Normally when a new cruise ship wraps construction at a shipyard, it’s cause for a party, with free-flowing Champagne and executives in sharp suits. But this is 2020, with border restrictions and a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic freezing all kinds of travel.
At least 10 ships — ranging in cost from $75 million to near $1 billion — have wrapped construction amid the pandemic, representing an industry investment of more than $3.84 billion. Another three ships debuted at the beginning of the year. Most are stuck in holding pattern until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its counterparts around the world green light a return to cruising.
Many of these debuts should have been media juggernauts for the ships’ parent companies, none more so than Seattle-based Windstar Cruises’ first “stretched” ship, which debuted this month after being cut in half and stitched back together with an extra 84 feet in its midsection.
The major transformation of the Star Breeze — which adds 50 suites to each deck, expanding its capacity by 100 passengers, to 312 — has been anticipated for two years. But now, after being shown off quickly via video feed earlier this month, it will remain docked at its shipyard in Sicily.
“Who would have thought a year ago that you would bring out a ship and not immediately put it into operations?” says Christopher Prelog, president of Windstar Cruises. Originally set to sail on June 29 before a delivery delay, Star Breeze will be held in place until the end of March, costing Windstar about a million dollars a week.
On the plus side, Prelog says that virtual handovers avoid the last-minute stress of scrambling to get a ship ready for guests. “The focus now is to maintain it so that when the guests do come on board it still has that sparkly and newness factor to it.”
Spokesperson Sarah Scoltock says Windstar is proceeding with plans to have two more ships stretched in similar fashion at the Italian shipyard Fincantieri in Palermo. When work started in early 2019, the cost of the three-ship project was pegged at $250 million
Larger cruise lines are also delaying new vessels’ debuts. When the sparkling 596-passenger ultraluxury ship Silver Moon joined Royal Caribbean Group’s elite Silversea Cruises brand in late October — the culmination of a $380 million, 20-month project — there was little pomp and circumstance. No media were on hand at the Italian shipyard to ooh and ahh over exquisite design features like bespoke Lalique panels in the French restaurant or handcrafted Savoir beds in the top suites.
This time, even Royal Caribbean’s top brass bowed out on the celebration, teleconferencing in from Miami. And the ship’s handover, in Ancona, Italy, came with a cringe. After all, Silver Moon has nowhere to go. She may have to wait at least until spring to make her maiden voyage — and start turning any kind of profit.
“It’s very painful in many ways,” says Jason Liberty, Royal Caribbean Group’s executive vice president and CFO. “All this energy, whether it’s design, creating unique activities and venues, obviously you’re investing money as well, and you take delivery of the ship and you can’t do what you do best, delivering the best vacations in the world.”
At this point last year, 2020 had been predicted in the cruise world as the beginning of a boom decade for ship building. According to trade publication Cruise Industry News, the year started with 117 cruise ships on order by 2027, a record in the history of cruising. After all, the industry’s fast-growing popularity — 32 million projected cruisers in 2020, up from 30 million in 2019 — made new tonnage feel like a foolproof bet. Now it just feels like a sunk cost, adding to billions of dollars in quarterly losses that some companies were already experiencing.
Entirely new brands, such as the adults-only Virgin Voyages and the luxe Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, may be among the hardest hit. They’ve invested in multiple ships with no previous revenue to defray costs, only to have their first planned year of operation wiped out entirely.
Worse, they cater to a new-to-cruise market, which may be especially skeptical in the post-pandemic world. (Both of their debuts have moved to 2021.) Also debuting next year is new luxury expedition brand Atlas Ocean Voyages — which has added complimentary COVID-19 health insurance to its all-inclusive fares.
The new ships completed this year include the French-built 2,918-passenger Celebrity Apex — whose high-tech features such as an off-the-ship “Magic Carpet” platform drove the cost up to nearly $1 billion — and the 100-passenger Silver Origin, which will sail the Galapagos with butler-serviced suites.
Construction delays have been common this year because of temporary shipyard shutdowns — but these days that’s good news, given that executives rarely sign the biggest checks until the job is done. Some vessels were delayed up to 10 months, with more than two dozen now slated to debut in 2021. That should help minimize the cash drain until sailings resume, which may not happen until well into next year, depending on border reopenings and whether the industry can prove safe operations before a vaccine is widely rolled out.
Plus, brands will be armed with plenty of buzz whenever it’s safe to set sail again. New ships like Carnival’s forthcoming 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras, outfitted with the first roller coaster at sea, tend to draw loyalists who want to be the first onboard, as well as new-to-cruise travelers looking to try the latest and greatest.
Will all this new-ship buzz help the industry recover from last winter’s images of hazmat-suited health officials investigating shipboard COVID-19 outbreaks? Silversea’s chief marketing officer Barbara Muckermann says yes, and she’ll have an unprecedented three ships to showcase next year. “New ships provide a lot of marketing excitement, and I think that’s needed,” adds Liberty.
Of course, that’s true only if he and his peers can persuade the market that cruising is safe — a looming question mark, given that at least three small-ship companies have already experienced COVID-19 outbreaks aboard their vessels since resuming sailing this summer, even in the face of stringent precautions such as operating in a so-called “bubble” where all guests quarantine and get PCR tested before boarding.
Glitz and glamour is great, says Windstar’s Prelog, but “safe to cruise has to be the main message.”
Seattle Times business staff contributed to this report.