The cruise industry is in uncharted waters but luxury small ship cruising has always been different to the experience on the larger liners. But how will it fare post-pandemic and how can it ensure that health and safety standards are met?
It’s undeniable that the reputation of $US150 billion global cruise industry took a big hit during the early stages of the pandemic, but against all expectations, bookings for the global 2021 cruise season are up 40% over 2019, according to booking site CruiseCompete.com, with River cruises up 30% for the same period.
One reason is that the dramatic closing of borders and the suspension of operations in March left many travellers with cruise credits they’re eager to use. These have given cruise companies some certainty about future passenger numbers. But credits account for only about 11% of the forward bookings at present. Something else is happening. “Cruise enthusiasts are the most loyal travellers,’ says Misty Ewing Belles, Managing Director, Global Public Relations for Virtuoso. “People are ready to get back on a ship as soon as they can.”
Advantages of small ship cruising
Those who have never been on a ship before might be less confident about booking their first Mediterranean cruise, but the experienced cruisers aren’t dissuaded. At the budget end of the market, people continue to view cruises as great value. At the high end, small ships have always been preferred for their prized intimacy, stylish interiors, first-rate culinary options, thoughtful itineraries and small group activities.
On ships sailing with under one thousand passengers, such as those operated by Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas, the low number of guests and abundance of balcony suites has always meant that guests have the opportunity to be naturally distanced. Now that sense of space is even more attractive.
Guests are also choosing destinations that are not badly impacted by the pandemic and that have first-class health protocols. They’re booking shorter, localised voyages to avoid juggling a number of countries and borders.
It’s expected that river cruising will return strongly, because river ships have easier access to ports and fewer guests. The large yachts, such as Windsong and Windstar are also experiencing an uptick in interest, according to Virtuoso.
Maintaining a luxury serviced experience
But even the most die-hard cruise fan needs reassurance. That’s why Cruise Lines International Association members are investing heavily in new protocols including contact and symptom screening, based on collaborations with various international health authorities, as well as enhanced sanitation and increased onboard medical facilities where possible.
President and CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Ellen Bettridge, echoes the conundrum facing all luxury cruise lines when she asks: “How do you make passengers feel confident?” while continuing to provide exemplary standards of comfort and service that often involve personal interaction and high levels of ‘touch’.
Uniworld has undergone an extensive review of its procedures, with consideration of every interaction between crew and guests, from onboard dining to luggage handling. Three new super ships are due to launch at the start of the season – the S.S. Sphinx on the Nile, S.S. São Gabriel in Portugal and S.S. La Venezia in Italy – so there’s an opportunity to enhance services and protocols from the start without compromising the guest experience.
Sarina Bratton, Chairman APAC, Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, says the average capacity of Ponant’s fleet is two hundred guests. “I think because we’re small, the ability to manage our processes and procedures on each ship is obviously much easier. But, having said that, people who have cruised even on larger vessels intrinsically understand that they are safe.”
Even though a lot needs to be done in the industry to reassure passengers, “It is a very responsible and measured industry,” Bratton says. “I believe it will take some time to get the numbers back to where they may have been, but, like everybody in tourism, we are having to learn how we’re going to improve things and how we’re going to make things better. I have every confidence that the entire cruise industry will come out of this stronger.”
As all experts agree, the onboard experience will be changed as a result of new protocols.
“But nothing’s the same anymore,” Bratton says.