When the World Reopens, Should the Cruise Industry Recover?

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Tourists and adventurers have viewed cruises as the Holy Grail of travel for quite some time. We usually think of cruises as lavish vacations and associate them with older travelers and "rich" people, but since 2016, millennials have made up about 32% of cruisers. Their interest in luxury cruising continues to rise with each passing year — at least that was true until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

From the very beginning of this health crisis, cruise lines came under fire when various ships revealed they had coronavirus outbreaks on board. In fact, the Diamond Princess, a luxury Princess Cruises ocean liner owned by Carnival Corporation, made headlines as one of the first cruise ships affected by the virus in February 2020, several weeks before countries around the world started shutting down on a large scale. The ship and its passengers spent most of the month of February quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, and more than a dozen passengers died from the virus. Another 700-plus passengers were treated for the virus and recovered.

Other ships were soon affected, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a No Sail Order and direct all lines to cancel their cruises by mid-March 2020. In June, several international cruise companies set sail again in hopes of revitalizing the cruising industry — and outbreaks soon followed. Norway’s Hurtigruten cruise line took the hardest hit, with hundreds of passengers and crew members from several cruises testing positive by mid-July. Germany’s AIDA Cruises and Paul Gauguin Cruises in the South Pacific also experienced outbreaks. Due to the new outbreaks on ships, the CDC extended the no-sail order on cruise ship operations from U.S. ports of call to October 31.

Since the last order was issued, states and cities across America have continued to ease lockdown restrictions, and the CDC followed suit when the October deadline arrived by issuing guidelines for resuming sailings in and out of U.S. ports instead of extending the no-sail order. The current plan — subject to change for obvious reasons — will take some time to implement and requires passengers and crews to be tested at the beginning and end of sailings that are limited to no more than seven days. The ships must be outfitted with test labs, and the crew must be trained on procedures for testing and quarantining people on board, if necessary. The new regulations give cruise lines a path to resume sailing, but it will take some time to complete all the requirements and make it happen. As a result, U.S. companies have canceled cruises (previously set to resume on December 1) through the end of the year.

In the meantime, more people than ever before are asking questions about the safety of cruises. The pandemic has raised awareness with the general public about the health and safety issues passengers face on board these mega-ships. What exactly are the hazards of sailing away on a cruise vacation, and can anything be done to save the industry at this point? More importantly, should we even try to save cruises, or should we let this former travel niche sail away toward a watery grave?