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The Future of Cruise in 2021 and Beyond

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

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.

Sunrise on deck of the MSC Seaside in port in Miami, Florida
The sun will rise again! On deck in Miami

But with 2019 well behind us, 2020 in the rear view, and 2021's calendar rapidly passing by, what should you expect of the cruise industry this year or in future?

The return to cruising is going to be glorious, if a little fragmented right now. Several cruise lines have been very successful in safely hosting guests even throughout the second half of 2020 and into the spring of 2021.

For 2021 and into 2022, you can expect entirely new cruise lines, a record number of new ships, refurbishments, new itineraries sailing to exciting new destinations, and an overall improvement to the range and delivery of services you’ll be enjoying on your future cruise.

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.

It should be noted, however, that although CLIA represents the lion's share of the industry, the measurement is based on passenger numbers, with a handful of big ships tipping the scales. By vessel number, the figures might look a bit different, especially if we account for river cruising.

CLIA remains an important trade organization and its leadership helps set greater standards among cruise lines to surpass hygiene & safety standards, for example.

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!

Celebrity Edge cruise ship and extra inclusive cruise vacation
New ships, more inclusions delivered with better service... the future of cruise is looking GOOD.

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 lines are doing it right?

In my mind there was only one cruise line doing it right in 2020, 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!

MSC Grandiosa in port, successful sailing during COVID
A tale of success in 2020's cruise season, MSC Grandiosa

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.

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?

Royal Caribbean published an open invitation to apply for one of these mock sailings, receiving more than 100,000 applications in under a week!

There's also a 28-day application process, prior to any sailing each individual cruise line must petition for permission and to submit their intended measures and processes for review and approval.

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 because of the application process and other timelines.

Unfortunately, despite best efforts by cruise lines and with tens of thousands of volunteers registering for those trial sailings, there seems to be something insurmountable in the CDC's framework.

Some frustration among cruise enthusiasts is mounting, as cruise fans have been joined by CLIA and even the Florida Governor in petitioning for more clarity surrounding what may in reality be ambiguous requirements.

A Royal Caribbean ship in port in Nassau, The Bahamas
Royal Caribbean will be among the first to welcome passengers

Where I had estimated February or March of 2021 to see successful first applications and a tentative return to cruising out of Miami or Port Everglades, this hasn't proven to be the case and I'd now look to home ports in Bahamas, Barbados, or Bermuda for realistic options near-ish to the United States.

Several individual ships have been repositioned to serve populations deemed to have high rates of local vaccination, such as the Odyssey of the Seas in Israel or the newly announced repositioning of the Celebrity Silhouette to Southampton.

As exciting as it may be to see more ships operating safely in 2021, only local residents will be permitted to join the fun. As US residents you won't be able to join Celebrity in their incredible British Isles itinerary for July.

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.

MSC Ocean Cay Marine Reserve private island in The Bahamas, perfect social distancing and controlled environment for a safe return to cruising
It's a little easier to control the 'bubble' on a private island

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 when sailing does resume.

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 your favorite cruise line sailing Alaska can somehow navigate the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, sometimes referred to as the Jones Act, we may see an unbelievably safe, comfortable return to glaciers and wildlife in 2022.

With a vaccinated population or federal mandates directing the domestic population, this might be one of the best destinations to enjoy shore excursions during the next 2 years.

Crystal Serenity cruise ship sailing reflective waters of Juneau in Alaska
The Crystal Serenity in Juneau, a sight you'd not have seen in Alaska during 2020

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. 2022 and 2023 should prove both popular and relatively well supported for shore excursions and convenient airfares into Honolulu.

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.

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.

self serve buffet on a cruise ship
Would you really miss self-serve buffets?

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.

Two cruise ships side by side in port as seen from a drone

What are your predictions for the future of cruise?

What would you like to see change in the industry as we return to cruising? Comment below or join the conversation and share your thoughts and cruising dreams > HERE


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