March 17, 2020
The attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 had a profound effect on air travel. In the month of September 2001, 30 million passengers were carried on flights in the U.S. This was down from 56 million only the month before. Immediately following 9/11, passenger numbers declined dramatically, likely out of fear of flying. Airlines had 6 consecutive years of profitability prior to 9/11; followed by losing money, 7 out of the next ten years, for a total of $74 billion USD. There’s no question that costs rose as a result of the added security measures imposed on both airlines and airport operators. However, this added security also made the experience at an airport a lot more of a ‘pain in the butt’; and people started to look at travel by bus or train, as an attractive alternative to flying the shorter domestic routes. It took three years before passenger numbers came back to pre-9/11 levels.
In the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak, cruise lines were implementing procedures to screen out passengers who may have been infected with the virus, as well as enhancing hygiene practices aboard their ships. One of the first major steps undertaken was banning passengers who had travelled to, or through, mainland China (where COVID-19 originated in the city of Wuhan), Hong Kong, and Macau. Cruise lines then began altering and ultimately cancelling, their Asian itineraries. It was only a few weeks later on March 11, after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, that cruise lines made the completely unprecedented decision to cease all operations worldwide. The cruise industry is losing billions of dollars every week. On top of that, stock prices have plummeted in response to altered itineraries, and then cancellations. Carnival Corporation, the largest cruise company in the world, saw their stock price tumble from $51.90 US on January 17, to $14.97 US on March 12.
Cruise ships can definitely be more conducive to the transmission of diseases because of the close quarters, and the fact that passengers regularly get off and on the ship at exotic locales. Longer cruises, upwards of 21 days or more, can bring greater numbers of health issues into play because of the number of older passengers. These folks already have a greater number of pre-existing conditions, including weaker immune systems. They can pick up bugs from eating off the ship in foreign countries, and don’t have the immune systems to resist the illness’s effects. One of the most common ailments onboard a cruise ship is some kind of gastrointestinal infection; with Norovirus being the most notorious.
Anyone who has been on a cruise knows that the cruise industry employs pretty robust hygiene practices. The ships are constantly being cleaned; passenger cabins twice daily. There are hand sanitizing stations all over the ship. Anyone entering eating areas, especially the buffets, are presented with staff members armed with hand sanitizers encouraging people to clean their hands before eating. This was all before Coronavirus! If we think of good hygiene and its positive effects on the spread of germs or viruses as a form of security (which it is); then events following 9/11 could give us some insight into what might lie ahead for the cruise industry.
After 9/11, the airline industry came back to life, but it came back differently. 9/11 changed our reality; a reality that continues today. The airlines were profitable (pre-coronavirus), and airline security was once again taken for granted. Now it’s the cruise lines’ turn. New procedures will be introduced going forward. More in-depth screening of passengers could include pre-boarding medical examinations. At least one cruise line has already begun demanding passengers aged 70 and older to provide a doctor’s letter declaring them medically fit to travel. This procedure could become an industry standard and have a ripple effect on travel insurance. There is little question that the cruise lines will have to change on-board hygiene, by enhancing their cleaning and sanitation protocols. One thing people should understand is that most hand sanitizers are anti-bacterial, whereas COVID-19 is a virus. Cruise lines are likely going to have to change the kinds of disinfectants and cleaners that they use. These measures will require more expensive supplies, as well as additional staff and training.
The cruise industry will have to evolve. Public fear over the safety (from a health perspective) of cruising is, no doubt, at an all-time high; and the cruise industry will have to convince the travelling public that it is once again safe. They will have to make their ships even more hygienic, as well as respond to any regulatory changes designed to screen out passengers that could pose increased health risks to other passengers and crew. This will take time and resources, and they will have to spend a bundle on marketing, to get their message out.
However, there is good news and that is that cruising will get safer. Like the airline industry, the cruise industry will afford guests a higher degree of protection from health issues and we will all feel good about that!
James Hill - Far and Away Cruising