Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Without a shadow of doubt, 2019 was the best year ever for cruising. An estimated 30+ million cruise passengers enjoying a sailing during those 365 blissful days before the industry was turned on its head by coronavirus in 2020.
In recent memory, fans of cruise travel have enjoyed plenty of options for destinations, sizes of ships and passenger numbers, levels of service, and revolutionary dining & entertainment choices among the leading industry operators.
But with 2019 well behind us, 2020 almost in the rear view, and 2021 rapidly approaching, what should you expect of the cruise industry in the new year and beyond?
Despite what panicked news headlines and click-bait social media posts would have you believe, the future of cruise is certain – it’s going to be glorious!
Whole new cruise lines, a record number of new ships, new itineraries sailing to new destinations, and an overall improvement to the range and delivery of services you’ll be enjoying on your future cruise. What’s not to love?
This bright, bold future isn’t without its hiccups, but the smooth sailing is nearly in sight.
No Sail Orders, Voluntary Pauses, and the Framework for Conditional Sailing
For much of 2020 it may have felt a little as though the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and the leading cruise industry trade association, CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) were playing a game of cat and mouse.
CLIA represents more than 95% of all cruise ships on the planet, the trade body enacted a voluntary pause to global sailing on the 13th of March – a day before the CDC enacted the No Sail Order, effectively banning all passenger carrying leisure and transport vessels with capacity for more than 250 guests from entering US waters.
While both the pause and No Sail Order were initially only temporary measures, they were extended several times throughout the year by weeks or months at a time, right up to the Halloween weekend in October.
When the CDC announced that the No Sail Order would be permitted to expire on the 31st of October, it honestly felt as though the world had truly depleted stocks of toilet paper and that this news must have been the only trick left to play! If I'm more honest still, I believe my wife and I ate all our Halloween candy at least a week before that - no treats to give!
Instead, on the 30th of October the cruise industry was delivered a set of guidelines which put the onus on individual cruise lines & operators to show how they would safeguard passengers, crew, port staff & communities, residents in those destinations we love, and communities where those cruise enthusiasts returned home after their amazing trip.
What is required of cruise ship operators?
The Framework is itself pretty succinct at only 40 pages. I was somewhat surprised as it is often habit of government organizations to produce lengthy scripts full of legal speak and prohibitively specific instructions.
The Framework is instead not a set of directions at all, but a set of requirements each operator must plan, meet, and maintain in order to sail their ships in US waters.
The gist of the Framework outlines a few rules such as:
Ship capacity must be limited
Masks must be mandatory
Social distancing must be present
No sailing longer than 7 days
Enhanced protocols must be determined
Quarantine processes on board must come with facilities and a shoreside provision must be made for the safe housing of affected passengers or crew
In addition to the above requirements, cruise lines must plan and run or at least simulate mock cruises with volunteer passengers to show how they would successfully implement their new sailings.
There are further rules as to who may or may not be a passenger during any mock voyage. All such guests must be willing and informed volunteers, aged 18 or older, and no payment or other benefit may be delivered as part of passenger participation - that last part is important.
I'd presume the 7-day limit means 6 nights/7 days. For example, a cruise embarking new passengers on a Sunday afternoon would disembark those same passengers during the next weekend during the Saturday morning.
Which cruise line is doing it right?
In my mind there is only one cruise line doing it right, MSC Cruises.
A privately owned cruise line hailing from Italy, they’ve got some of the largest ships and most brilliantly over the top design features among their shiny new fleet. Think Swarovski Crystal staircases and a European take on American dining experiences - or is it the other way around? Their corporate team’s a lot of fun, too!
One of the world’s largest cruise ships, the MSC Grandiosa has been sailing a weekly itinerary from Italy since mid-August. To great applause at (virtual) industry events this year, MSC has been setting the standard and leading with best practice in how to host cruise passengers safely and without disproportionately diminishing the experience.
WATCH (VIDEO) What's the secret to MSC Cruises' success?
Even before COVID, cruise ships already faced some of the travel industry’s strictest health, hygiene, and safety measures, where the requirements of each ship and its crew are set by not just one government or organization, but which must exceed the highest standards of each port and jurisdiction a ship touches in a given sailing.
MSC’s enhanced cleaning protocols, mask wearing measures, social distancing at shows and events, removal of self-service buffet dining, shore excursion ‘bubbles’, and many more unique facets of the new experience are showing that even at 70% capacity, a ship built for more than 7,500 passengers and crew can lead cruise into 2021 and beyond.
When can you sail again?
I actually did read the entire Framework document on the day it came out, at which time I predicted the return to cruise wouldn’t realistically occur for 30-90 days.
This was in part due to the 28-day application process for cruise lines to petition the CDC, then the time it would take to find volunteers and actually run a successful set of simulated sailings as the Framework requires.
But it won’t take long.
In fact, Royal Caribbean published an open invitation to apply for one of these mock sailings, receiving more than 100,000 applications in under a week!
If you were to ask me again today when I think it would be reasonable to start planning, I’d suggest we wait and watch the earliest applicants. If they’re able to replicate MSC’s success in the Caribbean, we might start seeing passenger voyages around the end of
February or early March of 2021.
As you're probably already aware, your cruise experience will be a little different next year. At least for the first few months, possibly a bit longer.
What should you expect from the cruising in the short term?
More voluntary pauses to sailings, unfortunately.
CLIA cruise lines have continued to voluntarily extend their individual pauses on sailing, regardless the Framework. Some cruise lines have taken advantage of this further disruption to refurbish some of their fleet at an accelerated rate.
A bit less exciting than new or refurbished ships might be the short to medium term requirements as outlined by the CDC:
Expect mandatory mask wearing, more cleaning staff duties and a tighter cleaning schedule. You’ll also find that social distancing will pervade activities, events, and onboard shows.
It’s possible that some of the more popular shows will be delivered more frequently to ensure you get your chance to enjoy it. It’ll be a more intensive work schedule for cast and crew throughout the ship. They were already some of the hardest working in the travel industry, make sure you let them know how much you appreciate their work ethic!
You’ll see the disappearance of the buffet, with cruise lines offering instead an on-request, plated service instead and maybe even full a la carte dining throughout the three main meals.
Shore excursions will be limited to approved destinations and under more tightly managed bubbles during tender, in port, and on return. It's also going to take a little longer to get on and off the ship, you'll have to plan accordingly in bringing water, snacks, sunscreen and other important comfort items.
I'm not a huge fan of this bubble, but it is a necessary evil for the time being. I just can't help but feel it removes your choice in local activities and does less to support the wider local economy when you're in port. Let's hope this is one of the first practices to fade!
You’ll see more itineraries calling to port at private islands, permitting you a little more freedom to explore on your own as your ship’s bubble may be extended onto the island in a controlled setting. Take that as you will.
Enhanced checks and more declarations, including testing for COVID and sanitization processes for your luggage – but that also means a longer boarding process and a more staggered timeline for your arrival. You may also have to practice a quarantine drill as you would a muster on your first day.
All those delays and a specified, staggered boarding time means that if you’re not already in the habit, it’ll be more important than ever to arrive to the city of embarkation a day in advance. You won't have so much flexibility in your boarding time and delayed flights or traffic on the way to the terminal might spoil your afternoon.
You'll also simply touch fewer things, with the larger cruise lines heavily investing in touchless technology such as bracelets, medallions, and mobile phone apps to help you gain entry to certain areas or to make your dinner order in advance.
You’ll see more ports of embarkation remaining closed – the industry will be focused on sailing passengers from PortMiami and Port Everglades for the time being.
Maybe your return to cruise will require a little more patience and a bit less spontaneity, but isn't that also a great opportunity to simply relax more and take your sweet time getting around your meals and entertainment. You're on vacation, after all!
What should you expect from cruising in the mid-term?
In my mind, the arrival of the Future Cruise Credit truly put the cruise industry ahead of most competitors in travel.
Nearly no questions asked and with preserved trip investments actually increasing in value throughout 2020, they also proved that the supply of ships isn’t yet capable of meeting the demand of cruise passengers – anyone who already booked in 2021, anyone who wanted to cruise next year, and those who’ve tried to reschedule from their cancelled 2020 sailing will be vying for the same cabins on fewer sailings operating at reduced capacity...
That means cruise lines will likely be forced to extend their future cruise credit programs.
If you’re looking for something unique to experience in a cruise itinerary featuring the US, I might suggest that a river cruise of the Mississippi and other waterways of the country might be a good choice for a select few passengers!
While most cruise lines will focus on Caribbean itineraries from Miami and Fort Lauderdale during those first few months back to sea, Port Canaveral and Alaska sailings from Seattle will quickly catch up as the spring rolls on.
I’m unsure what to expect from Hawaii at this time. The state’s quarantine requirements were quite harsh during the earliest months of the pandemic period, while testing protocols have turned that feeling around and it appears they’re ready to welcome both domestic visitors and, as soon as is practicable, those from Canada.
Norwegian’s Pride of America and Hawaii-centric itineraries aren’t yet on my radar for the immediate future, it’s hard to say.
Itineraries featuring a crossing of the Panama Canal have already been cancelled pretty much universally throughout 2021, at least until the end of November.
This is in part because many of the most popular transits begin in California and end in Florida, or the other way around. Two states which almost could not be more different in their approach to COVID.
Beyond state controls, the most significant contributing factor to the pause is a matter of quality. The best cruise experiences for navigating the Canal demand 8-10 nights, the CDC’s Framework prohibits sailings longer than 7 at this time.
For a few years now I’ve been looking forward to seeing and hearing more about the onboard experience from Virgin Voyages and the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.
Virgin’s Scarlet Lady was originally scheduled to perform her inaugural voyage in April of 2020 and to excite a select few guests in July with a birthday celebration for Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson!
After several delays during various extensions of the No Sail Order or voluntary pause among CLIA cruise lines, she’s now scheduled to embark guests in May of 2021 and the shake-up of their staff on furlough means I've not been able to yet confirm any behind the scenes info on the rescheduled Richard's Birthday Bash sailing.
Likewise, the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection seemed to really take their time in getting things right. When the cruise line was first announced, it was simply known as Yacht 1. She was then named the Azura, only to find further inspiration among the beautiful Greek Isles, settling into Evrima – the Greek word for “discovery”.
She’s sleek and the itineraries are just as gorgeous. I can’t wait to see images from those first guests on board!
As I write this article, a vaccine is being administered in Europe. Despite this roll-out, masks will likely be with us throughout 2021 and possibly even into 2022. A few cruise destinations with what could be considered a more sensitive approach to COVID such as Canada or New Zealand may set that longer timeline.
What should you expect from cruising in the long-term?
If it wasn’t obvious enough above, the theme of my post here is positivity! The future of cruising is looking great!
Accelerated rates of ship retirement and updated refurbishment schedules means more new, efficient, and service-oriented experiences for you to choose from in 2021 and beyond.
Unlike many airlines or vacation package companies, the cruise industry has taken stock during this period and enhanced services and inclusions instead of diminishing them – with lines such as Celebrity offering more inclusive beverage packages as standard than before, for example.
That also means that the self-serve buffet may not return to all ships, even in the long term.
And that might mean that if you’ve enjoyed your new drinks package a bit too much, you’re going to have to suffer the embarrassment of at least one crew member knowing you need more water/coffee/bacon/whatever gets you back on your feet the next morning!
For luxury cruise lines such as Regent Seven Seas and Silversea, both of which enjoyed their own record setting days of new bookings in 2020 when they opened their 2023 bookings early, you’ll likely have your own opportunity to dream even further in advance.
Grand Voyages and private charter groups will continue to deliver world class experiences, but with 2-3 year advanced booking cycles, you may need to stay a little flexible in your plans. I feel the industry will sunset their current itineration of the Future Cruise Credit and modify their exceptionally flexible booking terms, but some flexibility will remain and we may see shorter periods between final payment and embarkation dates.
What are your predictions for the future of cruise?
What would you like to see change in the industry as we return to cruising? Join the conversation and share your thoughts and dreams > HERE
Here at Odyssean Travel, our mission is pretty simple. We want you to make better vacation memories with the people who matter most in your life.
Because we’re a small, family owned business, we need your help to spread the word so we can aid more travelers in this mission! Simply by sharing this post or even just leaving a comment will help us help others enjoy a better, more memorable trip.
You can find answers to your cruise & travel questions in our friendly online community, our Travel Society and online forum (click here).
If you enjoy a superior level of service and want an unforgettable vacation experience of your own, contact us now to arrange a complimentary One-on-One Discovery Session with a qualified, professional travel advisor (click here).