The day before the attacks on Westminster Bridge in London last week, Roger Chen, Carnival Corp.'s chairman in China, was speaking half a world away in Shanghai. As he wrapped up his keynote address at Travel Weekly China's CruiseWorld, he ended with a video in which a young girl, inspired by a relic of cruise ships past, imagines a lifetime of cruising.
It was a shift in tone from much of the day's discussion, in which several speakers focused on a crisis that was roiling the still-young Chinese cruise industry: the sudden removal of South Korean ports
from the itineraries of cruise ships that homeport in China. The underlying reasons for the disruption are political, and the consequences graver than the loss of, say, a popular Caribbean island would be for U.S.-based ships, because there are very few ports of call in range of ships sailing from north and east China.
Korean ports are popular. One large agency executive said that 10,000 of his clients changed their travel plans as a result of losing access to those destinations. (In China, numbers get big very quickly.)
Zinan Liu, president of China and North Asia Pacific Region, Royal Caribbean International and chairman of CLIA North Asia, said that in the 18 "dark days" since the government-inspired Korea boycott began, ship owners, ports and travel agents have "suffered a lot" and that "the cruise industry took on the responsibility for a nation."
After Carnival's Chen showed the video of the girl dreaming about what her life will be like when she cruises the world, he sat down with me for an onstage interview. I asked him how, after people begin to connect cruising with disrupting events unrelated to cruising, can the industry restore focus to inspiration and aspiration?
Keeping consumer dreams alive is connected with keeping industry dreams alive, he suggested. "Everyone has a dream. Dreams are tied to visions and beliefs."
And those visions and beliefs, he said, endure despite the impact of temporary disruptions.
"A dream gathered us here today, and it's guiding the development of the Chinese cruise market, which will one day become the largest in the world," he said.
He went on to say that, at this stage, focus needs to remain on brand differentiation, attractive itineraries, identifying potential cruisers and the industry working together toward its commonly held dream.
There's no simple or single answer to how one returns consumer attention to the pleasures of travel when headlines trumpet disruptions of planned trips, as occurred in China, or when tragedy strikes popular destinations, as happened last week in London.
Chen's advice on maintaining a big-picture perspective and keeping long-term dreams alive in the face of recurring nightmares is important, but businesses large and small also need to develop plans to bridge the financial impact of interruptions that disturb business as usual.
In an offstage interview, Royal's Liu told me that speed and existing relationships are critical when confronted with disruptions.
The Chinese cruise industry experienced a similar problem a few years ago when, again for political reasons, Japanese ports were taken off itineraries. When the South Korea situation developed, Liu said, "we responded very quickly. There are not many replacement ports in Japan, and they are very congested, but we have strong port relationships and managed to get new itineraries in place rapidly."
As economic reports released by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) demonstrated last week, the travel industry as a whole has shown resilience in the face of adversity, but that's largely a reflection of the industry's diverse portfolio. The sum looks good, though sector results are uneven, with nations in Latin America suffering while business is unusually brisk in East Asia.
Cruise lines can switch out ports. Travel advisers and tour operators can redirect clients to destinations in which they feel more comfortable. But cities -- Paris, Brussels and now London -- don't have as many options. Time, as another WTTC report issued last year shows, seems to be the dominant factor in recovery.
Destinations in the U.S. have, so far, had shorter reset times than those in some other countries. More people were killed in the Orlando nightclub shooting than in the Brussels Airport last year, but Orlando recovered quickly while Belgium as a whole is still suffering.
Still, U.S. destinations in 2017 may be at risk anew.
When I was in China, I spoke with both Chinese and Singaporean observers who said that the outbound meetings/incentive/convention/events (MICE) business in Asia was eyeing the U.S. warily, concerned that, should an event be scheduled for the U.S., potential attendees might decide not to sign up due to concerns about being able to enter the U.S., or being subjected to special scrutiny or lengthy visa processes.
And I think it's safe to say that there won't be as much MICE business between the Middle Eastern Gulf countries and the U.S. if visitors can't bring laptops aboard flights.
Travel and tourism appears to be increasingly caught in the crossfire between terrorists and counterterrorists. Chen is correct that dreams fuel travel on both the individual and industry level. But after years of industry expansion, keeping those dreams alive -- and nightmares at bay -- could prove increasingly challenging.