Crystal Cruises' decision to launch cruises in July from the Bahamas, bypassing the CDC, which still prohibits cruise ships from sailing in U.S. waters, was seen by industry insiders as a smart way to jump-start an industry on pause for more than a year.
But it also comes as travel advisors and many loyal Crystal cruisers have gone many months without promised refunds for canceled 2020 cruises and during a year of uncertainly regarding the financial status of Crystal's parent company, Genting Hong Kong.
Rod McLeod, a former marketing executive with several major cruise lines and currently an industry consultant, called Crystal's move into the Bahamas "brilliant."
"Using the Bahamas as the terminal point provides Crystal close proximity to the North American market as well as the U.K. and continental European markets such as Germany," he said. "Crystal's high-end clientele has been starved for luxury cruise travel opportunities for more than 13 months and counting," and its 65-plus core clientele is "highly likely to have received their Covid-19 shots."
But some travel advisors say that the issues around Crystal's refunds over the past 12 months have made them and their loyal Crystal clientele skeptical of the line. Over the past year, Crystal has been notoriously slow to refund clients, some of whom are waiting on tens of thousands of dollars, leaving advisors frustrated. In addition, Genting has been mired in financial issues since last summer, when it defaulted on its debt payments.
Crystal said recently that in the past month it had been given access to collateral that has allowed it to refund approximately 80% of fares owed for canceled 2020 cruises and more than 75% when including 2021 sailings through April, and it said it will complete 80% of outstanding travel advisor commission payments by the end of April.
Alex Sharpe, CEO of Signature Travel Network, confirmed that "Crystal has made some significant progress in paying past-due customer refunds."
Sharon Fake, director of operations at Travel Experts, said she's unsure whether some advisors and clients will be able to move past their frustrations with the line over slow-to-no refunds.
"With the challenges of the past year regarding refunds, commissions and financial uncertainty for Crystal, combined with the strident lack of information put forth by their ownership, it may be a questionable move," she said. "There would seem to be a long road back for Crystal in terms of advisor confidence to sell, and they may see a larger percentage of direct bookings by consumers who are desperate to get on a ship no matter what.
"The product has always been excellent and is definitely missed by loyal consumers. And requiring vaccines has apparently been met with positive response. But the brand has been tarnished, and it remains to be seen if this move will garner advisor support."
Mary Jean Tully
Mary Jean Tully, CEO of Tully Luxury Travel, Crystal's top producing agency for 25 years, said that although her clients also "didn't like the way their refunds were handled, they love the product and they cannot wait to go back and cruise again."
In fact, she said, they are "jumping all over the chance and wanting to go" to the Bahamas.
While the Bahamas may not seem like the kind of place a luxury traveler would be interested in spending a week, McLeod said the seven-day itinerary is "unique" and "that to my knowledge has never been offered; it well fits the exclusivity preferred by upscale travelers -- a feature they are willing to 'pay up' for."
Tom Baker of CruiseCenter in Houston called the plan "brilliant, and creates a somewhat safe cocoon for travelers wanting a getaway on a luxury cruise.... I don't think upscale travelers really care right now that this is the Bahamas vs. an exotic destination, as the 'itch' to get away somewhere, even a picnic table in the park, is appealing."
Given the ease of arrival and possibly being among the first luxury cruises to sail this year, McLeod also said these departures may introduce a new cohort of cruisers to Crystal.
"This program offers Crystal the added benefit of offering a sampler product that may well attract new customers," he said.
The move was also heralded by Bahamas officials who have now suffered through a year without cruise tourism, which is central to its economy. Tourism minister Dionisio D'Aguilar called Crystal's launch "a milestone achievement."
"This may very well prove to be the tipping point for our citizens, for our tourism industry, for our nation," he said, adding that a return of cruise ships would provide "much-needed economic relief."