean. Plus the heavily discounted middle-sized ship lines such as Holland America and Princess.
The premium-priced middle-size ships will probably be the first to sail, because these lines can command the highest prices. The Disney ships may be especially popular because kids aren’t as vulnerable to the coronavirus. The clientele of these ships will be largely the same as before the pandemic, but these guests will care more about the quality and safety of their experiences rather than budget pricing and “deals.”
For at least a year, it’s likely that few genuine bargains will occur on these ships. Few premium ship bookings will go for less than $350 a night per guest. But to make these prices more palatable, these ships may follow Celebrity’s lead in moving to “all-inclusive pricing” that will not require the guests to pay extra for Wi-Fi, drink packages, tips, a few shore excursions, and reservations in some extra-cost restaurants.
No one will acknowledge that cruising has really returned until guests return to the mass-market ships and the medium-price discounted lines. This will probably occur by July or August, after the lines have gained some experience by operating the small and the premium-priced ships.
For at least the first year, it’s likely that inside staterooms will not be available. When the Post-Vac season begins, MSC will probably be the cruise line that the others will try to emulate. This is because of the successful experience they gained running cruises around Italy and Greece, until all Italian lines stopped cruising a few weeks ago.
It’s hard to imagine that Post-Vac ships will not have most of the safety and engineering modifications that we installed on the Pre-Vac small ships. This probably explains why so many older cruise ships have made their last cruise to the boneyards of Bangladesh, or were sold to second-tier cruise lines. The changes that need to be made to all ships in areas such as sanitation, fuel economy, and ventilation will cost millions; and this probably wasn’t worth doing on many older cruise ships.
What will emerge, by next summer, will be cruise ships of all sizes that are safer for guests and crew members alike, are less crowded, and are better managed than ships were last year. New health and pollution standards will make these ships more welcome in ports such as Key West, which now won’t permit ships with more than 1300 guests to dock, or more than 1500 guests from all ships in the port to enter the town on any day.
If the pandemic also results in uniform standards that govern health, safety, pollution, and crew management, no matter where in the world a cruise ship is flagged, that will be even better. We will discuss those issues in another column.
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. For the past six months, he has been writing a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s shared with more than 70,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the CEO of two companies: Travel Intelligence Associates (TIA), and Cruises & Cameras, LLC (C&C). TIA provides writing, consulting and White Box services. C&C specializes in small ship cruises and is associated with LUXE Travel (a FROSCH company) and the Signature Travel Network. Steve has a doctorate in Educational Research and Marketing from Indiana University, He is one of the first travel advisors to complete a five- course sequence of courses in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. In his former life, he was the director of several organizations specializing in public policy studies. He’s the author of 13 books and a former Contributing Editor of The Washingtonian magazine. His email address is Steve@CruisesAndCameras.com.