Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Brought to Its Knees

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 28, 2020 --  

The cruise industry will never return to the way things were. For weary ports of call, that's certainly a good thing.

When Venice banned cruise ships from its historic center last summer1, it was defending itself against an industry that had grown out of control. The Italian tourist magnet has long battled overcrowding, but exponential growth in the cruise industry unleashed throngs of day tripping passengers who strangled its historic squares. Wakes from the enormous floating hotels themselves eroded the banks of its canals, leading to the ban. In 2018, the industry served 28.5 million passengers worldwide. Industry projections said 30 million would sail in 2019 and 32 million in 2020.2

Clearly the industry isn't going to make those numbers this year. Starting in February, the global pandemic brought the industry to its knees. The world's attention was seized by the outbreak on the Diamond Princess, where besieged passengers and crew fell ill one after another until over 700 had been infected and 13 were dead.3 Cruise ships around the world raced to port early until the last passengers docked in Genoa on April 22.4 Since the, the industry has been dead in the water, with cruise lines scrapping ships and doing everything they can to stave off bankruptcy.

Last week, however, offered a glimmer of hope. The Mein Schiff 2 set sail from Hannover on Friday, the first commercial cruse to embark in over three months. The voyage didn't look auspicious for commercial success. Only 1,200 people were reportedly on board compared to its capacity of 2,800.5 Part of this was due to a 60 percent occupancy restriction intended to promote social distancing in the midst of a global pandemic, but bookings failed to fill even that modest occupancy limit. Yet it is an important first step to show that some consumer demand still exists -- something hard to imagine back in February when panicked passengers were struggling to get off the "floating petri dishes".

This new cruise sailing is reflective of the new normal. Since the Diamond Princess outbreak, the virus has spread widely around the world, killing hundreds of thousands and sickening tens of millions. Home towns, not cruise ships, are the new epicenters of the pandemic. Public fear has turned to numbness and complacency has turned cautious behavior into recklessness. It should surprise nobody that a desperate cruise industry should take advantage of these conditions.

Yet the return of limited cruising after a hiatus of over three months doesn't mean the industry is out of the woods. The German ship only sailed for three nights and made no ports of call. Passengers were required to wear masks and stay 1.5 meters apart. This is hardly the kind of program that makes for an alluring tourist brochure.

The ship's owner, TUI Cruises, is half owned by the global giant Royal Caribbean. The tiny German market gives the industry a way to dip a toe in the water, but the real money is in the on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2017, nearly 12 million out of the 20 million cruise passengers were from the United States.6 But America's Centers for Disease Control has banned cruises through the end of September.7 That's not good for the industry.

But the fact that hundreds of passengers were willing to board the Mein Schiff 2 -- despite recent memories of the horrors on the Diamond Princess -- proves that the industry isn't dead. Memories are short, and public attention ultimately wanes.

There are hundreds of cruise ships sitting idle around the world. Even if every single cruise line goes bankrupt, there will still be passengers willing to board those idle ships, and hence, a business opportunity for future companies to run the voyages. This is bad news for places like Venice that suffered the most during the peak era of overtourism.

Yet just because the cruise industry isn't dead doesn't mean that things will ever go back to the way they were before. The fact that memories are short works both ways. The cruise industry managed to create a manic buzz in some the minds of some tourists. The memories of the voyages these cruise passengers once took are also fading memories. The industry hiatus will undoubtedly change this dynamic.

With luck, the pause in sailings will enable communities like Venice to readjust. Once things start up again -- hopefully on a much smaller scale -- the cruise industry must be a less overbearing presence in the world.

Related Web Columns:

Welcoming the Invaders, February 12, 2019


1. BBC, Venice Bans Large Cruise Ships From Historic centre, August 8, 2019

2. Cruise Lines International Association , 2020 Cruise Industry Outlook, December 12, 2019

3. Cambridge University Press, Chronology of COVID-19 Cases on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship and Ethical Considerations: A Report From Japan, March 24, 2020

4. CNN, What Happened On Board the Last Cruise Ship Still at Sea, April 24, 2020

5. USA Today, German Cruise ship, Mein Schiff 2, Sails With 1,200 People On Board in First Return Voyage, July 25, 2020

6. Cruise Lines International Association, Ibid.

7. Associated Press, CDC Extends US Ban on Cruise Ships Through September, July 16, 2020