When the cruise industry restarts, cruising is going to look a lot different, especially in the short term. We’ll also see permanent changes to protect the health of cruise ship passengers and crew. Here are my predictions about what the future of cruising will be like: what will change and what these changes could mean for cruisers.
When Mr. SBC and I were leaving on our Caribbean cruise in early February 2020, the novel coronavirus wasn’t really on our minds. Outbreaks of the virus were half a world away in Asia. Although the Diamond Princess was already under quarantine, the world didn’t know that in just a few short weeks the cruise industry (and just about everything else) would be shut down.
But just like all other industries will eventually open back up, travel and tourism will come back, and cruises will start sailing again in the relatively near future.
As of April 2020, most major cruise lines have enough cash-on-hand to survive for at least the next six months. Many are working to secure loans in case the shutdown lasts longer, according to the New York Times.
I’m not going to hazard a guess as to exactly when cruising will start up again. No one knows the answer to that right now. However, it will probably restart (perhaps with limited sailings) before a COVID-19 vaccine is available.
So what will cruising look like after the worldwide shutdown?
Enhanced health screenings will become the norm
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, cruise passengers only had to fill out a simple form before boarding, attesting that no one in their party had any symptoms of illness (like fever, vomiting, or diarrhea) in the past 24 hours.
Passengers who self-reported symptoms of illness were screened further. Those deemed to be a risk to the health of other passengers weren’t allowed to board.
The problem with this system? Passengers had zero incentive to tell the truth! Admitting to being sick could result in missing their vacation and potentially losing money on flights, hotels, and pre-paid shore excursions. (This is why I never cruise without travel insurance!)
Once cruises start running again, cruise lines will have a much stricter policy on screening passengers for potential communicable illnesses.
What will change with cruise health screenings?
This could be as simple as a temperature check on each passenger before boarding. A more costly method is a rapid-result COVID-19 test (much like UAE airline Emirates is currently doing).
Thankfully, some cruise lines now say that once cruising opens back up, guests who aren’t allowed to board due to potential illness will be offered a credit to use on a future cruise.
Cruise lines may also require documentation from a physician, certifying that the passenger is healthy enough to cruise. The documentation may also require proof of up-to-date immunizations. Will all passengers need a doctor’s note to cruise? Probably not, but there’s a chance that passengers over a certain age or with chronic health conditions may need to bring this type of documentation.
In mid-April 2020, Princess Cruises released a seven-page document detailing what health screening practices they’ll be implementing once cruising restarts. The company says that any passenger who provides “false responses on pre-boarding documents” could be disembarked at the next port. Princess also notes that those who don’t disclose symptoms “may also face additional legal consequences”.
We’ll see more attention paid to disinfecting cruise ships
Disinfecting public areas several times a day will become a major priority. Crew members will probably use an industrial disinfecting sprayer on all surfaces. We’ll likely see public spaces closed on a rotating basis for cleaning.
Germ-zapping robots could also be used to help in the battle against infectious illnesses. Some hotels are already using them to assist their human housekeeping staff, and the cruise industry may follow their lead.
Staterooms will be deep-cleaned at the end of each cruise. So expect longer waits on embarkation day for your room to be ready. Even more reason to pay attention to what to pack in your embarkation day bag!
Heating and cooling systems will likely be fitted with specialized filters to prevent the potential spread of germs from one stateroom to another.
Although guests won’t see this change, deeper cleaning is likely to take place regularly in the crew-only areas. This includes sleeping quarters, crew mess, and the crew’s bar and socializing spaces.
It’s the end of buffets as we know them
Cruise ships have been long known for their buffets. Although cruise buffets have evolved over the years (when’s the last time you saw a midnight buffet?), they’re still incredibly popular with passengers.
Before cruising was halted, buffets were usually super-crowded, with passengers picking up plates from an unmonitored stack. Guests would serve themselves with utensils that were touched by hundreds of potentially germ-covered hands between cleanings.
Many cruise line buffets also featured self-service drink and condiment stations. Tables in the buffet area were quickly wiped down between guests, if a crew member could get to the table before other passengers claimed it!
Crew members were usually at each buffet entrance to encourage hand-washing (or at least using hand sanitizer) before entering. But, that never stopped passengers from touching their faces, coughing, or sneezing into their hands before serving themselves (yuck).
Much like when a ship has a norovirus outbreak, buffets will transition from self-service to a served experience. Passengers will likely be handed a plate and move through the buffet line as usual, asking dining room staff at each station for a serving of whatever items they want.
Self-serve drinks will likely be a thing of the past as well, with buffet waitstaff serving requested drinks to each table.
Buffets will no longer be the quick dining experience that always made them a draw for passengers. Buffets were great for a bite to eat before heading off to another activity! But, they may become less crowded in general as more guests opt to eat in the more structured atmosphere of the dining rooms.
Ships will be less crowded
There’s no doubt that some people will be too scared to cruise after the pandemic is under control and cruises start up again.
Even when life starts to get back to some kind of normalcy, the idea of social distancing (or at least not packing too many people into a small space) will still be ingrained in our minds. Cruise ships, along with other social venues like conferences, festivals, and nightclubs, will be less crowded.
Ships won’t sail at full capacity
When cruise lines start sailing again, there’s a good chance that cruise ships will be operating well under full capacity for a while.
I wouldn’t be surprised if stateroom capacities will be reduced. For example, an inside cabin’s maximum occupancy might be capped at two passengers, even if there are additional pull-down beds in the cabin.
Large group gatherings will be made smaller
Events on board that tend to draw large crowds, like evening shows in the theater, probably will be capped well below full capacity.
Public gathering spaces that tend to be very busy, like bars and pool decks, will probably have some seating removed or blocked off.
Health services on board will be enhanced
Ships’ medical offices were never designed to provide ongoing medical care, nor were they equipped to handle serious medical emergencies.
Most cruise ship medical facilities have a small staff (usually a doctor and a few nurses). They carried medical equipment and medications to diagnose and treat minor and moderate cases. Severely ill passengers would be transported to land-based hospitals for care.
However, after several cruise ships carrying guests with COVID-19 were unable to disembark passengers for weeks, we’ve seen the importance of having enhanced health services on board.
Medical offices on cruise ships likely won’t expand into mini-hospitals. But after some quarantined cruise ships struggled to provide care to all passengers with COVID symptoms, improvements to health services are necessary.
What will these improvements look like? That remains to be seen, but Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) are currently partnering with leading health authorities and governments around the world to establish new policies and protocols.
Previously, CLIA collaborated with the American College of Emergency Physicians to develop the current guidelines on cruise ship health services. These guidelines are mandatory for members, including all major cruise lines.
Some ports will restrict or deny cruise ships
Before the shutdown, we already were starting to see restrictions on cruise ships at some ports. Several European ports restricted ships because of the impact of overtourism.
When the world started to realize the seriousness of COVID-19, several cruise ships already at sea were turned away from port after port for fear that passengers would spread the disease among the local population.
Once cruising starts up again, we’ll see an increase in ports that restrict or even outright ban cruise ships from visiting.
Fewer long cruises and more short itineraries
Cruise lines (and guests) are going to be increasingly wary about longer, exotic itineraries with ships venturing far from their home ports. We all saw what happened to ships that were already at sea when the pandemic hit. So many tried and failed to dock at foreign ports, and passengers were stuck.
When cruising reopens, it won’t be like flipping a switch – some countries will allow cruising earlier than others. Some countries will continue to have restrictions on foreign travelers. Cruise lines are going to adjust their offerings to accommodate. We’ll see shorter cruises and itineraries that focus on areas not too far from a ship’s home port.
Small-ship and river cruising will increase in popularity
The trend for the past decade has been for cruise lines to build bigger and bigger mega-ships. However, small-ship and river cruises are going to become more popular.
Small-ship and river cruising have long been associated with elderly travelers, but that perception is starting to change. Companies like UnCruise Adventures and U River Cruises (by Uniworld) are offering adventure-filled journeys that appeal to younger and more active vacationers.
Smaller and less-crowded ships pose less risk of an outbreak of illness. Many travelers will just feel more comfortable cruising on ships with fewer passengers.
The average age of cruisers will decrease
As COVID-19 has caused more serious symptoms (and has been far more fatal) in elderly people and those with serious health conditions, we’ll see a decrease in age of the average cruise passenger.
Older cruise fans may just choose to hold off on cruising until a vaccine is developed. But, the average age of cruise ship passengers was dropping even before the pandemic.
In 2017, CLIA reported that the average age of cruise ship passengers had dropped to 46. That’s the lowest average age in 20 years! With many cruise lines adding more adventurous activities on board that appeal to a younger vacationer, we’ll continue to see more young and middle-aged people choosing cruise vacations.
Cruising may be cheaper…but just for a short time
When cruise lines are allowed to sail again, it’s pretty likely that cruise vacations are going to be on sale at bargain prices – for a time. The image of the cruise industry has taken quite a beating. Companies are going to do everything they can to get people back on board their ships.
However, the changes that the cruise lines are going to need to implement to make cruise travel safe are going to cost A LOT of money. Cruise lines, like any business, need to make a healthy profit to stay sustainable. To fund these improvements, the average cost of a cruise is going to go up, possibly significantly.
So jump on those bargain-priced future sailings while you can – they won’t be around forever!
Going nuts because you’re stuck at home and can’t cruise? Read Fun Things You CAN Do When You Can’t Cruise for some cruise-themed inspiration!
Are you a seasoned cruiser or have you worked on a cruise ship? What do you think will be different about the future of cruising? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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