Upchurch: The entire travel industry should make cruising's restart a priority

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Cruise ships idled in the Bahamas earlier this year.
Cruise ships idled in the Bahamas earlier this year. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Matthew Upchurch, the CEO of Virtuoso, thinks the key to restoring consumer confidence is to get cruise ships sailing again.

And he thinks the entire travel industry should make this cause its rallying cry, "whether you sell cruises or not; whether you're a hotelier, tour operator or destination management company."

Why? His premise, laid out in a widely circulated essay, is that people who cruise don't just sail. "They fly to and from the ship, they stay in hotels before and after, they take tours, dine at restaurants, shop in ports and visit cultural sites."

"This is a case where a rising tide truly floats all boats," he wrote. "When the cruise lines successfully sail again -- and I'm confident they will -- it will bolster trust in traveler safety."

Upchurch also contends that cruise lines are being held to a higher standard than any other sector in travel, even airlines, which are, of course, flying. And while he commends the aviation industry for the measures it has taken to get people back on planes, "it hasn't revived the travel industry."

"And that's because relying on air travel implies business travel will be the first to return," Upchurch said, which is what usually happens after a disruption. With this crisis, he said, recovery efforts need to focus on the leisure traveler.

He cited a recent poll of Virtuoso's travel agency members in which 83% said that the greatest factor in restoring consumer confidence was flexible cancellation and postponement policies.

The same poll showed 40% of new bookings were for ocean cruising, higher than any other travel category, and that 37% of Virtuoso clients said they were ready to cruise again.

Matthew Upchurch
Matthew Upchurch

"The appetite for cruising's return is there," he said.

Now, he contends, it's time to let people travel, which governments did during other crises.

"When the pandemic caused travel to halt in the spring, the focus was on flattening the curve," he said. "Since then, the conversation has evolved to waiting for a vaccine before travel fully resumes. While that's a goal worthy of aspiring to, it has not been the case with other threats that disrupted travel.

"Sadly, terrorism wasn't eliminated before we got back on planes following 9/11. Zika wasn't cured before we returned to the Caribbean. In no way do I want to minimize the severity of Covid-19 or a global pandemic, but the reality is that like other threats, it becomes part of the traveler's risk profile."

And travel professionals, like those at Virtuoso, will have to help travelers make informed decisions based on "all factors, including their personal risk tolerance," he said.

Upchurch concluded his essay by reminding his fellow industry members that it has "time and again" pulled together for the collective good.

"Now is one of those times," he wrote. "And for all our sake, we should be working to get cruise ships back on the seas."

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