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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Robert L Marchilli
Thursday 20th of August 2020
I have a rescheduled cruise for 1/16/2021 and hopefully they'll be up and running at that time. I am booked on Norweigan Encore for a 12 day cruise to the Panama canal. I was just wondering what you think the percentage of passengers that will be allowed on board. This ship can accommodate just under 4,000 along with a crew of 2,100. Also your thoughts on no-bailout funds for cruise lines
Monday 24th of August 2020
Hi Robert, I sure hope they'll be running by January, but as we've all seen this year, you never know. To answer your first question: by January, I think that if cruises are operating, they'll be sailing at around 75% capacity. The majors have enough cash in reserve to survive without incoming revenue for the rest of the year, and most have enough assets to leverage for future funding. Cruise lines can still make a healthy profit at 75%, so I think this could be a good way to fill cabins with cruisers who want to travel but are worried about packed ships (I'm actually more worried about airplane travel, but I digress).
Next is your question regarding bailout funds for cruise lines. You must be in the US, like me? Since I serve the cruise community around the world, I make a point to not be political on my blog. But, as (I hope) a rational human being, I can see both sides of the argument. All the major cruise lines that have their HQ in the United States flag ALL of their ships in foreign tax havens (except NCL's Pride of America). But, they also operate stateside call centers and employ thousands of workers at our domestic ports. Should they be part of a bailout? I'm torn. If this pandemic isn't (at least somewhat) under control in the next 6-8 months, it might become a bigger topic of conversation in the cruise world.
Thanks for reading, and great questions! I hope you enjoy your Panama Canal cruise. We did one in January 2018 on Caribbean Princess, which is an older ship (but I still love her). I'd love to try it on a Breakaway Plus-class ship like NCL Encore!
Sunday 19th of July 2020
Very nice read and informative. I have never done a cruise, I know its something that should be experienced. Thanks for this article.
Robert L Marchilli
Thursday 20th of August 2020
If you compare the cost of a land vacation and how long it takes to visit multiple areas a cruise is around the same cost. The food is plentiful and even the pickiest person can get something they like. no dwi's no parking fees great entertainment on board. I can honestly say I'm a cruise junkie. Going on a 12 day cruise in jan to the Panama canal. I got a club balcony suite 5 free offers along with 2 nights before and after in a 4 star hotel along with airfare and transportation for a little over 8 grand for 2 thats only 500 per night with everything included which isn't bad. TRY IT YOU'LL LOVE IT
Sunday 19th of July 2020
Jeannie, I'm glad you stopped by and that you like my post! I hope you're able to take a cruise one day. You're right, it's something that should be experienced! :)
Thursday 9th of July 2020
Thank you for the article ...
On the Princess website (& I’ve checked with my travel agent) for cruises from Australia to New Zealand they say they’re sailing from 21 September 2020. How can this be when you can’t even fly to New Zealand ???
Surely if you can’t fly you can’t cruise! Why can’t Princess ‘grow a pair’ & make a call ??? Their reputation is already in tatters. Surely they should be doing their best for passengers (like others have done e.g. no sailings for 2020) so people know where they stand & plan accordingly!
We are booked for 28 September 2020 and are still in limbo!
Princess what are you waiting for ???
Thursday 9th of July 2020
Hi Diane, I understand your frustration! We also had a Princess cruise booked for September, for Mr. SBC's big 50th birthday celebration. Ours was in Europe, and we had an email from them in April or May stating that all Europe cruises were canceled for 2020. We were heartbroken, but we understand it's for the greater good.
However, your situation is a little different, as your cruise hasn't been canceled - and it might never be! I'm assuming you're in North America (like me) or somewhere outside of Aus/NZ.
Princess didn't cancel Australia and New Zealand cruises because those sailings can likely still operate. Australia and New Zealand's governments (NZ in particular) have done a fantastic job stopping the spread of COVID-19, unlike what we've seen here in the US. AUS/NZ likely will initiate a "travel bubble", where residents of those countries can travel freely within the bubble, and cruise travel in those countries is super popular. That's why I think your cruise wasn't canceled - there are probably lots of guests who can still take that cruise.
But you're right - you're not going on that cruise, even if it sails (again, assuming you're from outside of AUS/NZ). Governmental travel restrictions will likely prevent you from flying to Australia. You mentioned reaching out to your travel agent. If I were in your shoes, I'd push them hard for answers to your questions. It might take a bit for a refund, but restrictions are going to prevent you from flying to Australia.
Please keep us all posted with how this works out. Sending you hugs.
Thursday 2nd of July 2020
If the cruise lines mandate a letter for older cruisers or people with physical conditions from their doctors. , I think they will loose a serious amount of passengers. I don't know of any dr. that would sign such a letter. Plus ,there's a possibility of class action law suites due to age discrimination.
Friday 3rd of July 2020
Michael, I agree with you. There are plenty of people considered "seniors" who are in perfect health, and lots of younger people who aren't as healthy. I don't think that mandating a doctor's letter is the best course of action for the cruise lines. There'd definitely be at least a lot of pushback from cruisers, and even lawsuits as you mentioned. Let's hope it doesn't come to that when cruising restarts! Thanks for your comment.
Tuesday 28th of April 2020
A most interesting post and I agree the industry needs to change.
The Diamond Princess and other cruise ship quarantines are certainly going to make people hesitant. They will need to reduce prices initially to overcome this.
If folks prefer the smaller ships, what's going to happen with all the latest (and biggest) ships they've launched the last several years?
Tuesday 28th of April 2020
Hi Shannon, thanks for your comment. I don't think the big ships that currently exist will be going away - there will always be lots of cruisers who prefer the mega ships! However, I don't foresee cruise lines continuing to build bigger and bigger ships in the near future. I think small-ship cruising is going to be more popular, and if we see growth in the industry it's going to be in that sector.