You’ve seen the images – a cruise ship held in quarantine with thousands of people as coronavirus spread onboard and cruise ships being turned away from ports in Asia and the Caribbean.
How do these images beamed across the world affect potential new cruisers? Especially since the cruise industry has worked relentlessly over the years to overcome the objection that people can feel “trapped” on a ship?
Robert Kwortnik, associate professor at Cornell University’s Hotel School, said 2020 is shaping up to be a difficult year for leisure cruising. Cruise stock prices are getting pounded, he noted, after dozens of sailings were canceled.
“The bigger concern is the longer-term psychological impact of the coronavirus on potential cruisers – especially the critical new-to-cruise customer,” said Kwortnik, who studies tourism and hospitality with a focus on the leisure cruise industry. “The cruise industry has worked hard for decades to overcome the perception that cruising involves being ‘stuck’ on a ship. Recent media stories of exactly that, due to quarantines or ships being unable to disembark guests at ports, will only exacerbate this concern.”
Of course, the cruise industry has, for the most part, successfully addressed a similar fear: norovirus on ships. At one time, norovirus outbreaks on ships drew sensationalized media coverage. The virus was dubbed the “cruise ship disease,” despite the fact that outbreaks occur far more often in medical facilities, schools, hotels and other places on land. (Norovirus is a contagious virus, causing gastroenteritis with stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. On land, it’s often dismissed as the “stomach flu” and dissipates in 24 to 48 hours.)
Norovirus still gets media attention today but in a more measured, less sensational manner. Because of it, though, ships began to pay more attention to hygiene, asking health screening questions before boarding and placing handwashing stations and sanitizer dispensers at entrances to onboard restaurants.
Now, however, cruise ships are again being labeled as “petri dishes for disease” after the Diamond Princess was quarantined in Japan and the Westerdam and other ships were turned away from several ports.
“Cruise lines go to extraordinary lengths to sanitize ships and to encourage hand washing by travelers that no doubt far exceeds personal hygiene efforts at home,” Kwortnik said. “Nevertheless, if we see new cases of coronavirus outbreaks onboard cruise ships, we can expect the public to question onboard health conditions.”
Ruth Turpin, one of the country’s top luxury cruise specialists, said she has clients who are worried about getting stuck on cruise ships.
“We are finding that the huge amount of news given to the Diamond Princess issue has really caused people to be fearful of being quarantined,” said Turpin, owner of Cruises Etc. in Fort Worth, Texas. “We have been dealing with this for the past two weeks. We have had a lot of phone calls and long discussions. Some have actually cancelled, and we have convinced a number to wait” to see if cancellation penalties change.
For example, she said Regent Seven Seas Cruises moved its final payment and cancellation date from 120 to 90 days before departure to 60 days prior, giving travelers more time without penalty to determine whether they want to sail. Windstar Cruises also eased its cancellation policy.
What happens now depends on the severity of the outbreak. People do have short memories, and if the coronavirus is contained, the cruise industry will likely recover fairly quickly.
“Ultimately, this will come down to how serious and extensive this virus becomes,” Kwortnik said. “Fortunately, when events that affect the travel industry do occur, the impact tends to be moderate, as travelers have a short memory. For example, immediately following the Costa Concordia disaster in early 2012, cruise lines reported lower-than-expected ticket yields, though pricing had largely rebounded by the end of the year. If coronavirus is contained worldwide or does not spread to the main North American market, the cruise industry may have most of the bad news behind it; otherwise, 2020 could be one of the most difficult years for the industry in the past couple of decades.”
Turpin said she and her travel advisors will continue to counsel clients. “Our job is to encourage people to book and sail, but of course, with the situation like we have now, we have to be honest and tell them the facts as we know them, but we can’t promise anything as we simply don’t know,” she said.
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