‘Pent-up demand’: With bookings strong for late 2021, many cruisers are ready to sail

After what will have been a shutdown of more than nine months, the cruise industry is preparing to sail againin the U.S., and major cruise companies have said bookings are strong for the second half of 2021. 

While the industry readies to return to U.S. waters with new health and safety precautions and in accordance with new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the United States, along with much of the globe, finds itself in the midst of a worsening COVID-19 case surge.

With the pandemic continuing to rage across the nation, are cruisers rearing to get back out there? 

The answer is yes, according to Cruise Lines International Association, the leading trade organization for the industry, which found that 73% of cruisers say they are “likely to cruise” in the next few years with 50% saying they will cruise within the year. 

The data which Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications for CLIA, shared with USA TODAY, was collected before news broke that a vaccine may be available in the coming months.

“Our data shows that cruisers are eager to cruise again and are willing to follow stringent public health measures in order to return to sailing,” Golin-Blaugrund said, noting 90% of cruisers polled would wear a mask. 

“People have grown accustomed to taking such precautions on land and understand it is a small sacrifice to make in order to experience the joy of cruising while maintaining a focus on the health and safety of oneself and others,” she added.

Michelle Fee, CEO of travel agency Cruise Planners, echoed CLIA’s sentiment. She told USA TODAY that there is “pent-up demand” for cruising. She expects that many people will be back to sea in the second half of 2021 after rescheduling their 2020 reservations. 

“There are people who are ready to go and are raising their hands and saying, ‘I want to be on one of those initial cruises,’ ” Fee told USA TODAY, noting she would be willing to board a ship herself. “It’s my industry; I would probably be (on) one of them.”

“Cruisers are going to cruise,” she added. 

Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean all see demand still 

Multiple major cruise companies said that booking trends have proven that cruisers are still interested in sailing in spite of the ongoing pandemic — particularly in the second half of 2021.

The first half of the year, according to Carnival Corp., reflects COVID-19’s impact on the industry, but for the second half of the year, bookings are still looking good.

“While the company believes bookings in the first half of 2021 reflect expectations of the phased resumption of its guest cruise operations and anticipated itinerary changes, as of Sept. 20, 2020, cumulative advanced bookings for the second half of 2021 capacity currently available for sale are at the higher end of the historical range,” Carnival Corp. said in its third quarter business update.

At the company’s last business update in October, 60% of those bookings were new as opposed to redeemed future cruise credits being applied to new journeys, Roger Frizzell, spokesperson for Carnival Corp., told USA TODAY.

Carnival Corp.’s lines are scheduled to resume sailing at various points, with some sailings canceled into April 2021.

Similar to competitor Carnival Corp., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. said in its third quarter earnings report released on Nov. 9 that bookings are below historic levels currently — but the company doesn’t expect that trend to continue indefinitely.

“There continues to be demand for future cruise vacations, particularly beginning for sailings operating in the second half of 2021 and beyond, despite limited marketing efforts,” the company said. 

Norwegian is currently scheduled to resume sailing in March.

And Royal Caribbean echoed the sentiment on bookings.

“Booking activity for the first half of 2021 is aligned with the Company’s anticipated staggered resumption of cruises,” the company said in its October earnings report. “The cumulative booked position for sailings in the second half of 2021 is within historical ranges.”

Royal Caribbean Group’s cruise lines have suspended sailings through February with additional cancellations beyond that date. 

Ken Muskat, the executive vice president and COO for MSC Cruises, which has been sailing in the Mediterranean since the summer and expects to sail in U.S. waters in March, said he sees an appetite for travel overall which the company is ready to feed not only in Europe but also in U.S. waters once it receives proper approvals from the CDC.

“With our guests eager to get back to cruising and new itineraries, ships and destinations lined up, we’re continuing to see growing interest in our 2021 cruises,” Muskat told USA TODAY in a statement. 

150,000 people expressed interest in taking a Royal Caribbean test cruise 

One component of the CDC’s order for cruise companies to get back to U.S. waters is to complete mock voyages with volunteers — those sailings will be akin to test sailings cruise lines have when launching a new ship, Caitlin Shockey, spokesperson for the CDC, told USA TODAY in October.

In an attempt to gauge interest, Royal Caribbean International started a “Volunteers of the Seas” Facebook group as people started to express that they may want to be on board a test cruise. 

“More than 150,000 consumers have expressed interest in taking part in our simulation sailings, and people are still actively volunteering,” Michael Bayley, the president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, told USA TODAY.

Bayley, who added he plans to be on board during simulated sailings, said the company doesn’t have a date for when test cruises will begin. Royal Caribbean, he said, is working with the CDC to make that determination.

“We have a lot of details to work out to make sure everyone’s experience on board is as safe and enjoyable as we can make it,” he said. “So, while we currently have no details, we are excited about the interest we have received so far — we can’t wait to finally welcome our guests back on board.”

Cruisers’ attitudes toward getting back to sailing vary

In the Solo Cruisers USA Facebook group, which has more than 8,000 members, USA TODAY asked members last month if they felt ready to cruise.

The more than 330 responses varied. Some said they wouldn’t hesitate to board a ship.

“I absolutely would go on the first cruises,” Laura J. Spangler wrote in response to USA TODAY on Facebook. “Test cruise or regular.”

Lisa Hernandez also wrote she felt positive about getting back on board.

“I’m ready to get back to cruising with whatever restrictions they put in place,” Hernandez wrote. “I feel confident that the rules they put in place will keep cruising safe.”

Others had stipulations about what had to happen before they were to set foot back on board.

Eric Supple wrote that he would be interested in getting back on board “only if we were guaranteed a way to get off the boat and home without being stuck in our rooms for a quarantine. I’d like to see better circulation filters in the air on the boats and maybe not a hands-on buffet. Employees serving the food so thousands of hands aren’t touching everything.” 

And others still weren’t prepared to get on board, even with precautions in place.

“Vaccine first, cruise later, I can wait,” Colleen Foley Cervaro wrote. “I’d prefer not (to) have to wear a mask or socially distance. It’s a vacation; it’s supposed to be relaxing. Pandemics are not relaxing.”

Ival McDermott took it one step further: “I am hoping cruise lines will require passengers to present a proof of vaccination,” McDermott wrote.

Amy Supple said she is willing to wait, too. 

“Not with the recent headlines,” she wrote. “My biggest concern is being stuck on a ship in quarantine and not be able to get back to life.”

When can passenger cruises start sailing in the U.S.?

Regardless of cruisers’ interest levels, it’s unclear when passenger cruises will restart in U.S. waters, though multiple cruise companies including Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Group, have restarted cruises abroad with some starts and stops.

The cruise industry suspended cruises until 2021 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “no-sail” order expired at the end of October and was replaced by a “conditional sailing order.”

But that doesn’t mean that passengers will start sailing come January. In fact, most major cruise lines have already extended their sailing suspensions into 2021 in U.S. waters with some cancellations into March.

“This ‘Framework of Conditional Sailing’ lays out a pathway – a phased, deliberate and intentional pathway – toward resuming passenger services but only when it is safe, when (the cruise industry) can assure health and when they are responsible with respects of needs of crew passengers and port communities,” Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told USA TODAY when the order was announced Oct. 30.

After announcing the order, the CDC published a Level 4 travel notice in late November advising that “all people” should avoid travel on cruise ships worldwide because “the risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high.” 

“Cruise passengers are at increased risk of person-to-person spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported on cruise ships,” the organization said on its website.

The CDC added that for passengers who may be considered at increased risk, the warning is “especially” applicable.

But Fee echoed a point made by Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, on an October company earnings call: The industry believes it is possible to make a cruise ship safer than walking down “Main Street,” Fain said. 

“(The industry is) mitigating the risk of COVID on a ship so that it’s less than walking around your hometown,” Fee said.

“This is not a cruise line disease. We haven’t been on the water since March, and it’s (COVID-19 is) out of control,” she said, later noting that the industry is leading their return efforts with science.

“I think (the cruise industry) will be extremely safe,” she said. “Again, no one is saying they can eliminate COVID by any means — they are going to mitigate risk.”

Fee pointed out that travelers can get on a plane and stay in a hotel without a COVID-19 test — that’s not something passengers would be able to avoid when boarding a cruise ship.

“72% of cruisers trusts that the industry has implemented and activated stringent COVID-19 related protocols to protect their customers, employees and the public,” Golin-Blaugrund said, referencing CLIA’s data. 

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