Tuesday, April 28, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What Now For Cruise Ships?

From the 1980s through the1990s, I was a lecturer on the Cunard
Lines, and before that, I sailed on numerous cruise ships that
made the transatlantic crossing from he U.S to Europe and back
--- as well as in the Caribbean. My Cunard gig added South and
Central America, a Panama Canal transit, and the Pacific Ocean
to my cruising map. My most recent sailings were on the then
new Queen Mary 2 going  to he U.K., and on the maiden voyage
of the mega-ship Norwegian Epic from he U.K. to New York, both
in 2010. Altogether, I sailed on 31 international and 3 domestic
passenger ships in more than four decades. (That doesn’t count
numerous local tour boats and private yachts.)

Obviously, I love sailing on cruise ships and the superlative
travel experiences they provide, I am writing this piece now
because it might become an experience of the past --- made so
by the pandemic that stranded several ships en route, resulting
in exasperating quarantines, interrupted cruises, and finally,
the cancellation of the worldwide cruise season just beginning
its peak period.

How big is this industry?

There are more than 325 cruise ships currently operating
worldwide with 550,000 lower berths capacity. In 2018, there
were 27.2 million ocean cruise passengers with a $126 billion
economic impact. New ships providing 32,000 lower berths at
a cost of $7.4 billion were added in one year. (For the years
2018-2025, 220,000 new berths were projected to be added
with new ships at a cost of $51 billion.) The cruise industry
employs about one million total workers with $41 billion in
annual wages. The recent annual growth rate for the industry
has exceeded 5%. About 1000 ports worldwide welcome
cruise ships and their passengers. The two major cruise
destination markets are the Caribbean and Mediterranean,
but there are significant markets to South America, Hawaii,
Alaska, the south Pacific, United Kingdom/Ireland,
Scandinavia, and the east coast of North America.

Only one cruise line, Cunard, now has frequent and regular
transatlantic sailings between the U.S.and Europe. For almost
200 years this was the primary passenger ship route for
millions of tourists and immigrants.

All this has now suddenly and unexpectedly come to a halt.
All cruise sailings worldwide have been suspended, as has so
much public activity. The uncertainty from economic and
social shutdowns on land is equal or greater for the seagoing
cruise ship industry.

Cruise ship travel has many unique attractions (which is why
I love to travel by ship), but it has a few drawbacks, too,
including the new one presented by the pandemic.

The attractions have included the psychological security of
an alternative to air travel (as trains do), the extraordinary
fine dining on cruise ships (almost always included in the
price of the ticket), the numerous amenities and activities
onboard during a cruise (sports and exercise activity, health
spas, lectures, concerts live theater,, films, card games,
casinos, night clubs and late-night dancing, computer
instruction, cocktail parties, duty-free gift purchases, and
above all, perhaps, meeting and getting to know some very
fascinating fellow passengers), and being able often to
visit glamorous ports using the ship as your hotel. Most
ship cruises have celebrities onboard, either as ship
performers or lecturers, or as fellow passengers. One of    
my trips included a legendary Broadway and film star who
I met in the line of the ship’s sumptuous (lobster and filet
mignon) midnight buffet, and who graciously sat with me;
and on the same voyage, a famed Nobel Prize laureate in
physics who attended my lectures.

Finally, a ship cruise is an incredible bargain when
compared to any other form of travel. For about $100-$150
a day per person, everything (room, five  meals, amenities,
transportation and entertainment) is included. The same
any other way would three times as much or more. There is
rarely a need , incidentally, to pay the brochure rate for a
ticket, since big discounts are available from ship lines
eager to fill unsold berths, especially close to the sailing
date. Of course, ship passengers can spend more than $150
a day for a bigger room and luxury extras, but it really isn’t

On the downside,if you don’t have “sea legs” and the ship
runs into bad weather, it could be rough going --- although
ships usually provide free shots or pills to avoid seasickness.
Just as some are anxious about flying, others are anxious
about travel on water. If you are in a hurry, ship travel is not
for you. A transatlantic voyage takes five or six days. A plane
will do it in a few hours. But then, an air flight is nowhere as
much fun as a cruise.

Ships today vary greatly in size. I’ve sailed on small, mid-size,
large and mega- ships, and each provides a different kind of
cruise experience. For me, the best is a new, mid-size ship
(1500-2000 passengers) that provides significant amenities
and facilities. Smaller ships, carefully chosen, can provide
special charm. I sailed on a megaship on its maiden voyage,
but  it carried 4200 passengers, and that’s too big for me, On
the other hand, if  I were traveling with children, it might be
ideal with its free daycare,  programs for children, and lots of
other children to meet and  play with.

In the past few years, most of the new ships have been
mega-sized. That is to say, 3500 or more passengers, and up
to 2000 crew. They have as many floors as a skyscraper, and
almost too much going  on. They are small cities at sea.

Are these megaships now nautical dinosaurs --- victims of
a social distancing asteroid that crashed into the sea?

Considering current problems, including the cash flow crisis,
the answer might be yes, but advance cruise bookings for
next year are already reportedly strong. With some ingenuity
and adaptability, the megaships  could also provide special
features in a post-pandemic travel world --- and survive.

Cruise lines already are very sensitive to onboard sanitary
conditions. Some ships each year experience nonovirus
(a mild stomach illness that lasts a few days) outbreaks, but
they are very rare. All ships provide onboard medical staff
and facilities. The large Queen Elizabeth II had not only a
hospital, but an operating room for emergency surgery.
Megaships have the space to now provide enhanced medical
facilities, including isolation beds, intensive care --- and
extra doctors and nurses --- as well as well-stocked ship
pharmacies and extra medical equipment. Knowing a ship
is well-prepared for medical services (and emergencies)
could be quite reassuring to cruise passengers.

Larger ships also have bigger indoor spaces for dining,
recreation and programs to reduce crowding and enhance
post-pandemic social distancing.  New health-conscious
dining menus and expanded spa programs might also
attract passengers, as might less crowded shipboard
programs and carefully designed itineraries.

But this large and recently booming industry has been
dealt a serious and unexpected blow. Unlike other some
industries, it has been completely, albeit temporarily, shut

How it will fare when it relaunches its next season, and
global vacation travel resumes, is for now an open question.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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