Ships in harbor are safe, but that is not what they were built for. And in 2021, the cruise industry will strive, above all, to put passengers on ships and send them out to sea.
For travel in general, after 2020, there is nowhere to go but up. But cruising was hit particularly hard, as the only travel sector the U.S. government has forbidden to operate throughout the pandemic.
That changed on Oct. 30 when the CDC ended the No Sail Order. But it replaced it with a Conditional Sailing Order that put in place so many hurdles for cruise lines to overcome that, although they have a 2021 pathway to cruising, it's a long and winding one.
As of now, most cruise lines are paused through February due to extensive requirements around testing crew and readying ships to return to service; applying to perform test sailings; and having the CDC approve the results of those trials.
An idled cruise ship docked in Port Miami in June. Photo Credit: richard pross/Shutterstock.com
Despite the obstacles, the lines are doing their best to fulfill the requirements for resumption. Ships are being moved to Florida, and the lines are in the process of having the CDC certify the first phases of the conditional sailing order. Royal Caribbean International is allowing the public to apply to be on its test sailings, and more than 150,000 people have done so. Royal said it would begin test sailings in January; other cruise lines have yet not made their dates public.
As with the No Sail Order, the Conditional Sailing Order could be modified or dropped if pandemic conditions improve. Cruise lines, along with the rest of the travel industry, hope that Covid-19 vaccines, finally in distribution, will be administered widely enough that travel can resume in earnest in 2021.
There is no getting around the importance of the cruise industry making money again in 2021. The lines have been in a near-zero-revenue scenario since mid-March, even as they spend millions to keep ships partly staffed and in good condition and pay other expenses. Because they are not U.S.-based, they received no federal relief.
The brands have been saying throughout 2020 that their forward bookings, especially for the second half of 2021 and beyond, indicate huge pent-up demand. If that holds, the depleted sector can look forward to strong pricing and the expectation that cruisers will use some of their 2020 vacation budget to go bigger in 2021, providing the lines and agents who depend on them much-needed cash flow.
And while it is expected that the first itineraries will center on cruise line private islands, destinations worldwide are working hard to get back on itineraries. For cruise-dependent ports in the Caribbean, many that have gotten little in the way of relief, it's a matter of survival. And the lines know that.
"There's an economic impact on the Caribbean nations that we've partnered with for so many years," said Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain said during Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld. "So we want to get back to all of those places."