Lori Cooper got to thinking last week about late autumn in Canada, where it’s cold, and in other parts of the world, where it’s not. So the 61-year-old resident of Pickering, near Toronto, booked a Holland America Line cruise to the Caribbean in November.
“I was looking for some warmth,” said Cooper, who tries to cruise a couple of times a year. She also recently booked a transatlantic sailing for April 2021, with stops including the Azores, Ireland and Brussels — with the full understanding that there’s no guarantee when ships will start sailing again, and what the experience will be like.
“Hopefully, we’ll be cruising again,” she said.
That’s just the kind of traveler the cruise industry needs as it looks toward a reboot at some still-unknown point in the future. Global operators have been shut down since mid-March, and even as some make tentative plans to sail again, there is no confirmation about when that will be possible because of the coronavirus pandemic. A no-sail order reissued last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to lift in late July but could be extended again.
And before they can sail again, lines must get comprehensive health and safety plans approved by authorities in the United States and around the world — a tall order, given the evolving understanding of the virus.
But in what has been a surprise to some in the industry, bookings for 2021 suggest there are many travelers who are doing more than just dreaming about their next vacation at sea.
“2021 is, surprisingly, doing quite well,” said David Crooks, senior vice president of product and operations for World Travel Holdings, when asked about cruise bookings. The company includes travel agency brands such as CruisesOnly, CheapCruises.com and CruiseOne.
The world’s largest cruise companies have said — with varying degrees of detail — that they are seeing demand for cruises in 2021 and even 2020, though bookings for the rest of this year are far behind what they were for 2019 at the same time a year ago.
In a business update last week, Royal Caribbean Cruises said the “booked position” for 2021, or the number of bookings made so far for next year, is “within historical ranges when compared to same time last year,” with prices higher compared to 2020.
Carnival Corp.’s most recent report, in March, revealed that advance bookings for the first half of 2021 were “slightly lower” than the previous year.
Most recently, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said on Thursday that the company’s level of bookings for 2021 were within “historical ranges,” meaning the years between 2017 and 2020, while acknowledging that the volume was not as robust as the company would like to see under normal circumstances. The majority of that business, said CEO Frank Del Rio, were “good old cash bookings” as opposed to credits that the company handed out after cancellations.
“Since we’ve shut down, and I’ll reference the month of April, we have taken a significant amount of new cash bookings and collected a significant amount of advanced ticket sales,” Mark Kempa, the company’s chief financial officer, said during an earnings call. “And that is during a period where we had a horrific news flow and we had essentially zero marketing in the market. And that continues through May.”
After Carnival Cruise Line said earlier this month that it hoped to sail again from a few ports with a handful of ships in August — hardly a sure bet — sales spiked at World Travel Holdings’ brands, Crooks said. It wasn’t just August cruises that were selling, but trips throughout 2020 and into 2021.
“It was a very, very, very big jump,” he said.
While his company’s business is still down significantly from a year ago, Crooks said trends are better than they were a month ago.
“Yesterday was one of our best days in the past 12 weeks – still not good at all,” he said Wednesday. “Every day does get better.”
One reason customers might feel relatively comfortable making plans for 2021 is they know they won’t be locked in to those trips. Cruise lines have relaxed cancellation policies and given travelers more flexibility to reschedule their bookings. Another factor: Operators are offering credits of 125% of the value of a canceled cruise to encourage passengers to rebook instead of ask for a cash refund. At Royal Caribbean, 45% of guests have asked for refunds.
Dan and Laura O’Connell of Taunton, Mass., initially asked for a refund when their 21-day cruise on Holland America was canceled. But given the extra 25% credit, they decided instead to book a similar trip for the fall of 2021.
Dan O’Connell, 65, said they feel comfortable that they’ll still be able to cancel into next year if they feel like the cruise wouldn’t be safe.
“If things are still happening then, we’ll make the decision to get out of it,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen between now and then.”
A few things are certain: More cancellations for this year are inevitable. Many passengers are holding off on making new plans to cruise until they know more about safety measures – or staying away until a vaccine becomes a reality. And business for 2021 is far short of hitting the records that operators expected when the year started.
Bob Levinstein, CEO of the cruise shopping site CruiseCompete, said his company’s data shows the number of cabins that have been booked so far for 2021 is down about 25%, compared to what was booked for 2020 a year ago. Most of next year’s bookings were made before March, he said, though new ones are still coming in.
“We’ve got a lot of people taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Levinstein said.
Operators are still working out what cruising will look like in the future, but they have said they will likely start again with a handful of ships at a time, social distancing on board and all manner of new protocols around health and sanitation.
“It’s unlikely you’ll be sailing a full fleet right away,” Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., said in a media call last month. “And I think in the early going, we have plenty of people who love cruising who will be able to fill the ships that will be available at the time.”
Lines are confident that their most loyal customers miss cruising enough to return once the wait is over – and say they’re finding reasons to back up their optimism.
Del Rio, the CEO of Norwegian, said it was a good sign that bookings have continued even though the company has shut down its sales and marketing efforts.
“That gives us a lot of encouragement that despite everything that’s going on, people still want to cruise,” he said Thursday. “And I think that’s the best indication we have that there is a future and the future will be bright.”