Medical personnel tend to passengers as they disembark from the Grand Princess cruise ship at the Port of Oakland on March 09. (Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images)
The coronavirus pandemic left dozens of cruise ships temporarily stranded at sea, not allowed to dock because of onboard outbreaks of the deadly virus.
It happened with the Norwegian Jewel in the South Pacific, the Zaandam off the coast of Florida and the Grand Princess in the waters off Northern California, among several others.
Despite such harrowing news, Chris Schuck, hasn’t canceled three cruises he has booked over the next two years, with the earliest in September.
“After this virus, I truly believe the cruise lines will institute even more guidelines to keep guests and crew safe,” said Schuck, who works in the scheduling and labor department at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Schuck isn’t the only cruise fan who remains faithful. Travel agents and industry experts say bookings for cruise sailings in 2021 are up considerably compared with pre-coronavirus data.
Cruise lines that canceled sailings in the last few months have offered refunds or credits toward future trips. Still, travel agents and experts say the booking rates for cruise trips in 2021 represent more than just passengers rebooking their canceled trips.
In the last 45 days, CruiseCompete.com, an online cruise marketplace, has seen a 40% increase in bookings for 2021 compared with 2019, said Heidi M. Allison, president of the company. Only 11% of the bookings are from people whose 2020 trips were canceled, she said.
“People are still booking cruises and are anxious to sail again when this is all over,” she said.
In an analysis of the cruise industry, Swiss banking giant UBS wrote that cruise booking volume for 2021 was up 9% in the last 30 days compared with the same time last year.
The UBS report, issued March 31, said the bookings for 2021 cruise trips included people using their credit for canceled sailings but added that volume “still shows a surprising resilience in desire to book a cruise.”
Booking volume was even higher for trips to Asia and Alaska, UBS said, “so there is pent up demand for Asia travel next year.”
AAA has also noticed an increase in cruise bookings beyond the numbers attributed to people rebooking canceled trips, said Paula Twidale, a senior vice president at AAA Travel.
“We are optimistic that once this crisis is behind us, travel will rebound quickly, which bodes well for 2021,” she said.
An online poll of more than 4,600 cruise passengers found that about 75% said they plan to either resume taking cruises at the same frequency as before or more often once the coronavirus crisis subsides, according to CruiseCritic.com, a cruise review site.
The other 25% in the poll said they plan to cruise less often or stay away from cruising indefinitely.
Once the virus began to spread and the number of infected passengers began to surge on cruise ships last month, the U.S. State Department urged Americans not to take cruises. Most of the world’s largest cruise lines sailed their ships back to port and canceled further trips for at least a month.
The cruise industry’s image has been tarnished over the years by onboard illness outbreaks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, international cruise lines have had outbreaks — primarily of the extremely contagious norovirus, which causes gastrointestinal problems — nine to 12 times a year for the last five years. But the nearly 130,000 passengers sickened during those outbreaks represent a tiny fraction of the 74 million people that took cruises during that period.
Still, 76% of the people whose cruises were canceled are taking the option of a credit for a future trip instead of requesting a refund, according to the USB report. To entice people to book a future cruise, some cruise lines are offering up to 125% of the fare of the canceled cruise, plus credit toward shipboard expenses.
However, some cruise lines have been slow to send the refunds, according to social media posts.
And I’d like to share this special message with @CarnivalCruise : I WANT MY MONEY BACK FOR MY CANCELED CRUISE. I don’t want a future cruise credit. I want MY money back.
— CH (@chagens1) April 6, 2020
The cruise line industry supports more than 421,000 American jobs and contributes nearly $53 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the Cruise Line International Assn., a trade group for the world’s cruise companies.
Cruise industry experts say the increase in booking volume is a sign of how devoted cruise fans are to their favorite cruise line and destinations.
“We’re not dealing with post 9/11 where people were afraid for their safety when traveling beyond U.S. borders,” said Stewart Chiron, who reviews cruises on his website CruiseGuy. “Many people are ready to sail once a clear timeline for resumption of service and current ship schedules are revealed.”
Such cruise fans would include Schuck, who has been on 15 cruises on six cruise lines over the last 20 years.
He said he will return to cruising because it is an efficient and fun way to experience many countries and make new friends.
“You have all the food and entertainment anyone could possibly want right at your fingertips when on a cruise,” Schuck said. “I find when I am on a ship I do things I normally would not do on land and seem to live a bit more and enjoy new things.”
Barry Shulman, a Las Vegas cruise fan who owns an online poker magazine, estimates that he has been on more than 100 cruises and doesn’t plan to stop cruising now.
In February, Shulman and his wife were on a cruise off the coast of Australia when they became worried about the coronavirus outbreak, disembarked and flew home. Still, he said he has faith that the cruise lines will come up with procedures to make future trips safe.
He has already booked one cruise for each of the next three years and doesn’t plan to cancel them.
“If it’s safe to cruise, then I’ll be cruising,” Shulman said.
The cruise industry will continue to book trips, he said, because cruise fans are not easily scared off.
“I think there are going to be a ton of specials and discounts,” Shulman said. “I think people will cruise and, yes, I think people will repeat.”