Will people cruise again?
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
First published in The Maritime Executive, April 2020.
The current COVID-19 crisis is just the latest of many risks the cruise industry has encountered in recent years. The cruise industry has successfully managed infectious outbreaks including H1N1, influenza, measles, legionnaires and norovirus. Other unfortunate events include the Costa Concordia tragedy, fires, collisions, groundings, severe listings and wider tourism events such as 9/11, SARS and the recent volcanic eruption on White Island. The cruise industry weathered these events and bookings continued, until now.
The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and unfathomable in its scale and scope. No one could have predicted the cruise industry grinding to a halt with millions of jobs potentially lost. Until COVID-19, cruising was the fastest growing sector of the global tourism industry. Recent industry figures indicate shipyards had been operating at full capacity, with construction commencing on a new cruise ship every 47 days. The unprecedented decision to “pause” operations by so many cruise lines was wholly unfathomable and reflects the severity of the crisis.
The perception of risk, whether real or imagined, has the power to influence travel decisions. The current crisis shows exactly how important perceptions are. Risk is an inherent part of travel, and while most tourists accept this, research shows many people choose to cruise specifically because they feel safe and trust in the cruise line. But now the media is fuelling a narrative of cruise ships as “petri-dishes” with ships stranded at sea with passengers desperate to get off. So what happens now? Will people cruise again? What will it take to get the ships full again? Recent research conducted in the U.K. specifically examined risk in cruising and how both repeat cruisers and non-cruisers perceive risk. The study explored risks in relation to physical, health, financial, functional, performance, social, psychological, time-loss and opportunity-loss aspects. This study is the first and only study so far to explore tourists’ perceptions of risk in cruising and how this influences deciding whether to go on a cruise or not.
What this study tells us is that there are three key groups: repeat cruisers, potential cruisers and non-cruisers, and each group will respond differently.
Even during times of outbreaks, studies show passengers still trust and feel safe, and this should be reassuring to cruise lines and industry that the message was getting through. Cruisers trust measures taken are appropriate, not only through sanitizing every surface, providing hand wash stations outside every dining outlet and more, but also that cruise lines will only take them to safe destinations. This trust is unlikely to change even with COVID-19. Overwhelmingly, my study found cruisers view a cruise as a “safe” holiday and place significant trust in the cruise companies and officers and crew to look after them. This was true even after experiencing risk events onboard themselves.
Above all, cruisers are resilient and loyal. As one passenger who endured four weeks of being stranded at sea on the MS Westerdam said, “This was my best cruise ever!” Repeat cruisers will still cruise, and even now bookings are starting to increase for 2021. Princess was very savvy to ask cruisers to show solidarity and support by booking a future cruise. Other lines should take note and do the same.
Research has shown cruise bookings in the past have returned to pre-event levels after about 90 days, which offers some hope. There are already predictions China’s domestic travel industry will recover in the next few months.
The group that will be most impacted by COVID-19 concerns are potential cruisers who might have been thinking about taking their first cruise. Potential cruisers are vital to the re-emergence of the cruise industry. This group is key to long term growth and stability, and it is critical to provide accurate and timely information on the handling of this crisis.
The cruise industry has developed extensive protocols and measures to deal with and manage outbreaks onboard, and this needs to be shared with the wider public in greater detail and coverage than we are currently seeing. More detailed information shared at the start of the crisis would have provided reassurance and helped foster a stronger narrative of an industry that knew what it was doing.
Communication from most cruise lines was slow to react with booked passengers wondering what was happening. While CLIA was trying to get the message out, there was little response in the mainstream media by most cruise lines, especially when compared to major airlines and tour operators.
Now, more than ever, each cruise line needs to be out in the media publicly sharing the many detailed measures taken to protect their passengers, crew and shoreside staff. The cruise industry needs to fight back and use more aggressive and defensive communication not only on how they are responding to the COVID-19 crisis, but also identifying the significant value and contribution of cruising. Information reduces risk perceptions, and this is vital right now.
Potential cruisers (and some repeat cruisers) need reassurance for not only health concerns, but also for financial and functional risks. They are worried about the risks of being “stuck” onboard in quarantine, or being on a cruise when it is suddenly cut short due to an outbreak and they have to fly home or worse, have the cruise cancelled and risk losing the hard earned money they have entrusted the cruise line with. They are also affected by social risk, in that friends and family may worry about them taking a cruise. The response from this group is hard to predict, and much will depend on the image they held of cruising before the crisis.
The third group, non-cruisers choose to reject cruising and COVID-19 is irrelevant. The reasons for this group to reject cruising goes far beyond health concerns, and my research shows how important self-concept is to this group. Non-cruisers worry more about the social and psychological risks of going on a cruise, with concerns about not being "the type of person" to go on a cruise (not old enough, not needing to be looked after, the rise of “cruise-shaming,” cruise ships are too polluting, etc) more important to deciding whether or not to go on a cruise than worries about health risks. Ultimately, we choose holidays that reflect who how we see ourselves or want to be seen by others.
Much more needs to be researched, and it is difficult to make predictions when this crisis is so unprecedented. However, based on my research, there needs to be a focus on trust and feeling safe, not just onboard but extended to the money and time people invest in cruise holidays. This is not the end of cruising, but just an unwelcome storm for the cruise industry to weather once again. Indeed, the origins of the word “risk” come from merchant shipping, and cruise ships will (hopefully) be sailing again soon.