A Passage to Nowhere

The Cruise Industry Reels From Its Five-Month Journey on Patchy Seas

Photo: CrackerClips|iStock

For many, the lure of cruising in the large abyss of the world’s oceans is a drug. Few experiences match the pampered, catered and even regal delight that is to be aboard a cruise ship. The serenity, calm breeze and endless horizon will hook you, not to mention unending circuit parties, adrenaline-laced adventure activities or Cirque du Soleil-style entertainment, if that is more your speed. Cruising, for those who prefer a more regimented vacation experience, can be a wonderland unless it becomes an underworld.

Such has been the reality for thousands who have had their vacations ruined or remained stuck aboard a cruise ship for months unable to port at the height of the coronavirus disease pandemic. In early March, before the United States was struck with its 5 million and counting positive Covid-19 cases and 170,000 plus deaths, many can remember the lumbering Holland America cruise ship, the MS Zaandam, that was reporting over 200 passengers with flu-like symptoms and four deaths nary a country would let disembark on their shores. Perhaps less known, Carnival Cruise lines’ Diamond Princess cruise ship suffered a similar fate off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, a month earlier with 700 positive cases and six deaths. As well, their Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of San Francisco reported 21 positive passengers and crew in March. As if that weren’t enough, after the Centers for Disease Control had suspended all cruise operations, months later, over 100,000 crew members across hundreds of cruise lines were aimlessly adrift at sea for two months, unable to get home. Some 578 crew members contracted the virus, at least 7 died, and two allegedly committed suicide due to the extreme isolation. To know that there have been subsequent lawsuits by passengers of the Zaandam and the Carnival-owned cruise lines, alleging negligence for the cruise line’s inadequate forewarning of the risk is not a surprise.

The pandemic has led to an abrupt suspension of cruise travel because of the international travel blockade and the unique risk of managing an adequate health response for an ostensible floating hotel that is often in the middle of nowhere. From mid-March to September the lack of cruise operation is estimated to result in a total loss of $50 billion in global economic activity, 334,000 direct and indirect jobs and $15 billion in lost American wages. Each day of the suspension is a loss of 2,500 jobs worldwide, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Carnival cruise line reported that it would burn $650 million monthly in losses for the last six months of the year as a result of its fleet being idle.

What is harder to quantify, however, is the loss to adjacent businesses to the cruise industry such as travel agencies, airlines and hotels, and especially for customers, many of whom have been waiting for months for refunds. Back in May, Carnival Cruise line announced that it would work at getting money back to over 1 million of its passengers. Royal Caribbean said they were overwhelmed by the number of refund requests across a fleet of 1,500 that can carry as many as 6,000 passengers—a total of about 9 million people. While there are differences in their policies, many cruise lines are offering future cruise credits (FCC) in lieu of a refund. Where cancellation is unavoidable, passengers can reclaim a partial refund, depending on when the trip was canceled relative to the date of sailing. For perspective, Cruiseline.com offers an average cost estimate of between $1,500-$2,000 per person for a 7-night cruise. Getting that money back, however, is not so easy.

Paul Ludlow, President of Carnival Group’s P & O Cruises, catering to the LGBT community, suggested that things were turning around, “We have invested significantly in new systems and technology to speed up the refund process and to date we have refunded tens of thousands of guests, although it is heartening to see that the majority of our guests have opted for the FCC so they have a holiday to look forward to in the future.”

A reality with which Dennis Ketcham, 51, a property appraiser of New York State is familiar, “My partner and I do try to cruise a couple times a year if we can. I was booked with Royal Caribbean for a seven-day cruise to the Bahamas. We generally cruise with Royal, we are diamond members and enjoy the perks. I made the reservations in early March; they were canceled within a few weeks, as I recall. The first round was through the end of April, then through May.”

Ketcham admits to knowing fully well the potential of cancellation but with little knowledge of this kind of virus and the problem that it would ultimately become, he decided to take his chances, “I put the odds at 50/50 it was going to be canceled. If it wasn’t for the refund policy, I probably would not have booked. I was thinking that cruise lines have been dealing with norovirus for years. This was another one (sic). Given the opportunity they could have probably reacted in a plausible manner.”

Ketcham said it took about four weeks to get an FCC of 125% of the cost of his ticket.

Megan Daniel, 30, who is herself an agent with Expedia Cruises based out of Ontario, Canada, found herself in a similar predicament but is understanding of the challenge the cruise lines are facing. She, her wife and their two sons were originally planning a trip to Cabo on Norwegian earlier in the year but held off. Instead, they booked one to the Southern Caribbean in February 2021, “They are really trying. Their hands are tied. Princess cruise line has been amazing since the beginning.”

Professionally, she has also had to help passengers with more complex itineraries and costs unassociated with the cruise lines navigate what to do, “There is so much info, people find it confusing like what are they getting back? Did they have insurance? If it’s a cruise credit, when does it expire? So I try to break it down and get them something else to look forward to.”

Tom Hayes, 34, a travel blogger and his fiancé Jimmy, 31, live in London. They and their friends booked a four-day cruise along the Balearic coast on MSC’s Preziosa last fall that they were also looking forward to. It was to depart in April. They subsequently had to move their booking to another MSC cruise ship in November, only to have it canceled entirely by the cruise line and given an FCC after two requests. “Whilst it’s understandable to be disappointed and even a little angry about the cancellations,” said Hayes, “It’s not exactly unexpected. The travel sector doesn’t know what’s happening one month to the next and is doing its best to adapt. To their credit MSC has always been fairly prompt in communicating and letting us know what’s going on – it just always seemed to be bad news.”

“That has probably been the toughest part of all of this because it’s our job to create happy fun experiences for everyone,” said Patrick Gunn, Chief Marketing Officer of VACAYA, the leading LGBTQ+ vacation company that charters exclusive cruises to the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe for LGBTQ travelers. “Everything we’ve learned through our decades working in hospitality has been reset or challenged by the pandemic. So, we’re remaining flexible and humble in the face of all we don’t know.”

Gunn says that while the great majority of their guests have been understanding, it’s still frustrating for customers regardless of whether they are choosing to cancel, defer their trips or take a chance. He said that VACAYA has processed all valid refund requests within 24-hours.

While VACAYA has been dealing with satisfying their customers, they too, have had to simultaneously manage the impact to their business and partners, “We focused on all the people around us – our guests, our entertainers, our vendors, our partners. For our guests, we offered to delay payments for all those affected negatively by the pandemic and were happy to offer that. Quite a few of our guests took us up on that offer. Then, for our entertainers – who we recognized very quickly would soon be in dire straits as all performance gigs dried up – we created a series of online shows where they performed live for our guests. We paid each performer a small fee, but it was our guests who really stepped up to the plate to lend a hand by giving incredibly generous tips. Collectively, over $20,000 was raised.”

“As LGBT+ community members, we are very fortunate. We’re an incredibly hardy bunch. We have faced viral perils in the past and we’ve come out of them stronger, more aligned, and more purpose-driven.”

Gunn said through VACAYA’s “Saturday Night Spotlight,” they were among the first organizations to run a livestream event in late March to help support the arts community that they operated for 9 straight weeks until these types of events became commonplace and viewership waned, “As LGBT+ community members, we are very fortunate. We’re an incredibly hardy bunch. We have faced viral perils in the past and we’ve come out of them stronger, more aligned, and more purpose-driven.”

Another of VACAYA’s ingenuity that has come out of this experience, given the travel restriction internationally, was to look at domestic travel differently. The team has created some local vacation experiences, taking full advantage of what the U.S. has to offer, “We just released a first-of-its-kind LGBT+ river cruise roundtrip from New Orleans,” said Gunn. “Over 20 million people live within a relatively easy drive of New Orleans and we expect this to be a very successful trip for us.”

Scheduled to launch November 2021, Gunn says demand has been higher than what they forecast, because it’s a year away. Additionally, they’ve already begun scheduling their trips and cruises in countries that have reopened or indicated that they will. Their all-inclusive resort experience in Mexico is slated for this October. Their cruises to the Caribbean and Iceland are going on schedule in February and September of 2021 respectively, unless things change on the ground in those regions.

As for the health concern and safety Gunn said, “Some of our guests have definitely expressed a ‘fear of travel’ and we’ve certainly had our fair share of tough conversations. Some questions we simply can’t answer. For example, ‘When will this all end?’ or ‘How will you guarantee my safety 100%?’ Those are impossible questions to answer because there are zero guarantees in our world today. Unless you completely shut yourself off, never leave home, and never have any contact with the outside world, there are no guarantees. But what we can do is mitigate the risks through protocol compliance. Compliance, however, depends on everyone doing their part.”

Some of that mitigation they say includes, wearing a mask, not gathering indoors, standing six feet apart as necessary and “being kind,” although VACAYA has not seen any additional waivers passengers must now sign outside of the standard terms and conditions.

Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten was among the first set of cruises to relaunch after lockdown on July 24th on a 7-night sailing to the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. Four crew members aboard the MS Roald Amundsen were reported sick and taken to the University Hospital in Tromsø, Norway, with symptoms that weren’t consistent with Covid-19 but which was later confirmed. Thirty-two additional crew of the remaining 154 tested positive. No passengers were reported ill, but were asked to quarantine for 14 days. Hurtigruten’s CEO Daniel Skjeldam said in a statement originally reported in the Associated Press, “A preliminary evaluation shows that there has been a failure in several of our internal procedures.”

Although the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has suspended cruising until November, Ludlow at Carnival Group’s P & O Cruises says, “We are focused on working with government and industry bodies at the highest possible level developing a comprehensive restart protocol that will keep everyone on board, crew and guests, well and still give our guests the most amazing holiday.”

P & O didn’t indicate what were the specific measures they plan to put in place but Ludlow offered some optimism since their customer interest hasn’t waned all that much, “The good news is that confidence in cruising is strong and we are seeing increasing and significant demand from our guests. We know that the FCO guidance is under constant review and we are hopeful that, as they are aware of the work the industry is doing, this will change before too long.”

Gunn echoed a similar hopefulness, “There’s no question this year has been painful for everyone. We’ve all lost in countless ways. But the human spirit won’t remain down for long. We expect 2021 to come thundering back as people begin to feel comfortable again.”

“Whether you choose to travel with VACAYA or someone else,” said Gunn, “book a trip for a timeframe in the future where you believe you’ll be comfortable traveling. Show the hospitality industry you believe in them and you back them by showing when you’ll be giving them an opportunity to serve you again. That will create stability that ripples through the entire ecosystem, from hospitality providers, to staff, crew, entertainers, travel agents, and more.”

Fortunately for VACAYA, P & O Cruises and many other parties in the cruise industry, cruisers are loyalists, who are more than likely to take the risk, as confirmed by Daniel, Hayes and Ketcham who book multiple cruises per year and plan to sail in 2021. In fact, Royal Caribbean saw their shares jump 10% in August due to a pent up demand in cruises for 2021. Hayes explained his enchantment with cruises this way: “My first cruise was back in 2007 aboard Royal Caribbean’s Splendour of The Seas (now Marella Discovery). I’d never seen something of that scale and that luxury – I was instantly hooked. Since then I’ve done 17 cruises and racked up over 100 nights at sea.”

In fact, Hayes plans to get married adrift next year—maybe the ultimate act as far as diehard cruisers goes, “My fiancé, Jimmy, and I have our wedding booked for April 2021 aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic cruise ship. We’re really hopeful that it can still go ahead, who knows what will change in the next eight months.”

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