Why the cruise industry is still navigating choppy waters

By Jonty Bloom
Business reporter

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The MSC Virtuosa arriving in Portland, EnglandImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The MSC Virtuosa was the first cruise ship to take passengers in UK waters in more than a year

Maureen Pepper just couldn't wait to get back on a cruise ship.

She and her husband Richard have been going on cruising holidays for the past 25 years, to Australia, New York and the Caribbean, among many other destinations. And most recently, to Portland in Dorset.

Their latest trip was a month ago, and saw them board the first cruise ship with passengers to depart from a UK port in more than a year.

A brand new vessel - the giant 6,334-person capacity, 19-deck MSC Virtuosa - sailed on a four-day round trip from Southampton, with just one stop at Portland, some 70 miles along England's south coast. A limited number of passengers - 1,000 - were onboard.

Not exactly the cruise of a lifetime, but good enough, says Maureen, who is from Essex. "We were very happy to be onboard, and the ship was fabulous," she says.

It wasn't all plain sailing though, she adds, as they had to wear masks everywhere, including while out on deck, which she says was "absolute madness". You could only take your mask off when eating, drinking, or swimming.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Passengers on the MSC Virtuosa, pictured, had to keep their masks on

There have been few travel sectors worse hit by the coronavirus pandemic than the global cruise line industry. In 2019, it contributed more than $154bn (£110bn) to the global economy, says the trade body Cruise Lines International Association. Then we all went into lockdown last March, and the world's cruise ships were anchored up.

The plight of the sector is perhaps best shown by the financial performance of the largest cruise line company, US giant Carnival. In 2019 it made a profit of $3bn, while in 2020 it reported a loss of $10bn, after its revenues plunged 73%. It had to secure $26.3bn of investment to help it stay afloat.

The wider industry must be hoping that the likes of Maureen and Richard - loyal cruise fans who can't wait to get back onboard - will be its saviours.

But the Peppers' recent mask-wearing experience also illustrates some of the major issues facing an industry that is desperate to re-open for business. Anti-Covid measures on every ship mean more cleaning, better ventilation, health checks and more staff to serve meals, which all push up costs.

Continuing coronavirus restrictions also seriously limit the destinations that are willing to accept liners and their thousands of passengers. MSC's Virtuosa was recently stopped from docking in the Scottish port of Greenock because Scotland's Covid restrictions are different to those in England. Imagine what it is going to be like for cruise ships docking in the Caribbean or Mediterranean, navigating a host of nations and territories with different rules.

However, it is not all bad news, according to veteran travel industry public relations boss Mike Bugsgang. He says that the new short-duration cruises, which stay within UK waters, have attracted new, younger passengers.

Image source, Mike Bugsgang
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Mike Bugsgang (left) on the Fred Olsen cruise ship Braemar, says younger people are now taking up cruising

"Cruising has long been dominated by people aged 60 plus," he says. "But that now appears to be changing.

"The new UK-only cruises have apparently been attracting much younger passengers. I guess this is because we cannot currently go abroad on holiday without having to quarantine upon our return.

"So the idea of at least getting on a ship and sailing around parts of the UK has really caught people's attention."

Image source, Maureen Pepper
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Maureen and Richard Pepper have three other cruises booked for this year

Still, the industry is a long way from fully re-opening. The vast majority of ships are not being used, and the cruise firms are now advertising like mad to drum up business, and move on from the reputation they gained at the start of the pandemic as super spreaders.

In one of the highest profile cases involving a cruise ship at the start of the outbreak last year, the Diamond Princess was quarantined in a Japanese port after hundreds of passengers tested positive for coronavirus.

Professor Sheela Agarwal from Plymouth Business School says with ever-changing Covid rules and restrictions the industry will find delivering on the promises in all its new expensive adverts difficult, if not impossible.

"What you sign up and pay for might not be what you get," she says. "Their marketing materials can't possibly reflect what passengers might get [because new restrictions might subsequently come into place]."

This, Prof Agarwal says means that the whole industry is dependent on factors beyond its control. "I think it depends on the world vaccine programme, so I think it is going to be at least another year, or a year and a half, of disruption, depending on the virus and its variants."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Cruise ships have been moored up around the world, waiting out the pandemic

If that is not bad enough, the situation in Florida in the US, the world centre for the cruise line industry, is just making things worse. There politics has got between the industry and its clients, just when the cruise lines were gearing up to reopen for business in July.

In what is proving to be a disastrous re-launch for the sector, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is insisting that 95% of both crew members and passengers must have had two vaccinations before they can join a cruise.

Unfortunately for the cruise lines, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, says any company that asks passengers if they have been vaccinated will face a $5,000 fine, per passenger.

The governor claims that requiring vaccine passports discriminates against the young who haven't had the jab, and impinges on citizens' civil rights. His critics claim he is a Trump supporter who is putting petty politics ahead of Florida's best interests.

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Whoever is right, the end result is to seriously threaten the re-opening of business, and Florida's role as the centre of the industry. Some cruise companies will follow the governor's lead, but others are refusing to. For the US industry, which has been completely closed down for the past 15 months, this is a disaster.

Some cruise firms are threatening to move their ships from their Florida home ports - such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa - to New Orleans in Louisiana or Savannah in Georgia.

But, says Christopher Muller, professor of hospitality at Boston University, there just isn't the infrastructure in such places to get thousands of passengers on board,

"Turning around these ships in a couple of hours needs a monster support network, cleaning, food and drink supplies, bunker oil," he says. "In south Florida you have thousands of people, not going out to sea, but just servicing these giant ships."

Image source, Getty Images
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Miami, and other cities in Florida, are at the heart of the world's cruise industry

For Maureen Pepper, however, none of this will stop her going aboard a cruise ship again. "We've got a cruise booked in September to Madeira and the Canary Islands," she says. "And a Royal Caribbean one in December, out of Barbados.

"And then there's a break on a Princess cruise in the Channel in the first weekend of December."

Cruising is just part of their life now, Maureen and Richard's children have left the nest and it is time for them to enjoy themselves. "We had our children when we were young," says Maureen. "And in the 70's we had no money so we didn't do an awful lot then, now we are making up for it."

They also have a lot of cancelled cruises and missed opportunities to make up for. The problem is they cannot quite look forward to these cruises with the same restless anticipation they used to.

Covid could mean they are cancelled or delayed pretty much anytime. But like the industry itself, they just can't wait to get back to a life on the ocean waves.