This month marks the one-year anniversary of the first voluntary cruise suspension of CLIA lines, on March 13, 2020. Since then, with the exception of a handful of sailings in parts of Europe and Asia, the industry and its hundreds of cruise ships have been at anchor, waiting for the pandemic to subside and, in the U.S., for the CDC to clear a regulatory path for cruising to resume.
In the first of this two-part series, we enable people in the broad ecosystem that depends on the cruise industry — travel advisors, tour operators and destinations -— to tell their stories about the impact that one year of a near-global cruise shutdown has had on their businesses, their lives and their communities.
Valerie Dorsey, Cruise Planners, West Palm Beach, Fla.
I was surprised when the industry first stopped sailing, because the message we were getting from our government was that this wasn’t that bad. Who knew that it would blow up into a pandemic? My feeling was this was another virus with a new name but things would get back to normal. By May, I’d read the scientific data, and I knew this was serious.
I started encouraging my clients in 2020 to not book cruises before this fall to avoid the booking and rebooking cycle. Each time they do, it’s another decision tree. Do we take the future cruise credits (FCC) again, do I want my money back, and then it takes 90 days to get the money back. They get so frustrated. It’s a circle that nobody can see an end to at this point.
I go with my gut when I talk to clients. If it’s a cruise that they booked and rebooked once, I say, “Why don’t we look at 2022?” I’m really pushing people back. I think if clients wait until later, we have a clearer path to get them traveling. I’m a big traveler myself, and all the cruises I had planned for 2021 were canceled. When the CDC canceled any cruises longer than seven days, I started to get leery about Europe because people tend to do longer sailings there. I went to Costa Rica in December because I was supposed to go to Croatia but Europe had not opened up. So there is really no sense in me trying to encourage clients to put out money for a European vacation until we know it’s going to open. For spring break, I convinced some families to switch to all-inclusive resorts: Jamaica and Mexico are my two biggest right now.
I’ve had a good mix of land and cruise business over the years, but I am 60% cruise, and I really love booking cruises. They are the steadiest thing you can ever do. Most people enjoy them and come back happy. But there is pent-up demand out there, and my clients are starting to say, “I know I can’t cruise right now but I gotta get out of here.”
‘We advisors have spent so much time doing free work. All of our bookings we lost last year were the ones we made in 2019.’
We advisors have spent so much time doing free work. All of our bookings we lost last year were the ones we made in 2019. Many lines paid commission but only if the booking was paid in full. And many river cruise lines didn’t pay at all. I love what I do, and I keep up the relationships I’ve made with clients. We offer events with Cruise Planners to keep people engaged. Cruise Planners has been a great foundation. They’ve worked with us — our customers are their customers as well, so we all want to see them come back when this is over. They support us a great deal.
It’s a pleasure when clients call to book or just to talk. They keep in touch, and I send letters to them — not selling anything, just asking how they and their families are doing. I answer their questions and try to be on top of things like their FCCs and information so they can stay abreast of what’s happening. Keeping people calm in the face of crisis is part of our job, and it’s a part that I enjoy; it’s why I keep up my knowledge. This has been a great time for learning and getting certified. I watch webinars all the time and participate in as much as I can take of Zoom for a day. I do coffee chats and get to know people. I’m trying to build my base going forward and not allow my skill set to lay idle.
I just got my second vaccine. I’m a registered nurse so I understand vaccines, and I try to be true to what I read in scientific journals. When talking to clients, I stick to what I’m doing as opposed to trying to influence them. But I will say things like, “the reason I decided it was important for me [to get a vaccine] is this.”
Holly Johnson, president of Wings Airways, Juneau
We decided on June 1 to close for the season. A lot of us ended up doing that for the year to save what we could. We have to juggle longevity versus the gamble of opening.
The downtown felt boarded up as the summer went on. You want it to be that vibrant community; that is the reason people come here. We’ve had so much support from our town, and everyone has given, whether discounting rent or deferring payments. Everyone is pooling to keep this open for the long run.
We’d all bought infrastructure before the pandemic — whether it was merchandise, a boat or in our case, an airplane — because we were expanding for the best cruise year ever. The stores were stocked. Everybody had invested in providing great service and product. We started at the point where you need money to come in –— that’s the seasonality of it. And when it didn’t, you think, how long can this last? If we don’t have ships this year, it will be 31 months operating without ships. It’s been the source of a lot of meetings with accountants.
Everyone I talk to in this industry says, “It’s health and safety first” and “Let’s get the vaccine and plan for when it opens.” If we could even start seeing ships in midsummer, it would work. We could do it that way. But then Canada pulled out the rug from under us. That was a really tough day. We’ve made a lifelong commitment to this operation. We’ve committed to staying open, but every day we’re running numbers and making sure we can stick to that. There is hope for some season this year. The delegation is working to at least get a [Passenger Vessel Services Act] waiver for just this year to get the economy going. Our delegation is also speaking to Canada’s tourism ministry. Alaska and Canada have always had such a valuable relationship.
We’re looking at being open for independent visitors, but they only make up 10% of our business. Is that enough to sustain us to open? We are focused on what that would look like and would it work for us with the infrastructure we have. Volume makes a difference. We can provide a quality experience but we depend on the volume; everyone does. The U.S.-flagged lines fall into that 10%, so we’re working with them to get a feel for their schedule. Will they start in May? That makes a big difference. We have to think, is it more feasible fiscally to not open if we don’t have any big ships coming? We want to be open for every visitor that comes here. That’s the dynamics of a great community. We’re waiting for answers that may not come anytime soon.
‘In small towns, our industries depend on each other. We are all pillars of the economy, and when one goes, it affects everyone.’
We were waiting for the vaccine, for the pandemic to calm down and for the CDC to work with the cruise lines to help get going. Now we’re hoping Canada will work with us, as well. The cruise industry is about the people of Alaska. People are seeing that in these small towns, our industries depend on each other. We are all pillars of the economy, and when one goes, it affects everyone.
Joseph Boschulte, U.S. Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism
When cruise ships first stopped coming, it was a tremendous shock to our economy and to the region. Cruise represents a big chunk of the tourism business in the Caribbean. In the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), especially St. Thomas, it is a huge part of our portfolio. Tourism alone represents 50% of our GDP. We anticipated just under 2 million cruise passenger in 2020, up 10% from 2019. We projected a loss of almost $400 million from the cruise shutdown, not including this January and February, which are big months for us as this is high season.
Tourism in the USVI is actually doing very well, driven by the overnight guests in hotels, the sharing economy and our yacht and charter business. We’ve done a great job of pivoting and expanding resources to push and market those experiences. We’re doing extremely well, and we’re thankful for that. It has been significant in offsetting the job and business loss on the cruise end.
Businesses that were heavily dependent on cruise have adapted to today’s reality. The ones that hurt the most from the cruise exodus are retailers that cater primarily to cruise ship travelers and the excursion business, which is very different for overnight guests than for cruise guests. Many have seen business drop significantly; they are driven by group traffic with economies of scale from the ships. In the pandemic, we don’t allow mass gatherings so that hinders a lot of that business, and vans have to be at 50% occupancy.
Our [shopkeepers] are trying to access overnight guests, and we are working with them on marketing ideas. One of the big changes for them is they are open from 9 to 5, centered around cruise traffic. The overnight guest is different: They are at the beach or the pool during the day. To get that business, they have to stay open later when the crowd moves to happy hour and dinner.
We never know what’s going to happen. The cruise business is struggling now, but after the 2017 hurricanes, they came back in December, when the islands were still devastated. The ships didn’t need much infrastructure and were able to come back and get some of our major attractions back up and running and get people working again. There is no question about where the territory’s economy would have been if the cruise lines did not come back.
The cruise industry is anxious to come back and sail again from U.S. ports. Some of the CDC’s demands of the destinations are more feasible than others. We’ve been working with our ports on safety protocols, and we already follow CDC guidelines, so we are more positioned to accept those mandates than some of our Caribbean competition. But one concern that has to be worked out is what happens if there is a Covid-19 outbreak on a ship? How does the disembarkation process happen? That is an area that is still of concern to us as a relatively small destination in terms of infrastructure and airlift. It would be very difficult to move 3,000 passengers off the island efficiently. We all are engaged in finding solutions to make it happen. That’s one of the more refreshing parts of the discussion with the CDC and the cruise lines and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association: the willingness to sit at the table and discuss workable solutions.
‘We’ve learned we’re resilient. We can entertain leisure guests on cruise ships, overnight or on yacht charters. We can do it all.’
If someone asked me in December 2019 if I thought St. Thomas could survive without one cruise ship for a year, I’d say, “No way, we’ll be in deep trouble.” We’ve learned we’re resilient, and we understand business and how to entertain leisure guests on cruise ships, overnight or someone who decides to charter a yacht. We can do it all.
Jeff Anderson, co-president, Avoya Travel
Back in March, even though cruising always had a strong record of health and safety, given the alarming nature of Covid-19 spreading around the world, the voluntary cruise suspension seemed appropriate.
We proactively bought laptops for every employee, believing a shutdown was imminent and that our services would need to continue remotely for an undetermined amount of time. Fortunately, our IT team had upgraded our tech infrastructure the previous quarter so the transition was extremely smooth.
I wish I could have known then how long this would last. Given our early exposure in travel to the virus, I jokingly advised many friends prior to the shutdowns in March that the most important decision at the time was not when, but where we should quarantine. A private island seemed too difficult, so I suggested Hawaii or a cruise ship until this was all over. Looking back, from a Californian’s perspective, I should have taken my own advice.
To keep our team going and positive during the continual extension of cruise pauses, unwavering honesty and frequent communication have been invaluable. Moving to a digital work environment was a quick transition for us all, but we’ve also had to remind ourselves continually to “embrace the change.” That meant video chats, Zoom cocktail parties and virtual conferences were the new normal.
Each extension of cruise pauses is always jarring, but our exceptional team has remained deeply committed to helping the company and all those associated with it make it through as best as possible.
Personally, the most difficult part of the past year has been navigating daily life without the freedoms we’re all accustomed to. From a company perspective, the most difficult part was shaping the company for the future while being confronted with the ongoing conflict.
‘Throughout the pandemic, we never lost sight of our greater mission: to help travelers live life to the fullest.’
Throughout the pandemic, we never lost sight of our greater mission: to help travelers live life to the fullest. One of the silver linings of Covid-19 has been that the value of relationships and time in the human experience are at an all-time high.
Travelers are excited to make up for the lost time connecting with a world full of wonderful people and pampering themselves and their loved ones with rich experiences.
What I miss the most about cruising is the simplicity of visiting so many epic places while having the perfect retreat in between port calls. It’s impossible for me to pick just one ship that I’m anxious to sail on, there are far too many. The itineraries I’m most excited about traveling to next are the Galapagos, the Seine River and Britain and Ireland.