Cruise ships, particularly mega-cruises, have always been polarizing. The people who like them love them; the people who don’t like them despise them — there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the industry’s flaws have been supremely evident. Like how they’re self-contained biospheres, prone to viral outbreaks; they have an outsized impact on both the ports they visit and the environment at large; and their parent companies operate as quasi-American businesses, while actually registered in tax havens with low minimum wages.
Last week, it came to light that the Greg Mortimer, an Australian ship headed to Antarctica, was gradually being evacuated after it was reported that 60% of the passengers and crew had contracted coronavirus. The vessel had been quarantined off the coast of Uraguay since the beginning of the month. It was, of course, only the most recent of multiple cruise ship outbreaks during this era. Meanwhile, as the details of the $2T stimulus bill have come to light, it’s grown clear that cruise lines were left out of the package.
Then there’s the current public sentiment about cruises, which is more contentious than ever. John DiScala, widely known in the travel community as Johnny Jet, got cruisers up in arms last week after telling his 124K Twitter followers that he wouldn’t go on a cruise for at least a year after the quarantine lifts. In response, fellow travel writer Tamara Hinson wrote a piece about it for the Telegraph, which leads off with, “Cruising has borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic in multiple ways.” A bold lede and demonstrably untrue. The poor have borne the brunt of the pandemic (all pandemics, historically speaking) and cruising has so many issues tangled up in matters of wealth disparity (from their tax evasion to their overt bullying of the developing nations they visit to their labor conditions and wages) that framing these multinational corporations as victims is absurd-veering-toward-macabre.
What’s fairer to say is that the pandemic has hit the cruise industry hard by exacerbating its deeper problems. On March 18th, 10 senators authored an open letter pressing for emissions-based strings attached to any bailout package. On the 20th, Friends of the Earth, Stand.Earth, and Greenpeace sent their own open letter to majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate, urging them to leave cruise lines out of the stimulus deal altogether. And after the bipartisan bailout left relief for cruises on the cutting room floor, the president said that if they want an American bailout they need to re-register as American businesses.
With its clay feet on full display and business frozen besides a few “ghost ships,” perhaps the question for the cruise industry isn’t when they start operating but how? What have they learned from the shutdown and how will consumers demand better of them moving forward?
“I don’t know that there’s going to be an appetite for packed cruises anymore,” says DiScala, when asked about how the industry might change post-coronavirus. “They’re going to have to stagger going to port, they’re not going to be able to have unmanned buffets, people will probably need to wear masks when they’re sharing spaces. But the biggest thing is that I think the passenger load of ships will dramatically change.”
If DiScala is right on that count, it will be a big deal for cruise lines. The industry has seen profits increase thanks, in part, to increased carrying capacities. Having fewer people aboard as a prolonged safety measure doesn’t seem to fit with their business model — an approach that saw the industry booming before coronavirus.
More transparency in how these businesses are run would mark an even bigger shift. When Friends of the Earth released their 2019 Cruise Ship Report Card, it saw 15/16 major cruise lines getting an F for transparency. Carnival Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises, a Carnival subsidiary, have incurred repeated fines in the past three years for illegal, intentional dumping of waste. Meanwhile, the practice of cruise companies basing themselves in tax havens in order to pay minimal taxes (and lower wages) has clearly come back to bite them.
“I don’t know if those things will change,” DiScala said. “But I have been shocked at how many people have responded via my Facebook page; people who were big-time cruisers who have said they won’t get on a cruise again. Still… they have so many big ships in these fleets, I think even if we see ‘free trips’ — where they just want to get people on board to spend money at the casino or alcohol, which could happen — they’ll have a hard time getting people interested in the short term.”
Whether he’s right or not likely depends on how “short term” is defined. While 2020 is likely a wash, 2021 cruise bookings are actually strong. If you like cruises — and the industry has a famously loyal base — it’s tough to deny the allure of cheap trips with their endless buffets as a vacation option in the aftermath of a massive economic catastrophe. (One thing that the “vote with your dollars” conversation never seems ready to face is that, on the individual level, it’s easy to make ethical compromises in favor of sheer affordability or perceived value.) And while the deluge of cruise passengers hitting developing nations for a few hours at a time to wander around their ports buying trinkets and tee-shirts isn’t as transformative for those communities as it ought to be (cruises are notorious for trying to keep all consumer spending on their ships), economically stressed destinations are going to be happy for whatever foot traffic they can get.
Of all the sectors that will be trying to scrape their way back to business as usual, cruising probably has a solid shot. Thanks to their light tax burdens, cruise lines seem to have built a better firewall for themselves than airlines. Carnival reported to investors that it could pay its debts for up to a year without any revenue. And while company stocks are down drastically, they saw an uptick after a massive influx of Saudi Arabian cash. The play for these brands seems to be the same one they use when unable to make port during a storm: Ride it out and proceed as usual the second the weather clears.
Meaning that if there was to be a major change in cruising, it’s probably not coming from the cruise lines themselves. At least not voluntarily. It would have to be led by a longterm shift in how the consumer operates — their desires and what they’ll pay for in the months and years after the pandemic. DiScala believes that first and foremost, travelers will want smaller, more manageable trips.
“I think river cruises in Europe will do well out of all this,” DiScala says. “The problem is that I don’t know how much bigger that particular market can get, until they find new rivers and destinations. But as someone who likes cruising, I would definitely go on a river cruise before I’d go on an ocean cruise.”
With the quarantine continuing on, predicting consumer behavior in a post-pandemic world isn’t easy. Maybe things will go back to “normal” as the cruise lines desperately hope. Maybe DiScala’s predictions — from manned buffets to smaller carrying capacities on ships to more bespoke cruise routes — will come to pass. Or maybe people will really interrogate this manner of mass travel altogether. Maybe cruising, like the airline industry, will finally be challenged by its passionate consumer-base and its haters alike to answer for its larger failings. Maybe we, the traveling public, will collectively decide that returning to the way things were just isn’t good enough.