David Reece and his wife Carolyn are expected to sip cocktails somewhere in the Indian Ocean right now.
But their last cruise vacation was canceled due to the coronavirus epidemic. And they miss it – as experienced cruise vacationers, they have been close to 20 years in the past two decades.
For the Plymouth retiree couple, it all started by accident. “I was sent to travel agencies to book a cheap vacation in the Canaries, and I came back after booking a Red Sea cruise,” said David. “Carolyn didn’t speak to me for two weeks. “
But they loved it, and ever since they traveled all over the world on cruise ships; from the Baltic to the Caribbean and from Australia to Brazil.
For them, it’s a perfect vacation, as David explains: “We had the idea that it was a question of crossing the Atlantic, sitting on deckchairs with a blanket over your knees. [But in reality], ships are really mobile hotels, and we wake up every day in a different place … we use it to go to places we want to see. ”
But these floating hotels all return quickly to the port, unload their passengers and are put under cocoon. The industry has not only been devastated, it has stopped functioning completely. For this, the coronavirus was the perfect storm.
It went from an industry worth £ 46 billion (£ 37 billion) a year, with 26 million passengers a year, to an almost total stop overnight.
Ironically, the industry was well prepared for the epidemic of disease on board its ships, as has happened many times before, most often with food poisoning caused by norovirus.
However, this time the plan broke down, as explained by Boston University professor of hospitality Christopher Muller.
“The worst thing you can do [if passengers start falling ill] is to keep people on board, “he says. “The plan is to go to the nearest port, disembark everyone and then disinfect the ship.”
Normally, this means the ship is ready to resume cruising in a few weeks, but this time “governments have forced them to keep people on board,” adds Professor Muller. “It was not the industry’s fault, they would not normally have done this. “
The problem has been compounded by the fact that many modern cruise ships have relatively small cabins, as the business model of the industry depends on the fact that as many passengers as possible spend money in spas, restaurants, bars and ship stores.
The resulting bad publicity, as passengers have been quarantined on board ships for shore, will be difficult for the industry to shake up.
So will this reverse the rapid expansion of the industry in recent years? The sector certainly has a major problem which means that it is likely to suffer more than other parts of the tourism and travel industries such as the airline industry – it has few friends in high places.
Most cruise ships are not registered where they do business, in the United States and Europe, but off the coasts such as Panama and the Bahamas.
The industry does this for two reasons – it saves a fortune in taxes, and that means it doesn’t have to follow American or European labor laws. This allows companies to recruit cheap workers from developing countries, pay them less and work harder.
Now, however, avoiding taxes and hiring cheap foreign workers doesn’t seem so smart – the cruise industry was not specifically included in US corporate bailouts. The industry may be in dire straits, but it is crying in the dark.
And even if governments wanted to help, which they do not seem, as Professor Muller points out: “It is difficult to provide tax relief if they do not pay taxes.”
Not only that, but most destinations appreciated by their passengers do not lack much, if at all, of cruise ships. As Professor Sheela Agarwal of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality at the University of Plymouth says: “No one is willing to bail them out because of their tax evasion, but also because of the negative impacts they have on their destinations… they contribute very little to the local economy. “
Cruise ships are known to have dropped thousands of tourists into overcrowded cities who, according to Professor Agarwal, “spend very little, look around for five or six hours with a packed lunch, and then return on board For dinner “.
So can the industry recover from this crisis? Well, there are good signs in the midst of all this gloom.
“Tourists have very short memories,” says Professor Agarwal. “It’s like when a terrorist attack affects a destination. Watch the attacks in Paris and Brussels – three months maximum [fall in visitor numbers], and they returned to normal. “
Plus, it’s pretty clear what the industry will do the second the travel restrictions are lifted – they’ll launch a huge advertising campaign and lower their prices to bring customers back. Although, as Professor Muller explains, it will not be painless.
“You have to have these ships full enough to make a profit, you can make a lot, but you have to bear your fixed costs,” he says.
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Fortunately for the industry, oil prices also collapsed during this recession, and since fuel prices are one of the biggest fixed costs for cruise lines, Professor Muller is certain of one thing: can guarantee they are buying fuel futures like crazy. ”
If David Reece and his wife Carolyn are ready to move on, the cruise industry may well bounce back better than most.
He says the ongoing coronavirus epidemic “is not going to deter us at all.” He is rather impatient to postpone their trip “to the next 12 months”.
David adds that he may also be looking for special offers. “We could continue on the cheap at the last minute … being retired, we can drop tools and leave at any time,” he says.
Cunard, based in the United Kingdom and part of Carnival, the world’s largest cruise operator and owner of luxury ships, including the Queen Mary 2, is also confident that the industry will recover.
“We have been sailing for 180 years and expect many more,” said Simon Palethorpe, president of Cunard. “We will go through these difficult times together and we look forward to welcoming our customers on board again soon, when the time comes. “
David adds that even if some small businesses go bankrupt, the ships are unlikely to be wasted as they are worth billions. “Someone will buy them,” he says.
It looks like the industry will continue to cruise.