When the heads of the world's four largest cruise companies appeared together virtually for 2020's first major cruise conference, their tone was more upbeat than might be expected from leadership in what is viewed as the most beleaguered travel sector.
Only the week before, the CDC had issued a scathing assessment of the industry's ability to resume operations during the Covid-19 pandemic as it extended its No Sail Order beyond the six months that have already idled the panel's ships. Nevertheless, executives speaking at the Seatrade Cruise conference expressed confidence that their ships would soon begin sailing again from U.S. homeports.
"It seems like all of the forces are coming together," Royal Caribbean Group chairman Richard Fain said during the annual event's State of the Industry panel. "I'm optimistic that we're at an important tipping point."
The week before, cruise leaders were also set to meet with administration officials at the White House, a meeting that was postponed when President Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19. Before that, Florida's two Republican senators introduced legislation to accelerate the industry's restart.
Perhaps most significantly, the cruise industry's confidence has been boosted by its ability to show the world that it can resume service safely, as it has done in Europe on ships both large and small.
"What we need is the opportunity," Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) CEO Frank Del Rio said on the panel, citing the 50,000-plus passengers on more than 100 sailings in Europe so far. "Europe has granted that opportunity, and I'm glad to see my colleagues performing so well. They executed flawlessly, and I take my hat off to [them]. It's one thing to see things on paper and another to see it in reality. We can show proof positive that we can operate in this environment safely."
The executives believe the same success can be replicated here with or without a Covid-19 vaccine, which has long been considered the travel industry's savior. In fact, the CEOs said that advances in the reliability of testing is the more important element in the industry's return-to-service plan.
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Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises, the first to resume large-ship cruising this summer, beginning in Italy starting in mid-August, also stressed the importance of testing.
"Everybody's talking about vaccines. Vaccines won't be the magic wand. Vaccines will be part of the solution, but testing will be the solution," he said, adding that on MSC ships, it's the reason people feel safe.
During Seatrade, CLIA committed to a global expansion of the 100% testing of all passengers and crew that its member lines had committed to for North America cruises that carry more than 250 people.
There has been no similar commitment in any other sector within the travel industry or, for that matter, in any industry at all, according to Fain.
However, all the executives said that it is virtually impossible to prevent the virus from showing up on a ship. One of the most important aspects in their return-to-service plans is that a ship can sail without interruption even if a passenger or crew member is found to be infected.
Asserting that cruise ships are like small cities, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said that even though there are Covid cases in cities, most people can "go about their lives."
"We as an industry have spent an enormous amount of time on what happens if there is a case onboard," Donald said. "We have all the measures to mitigate spread."
The lines have upgraded their ventilation systems, and passengers protect themselves with physical distancing and mask-wearing. Should someone become infected onboard, as in cities, the lines will isolate them and provide care.
Cause for confidence
The lines' return-to-service plans are multilayered. The recommendations of the Healthy Sail Panel, created in a partnership between NCLH and Royal Caribbean, outlines 74 measures.
"So if No. 51 fails that's OK, because there are 73 others to support it," Del Rio said.
Adding to the leaders' confidence is that the passenger reviews on the cruises that began operating this summer reflect that guests feel the ships are not only safe but enjoyable.
"The satisfaction is extremely high," Vago said, adding that people who have been cooped up at home for so long come onboard and discover they can "actually see a sunset, actually mingle and enjoy themselves, have a drink and talk to other people in a safe mode, in a safe cocoon."
Vago said that people are used to many of the protocols in place, such as wearing masks and washing hands, and that the other onboard changes are minimal, such as having three shows instead of two to enable social distancing and still offering a buffet but having someone serve people the food.
"So there is all the entertainment. All the fun stays, and people not only enjoy the experience and the cruise for everything it offers, but they feel safe because of testing," he said. "We have to give that peace of mind to the passenger."
Fain noted that technological advances put the industry in a much better position to handle this than it would have been in even five years ago. For example, people are already used to paying for things electronically and handling tasks on their smartphones and in a contactless manner.
In fact, Vago said, the experience has been so well received that some guests onboard decide to stay on for the next cruise.
"They say, why am I going back home?" he said. "What am I going back home to?"