The cruise industry experienced a boom for years. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and travel shutdowns. Can the industry recover this year, and what changes are in store long-term?
2020 brought the cruise industry to a complete halt. Business had boomed for years: more passengers, increasingly newer and bigger liners. Then came COVID-19. Since then, most of the estimated 400 cruise liners worldwide have been lying at anchor. Older models have been sold off or scrapped to save on costs, because the upkeep on cruise liners is expensive and the companies' revenues were at nearly zero for months. The cruise industry suffered losses in the billions; the travel group TUI spoke of a "catastrophic year." In Europe alone, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, more than 200,000 jobs that depend directly or indirectly on the industry have been lost since March 2020. Tens of thousands of employees are still working reduced hours.
The cruise companies are still in the starting blocks, but they're slightly more optimistic that they can hoist anchor again. Like the rest of the travel industry, they're looking forward and pinning their hopes on the vaccines that have been developed and approved. If they work as hoped, the ships could set sail in increasing numbers starting in spring or summer. "Right now a lot is taking place in the background," said renownded industry advisor, university lecturer and cruise analyst Thomas P. Illes in an interview with DW. He said a number of liners could be operational within a few weeks, some even within a couple of days.
So that everything runs smoothly on board, the companies have developed stringent hygiene concepts. COVID-19 outbreaks like those that took place on numerous cruise liners at the beginning of the pandemic are absolutely to be avoided. That's why anyone wanting to board a cruise liner must be tested beforehand. The costs will be borne by a majority of cruise providers. There are to be strict hygiene protocols on board as well: masks will be obligatory for passengers and staff alike.
Cruise liners have the advantage of being a closed system. Unlike guests in hotels on land, passengers cannot come and go as they please. In addition, on board they are constantly digitally monitored, which could facilitate tracing contacts in case of an outbreak. "On a ship, tracking can have almost totalitarian features, without passengers being very aware of it," cruise expert Illes adds. "Epidemiologists on land would love to have such track and trace capacities."
What were called "cruises to nowhere" were undertaken in the past few months to show that cruises were feasible even in times of pandemic. But the term concealed sobering facts: such outings took place with a maximum of 60% of normal passenger numbers and strict hygiene measures. During the first cruises to northern Europe, on the Mediterranean and off Singapore, passengers were not allowed to leave the ships. Now, if local authorities allow it, passengers can again disembark. Nevertheless, cruise passengers have to remain together in their group. Those who leave them without permission are not allowed to return to the ship.
Though operators have experimented with 'cruises to nowhere,' the concept will not be attractive long-term, say experts
The cruise operators are convinced the concept works. "Since July, on more than 50 cruises, we have had more than 50,000 passengers on board and demonstrated that cruises are possible, even in COVID-19 times," said TUI Cruises in answer to a DW inquiry. Apart from a few exceptions, the experiment was successful, as most trips took place without incident.
However, the concept would not hold up in the long term. For cruise operators, such low passenger numbers mean losing money. And industry analyst Illes says that, for the overwhelming majority of passengers, discovering foreign destinations in combination with sea travel remains the main attraction. On the "cruises to nowhere," he says, passengers are so limited in their individual freedoms that many would never even think of taking a cruise under those circumstances.
Unsustainable overtourism and the coronavirus pandemic are likely to change the cruise industry forever
Whether the cruise industry can truly recover in 2021 will depend above all on the effectiveness of vaccination. Until now, financial backers are still on board, because they know how profitable the cruise business is under normal circumstances. And customers are remaining loyal as well. "There is still a demand for cruises," TUI Cruises confirmed to DW.
But without concessions from the health authorities, a new start for the cruise industry will continue to be delayed. Countries such as Greece, the US and Spain have blocked their ports to cruise liners until further notice. Only the Canary Islands are currently open to the liners. But there, too, the number of infections is rising: the German Foreign Office, for example, has now issued a travel warning for the Spanish archipelago, and German ports also remain closed to cruise ships. "Politically it was and still is unthinkable to allow thousands of people to take cruises while nobody else can stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant," says analyst Thomas P. Illes.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, cruises no longer enjoyed the best reputation. The industry was heavily criticized for its negative effect on the environment — and ultimately, though reluctantly, it became a pioneer within the entire shipping industry. Billions were invested in clean marine propulsion technology, pollutant filters and more efficient vessels. But can that trend be maintained in the face of massive losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic? Will operators scrimp on environmental protection measures to save money in the short term? The cruise companies say no. "We are convinced that the subject of environmental and climate protection will continue to gain relevance. Accordingly, during this standstill, we have not deviated from our strategy and will not do so in the future," TUI Cruises declared.
Cruise expert Illes, too, gives a cautious go-ahead: "Cruises that ignore environmental sustainability will only be able to function to a limited extent." He says the industry has no other choice but to face criticism and invest in sustainability despite the difficult situation. According to Illes, too many cruise operators had failed to take the subject seriously enough for far too long.
That pressure to operate sustainably is coming from all sides, with many critics saying the billions in government aid from which cruise providers have profited should be invested sustainably. And that doesn't just mean environmental protection. The cruise industry has also been slammed for encouraging harmful overtourism for years. The giant liners off Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona came to symbolize mass tourism — even though in many places they accounted for only a fraction of visitor numbers.
Some destinations will now recognize the advantages the cruise liners have brought them. Others might use the pandemic to develop their own sustainable tourism concepts, in part to make themselves independent of the cruise ships, which tend to be unloved among portions of the local population.
That could put cruise operators under pressure and ultimately lead to them making concessions to their critics. Together with the cities — and their residents — they could develop a more sustainable cruise tourism after the pandemic from which all sides would benefit in equal measure. The ocean-going giants would again be welcomed with open arms and not, as before COVID-19, be banned from more and more cities.