Cruise ships are back, but where can they travel?

Jessica Rabbit

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In an article reported on Yahoo there are updates to the cruise line industry. It is titled Post-COVID cruising: The ships are back at sea, but where can they go? The article highlights the intricacies of the cruise industry, including costs of operation and costs for customers. See the original article for the bulk of the content. There's a teaser below.

Over the course of his life, Ray McDonald has taken 154 cruises. Sometimes they are back-to-back, other times they are back-to-back-to-back. When COVID-19 hit, he was on the last boat to dock. “They had to drag me off the ship,” he said. But as he gets ready to board one of the first ships planned to set sail from the U.S. on July 5, he’s worried about what a post-pandemic cruise will look like.

While experts and lifelong cruisers expect buffets to be suspended and a general reduction in social events onboard, they say the more than $55 billion industry is likely to survive relatively unscathed. The wild card at this point is where those cruise ships will go and what passengers will be able to do once they get there, because some ports are saying they don’t want the cruises back at all.

When the pandemic hit more than a year ago, the news was flooded with cruising horror stories: outbreaks on ships, stranded passengers and crew, countries unwilling to allow COVID-stricken boats to anchor in their ports. The U.S. issued a no-sail order on March 14, 2020, followed by a conditional sailing order on Oct. 30, which outlined a rigorous phased return to cruising. Over the last couple of months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has begun allowing trial voyages to take place, and on June 26, Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Edge is scheduled to be the first passenger cruise ship to set sail from the United States.

As cruises prepare to set back out to sea, and companies try to lure customers back onboard, the ships will still be facing potential limits on where they are allowed to stop and what passengers will be able to do at those destinations if they are even allowed to disembark.

Alexis Papathanassis, a professor of tourism management at the Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences in Germany and co-director of the Institute of Maritime Tourism, said the post-pandemic reality for cruises will be a shift to private islands. “The destination experience will presumably change, at least for the medium term,” he said, adding that there will be a trend toward any stops becoming an extension of the onboard experience.

Even ports that do allow cruise passengers to disembark may still place restrictions on their excursions. This is already happening in Singapore, one of the only countries that are currently allowing cruises. “When [passengers] go ashore, they keep them in a bubble and have organized tours to cities that have been certified as COVID-free,” said Andrew Coggins, a professor of management at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University and a cruise industry analyst. “If they go out of the group, they can’t get back on the ship.”

These changes would affect more than just the cruisers, however. The local destinations, some of which rely on cruise tourism for their economies, would lose out on the financial gain while still bearing the economic and environmental consequences of crowds.

In Juneau, Alaska, most of the economic benefit of cruises comes from local tours. Visitors take helicopters and planes to go ice fishing, dog mushing and hiking. In 2019, Alaska got about 60 percent of its visitors from cruise ships, but if passengers are restricted to cruise-organized excursions, the benefit to the city disappears.

While cities like Juneau could struggle, cruise lines may benefit from the change. “Ultimately, increasing the control over guest consumption and the holiday experience as a whole has long been a key economic driver for the cruise sector and will become more so in a post-pandemic cruising reality,” Papathanassis said.

Arlo Haskell, the treasurer of the grassroots organization Safer, Cleaner Ships, which advocates for health and environmental issues in Key West, Fla., echoed this sentiment. “Cruises have gotten so much better at keeping all customer spending on the ship and not the ports,” said Haskell, a native of Key West.

The yearlong cruise hiatus has given locals in popular port destinations like Key West, Juneau and Bar Harbor, Maine, the chance to see what the actual benefits of cruise ships are to their cities, and contrary to popular belief, they are finding them to be negligible.

Key West, one of the most popular cruise ship ports in the United States, saw an increasing number of boats in recent years, until the pandemic hit. A port that saw just 17 ships per year in 1969 now sees 400. But when cruise ships stopped and local residents saw what things were like without the constant barrage of huge ships, they found that life flourished.

“Every cloud has a silver lining, and the silver lining of the pandemic for Key West is getting to see what this place is like without the daily onslaught of mega cruise ships,” said Haskell. “Nature can heal.”

Haskell is referring to the environmental and economic impact of the hiatus. Not only were waters clearer and ocean life rejuvenated, but Key West’s economy thrived.

“We’ve had 13 months of no cruise ships, 13 months of virtually no international visitors and 13 months of no major events in Key West,” Mayor Teri Johnston told Yahoo News. “And we ended 2020 with 90 percent of our sales tax revenue.”

Though cruise lines heavily advertise the economic benefits of cruises for port cities, most visitors limit their spending to inexpensive souvenirs just off the boat and street-food snacks. These tourists, though plentiful, are not staying in the hotels or eating dinner at the restaurants. Many already choose to go on cruise ship excursions rather than book local tours.

A 2018 scientific study on the economic, social and environmental impacts of cruise tourism concluded that it does not provide benefits to the community in areas with low taxation and regulation. The researchers also found increased corruption and substantial negative environmental effects.

In March 2020, overwhelmed by the benefits gained from fewer cruise ships, the citizens of Key West attempted to permanently limit the size and number of cruise ships coming to their shore.

Through an effort led by Safer, Cleaner Ships, three questions were added to the November 2020 ballot that would limit the size and number of cruise ships, as well as give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records. The proposal would effectively halve the numbers during high season. Despite a $250,000 targeted campaign from the cruise industry, all three reforms were approved by more than 60 percent of the city’s voting population.

The permanence of the change is still in question, however. In January, two Republican state representatives introduced legislation to nullify the vote. The new legislation passed through the Florida state House and Senate, and Key West is waiting anxiously to see what Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis will do.

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