Will the Cruise Industry Be Back to Normal in 2021?

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As the global coronavirus pandemic continues and cruises are on hold for months, it is natural for eager passengers to wonder if the cruise industry will be back to normal in 2021. The answer, however, is more complicated than a simple yes or no.

Today’s Cruises

The worldwide suspension of cruise operations has stretched on since mid-March, with at least several weeks left before lines can begin sailing again in limited areas. Some popular cruise destinations have cancelled entire cruise seasons, and different locations may not see the return of major cruise lines for several more months.

Also Read: 8 Things Cruise Ships Are Doing Now During the Suspension

All cruise lines are feeling the economic impact of this travel suspension, from delayed ship renovations to postponed inaugural voyages, ships being sold, and even bankruptcy proceedings. Employees have been furloughed, salaries have been cut, and ships have been put into cold layup to wait out this operational pause.

It is certain, however, that cruising will return – but will it return to normal in 2021?

Normal Is Always Changing

It is important to recognize that normal is always changing and evolving. Decades ago, cruise travel was very different than the cruises we love today. Dress codes have changed, and whereas formal nights were once the norm for every evening meal, they are now optional events just once or twice during each sailing.

Other changes have come and gone on mainstream cruises. Gala buffets with elaborately carved fruits, ice sculptures, and beautifully laid out trays of nibbles have largely vanished to reduce food waste, but new themed buffets for midnight snacks are increasingly popular.

Similarly, it is easier than ever to find vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, and low-salt menu items available on cruise ships, whereas these special dietary items were scarce or non-existent years ago.

Live bands once highlighted every theater show, but many cruises today rely on DJ music and coordinated audio tracks instead, with fewer live musicians performing on board.

Today’s cruise ships offer far more than just the pool deck, limited spa, and card rooms of past voyages. Modern ships feature escape rooms, trampoline parks, thalassotherapy pools, zip lines, ice rinks, bowling alleys, teeth whitening, roller coasters, and much more that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Yet these modern activities and extraordinary features have quickly become normal in the industry.

Defining Normal After Coronavirus

The cruise industry’s new normal after the coronavirus pandemic ends will not likely feature new entertainment attractions, menu upgrades, or performance options, but there will be changes that impact every cruise ship.

Enhanced sanitation protocols are sure to be part of cruise ship changes when sailings resume. This may mean a change in cleaning chemicals used, increased frequency of cleanings, or even some areas of the ship being closed for longer periods to facilitate cleaning and sterilization.

Upgrades to air filtration systems are also likely, as are greater passenger and crew health screenings such as temperature checks and pre-embarkation health surveys.

Related: New Guest and Crew Health Monitoring Tech Could Come to Major Cruise Lines

Some popular cruise activities may not resume right away. Buffet meals, for example, may become cafeteria-style with fewer shared serving utensils. Seating in public areas, including dining rooms, casinos, and show lounges, may be spaced out to better promote social distancing. Capacities in different venues, such as comedy clubs, discos, and other enclosed spaces, may be reduced.

Will all these changes become normal for cruise ships indefinitely? There’s no way to know, and each cruise line will make the adjustments it feels are best to safeguard the health and well-being of its crew members and passengers. In 2021, some of these changes are likely to be more visible, but as cruising resumes and more ships set sail, a greater sense of normalcy will return to each voyage.

Getting Back to Normal

Ultimately, it will take a coordinated, international effort to create the new normal for cruising in 2021. Before the first ship welcomes passengers, intense effort will be needed to return crews to their assigned ships, to reposition those ships at the best embarkation ports, and to provide supplies for ships to set sail.

Cruise lines will need to coordinate not just with embarkation ports, but with every port of call on different itineraries to ensure that health protocols are met for safe sailings. Different countries may have different requirements or may remain unavailable for travel for different periods, which can impact “normal” cruise itineraries. Because of this, different cruise regions are likely to reopen at different times.

Furthermore, if additional outbreaks occur and case numbers rise, previously opened ports of call may close once again. This will require cruise lines to remain flexible with their itinerary options even after sailings resume, and it may become routine for itineraries to be adjusted and ports changed mid-voyage.

Simpler itineraries are likely to get back to normal cruising more quickly than longer, more complex itineraries that visit multiple countries. Similarly, smaller ships will likely resume operations more smoothly than larger ships that will require more adjustments to meet new health protocols. Larger cruise lines are already planning for this variation between their vessels with phased-in operations that begin sailings with a limited number of vessels from certain embarkation ports.

Cruising in 2021

Cruising will most certainly return in 2021, but the state of “normal” operations is likely to be different than pre-pandemic operations for quite some time. In some cases, particularly with health screenings and sanitation procedures, it is unlikely that cruises will ever completely revert to earlier operations, and instead the new protocols will remain in place permanently.

Exactly how and when normal cruise travel returns in 2021 will vary between different lines and regions. Both very small and very large lines are likely to begin operations more quickly, even in 2020. Small lines with only limited operational areas can set sail more smoothly because they do not need to coordinate as many international requirements, and instead have a much tighter focus to resume operations.

Large lines, on the other hand, will also likely be able to more easily resume operations in some areas even while other regions still restrict cruise travel. As large lines set sail again, they will adapt their restart procedures to bring additional sailings back to normal more quickly when more destinations reopen.

Worth Reading: 6 Ways The Cruise Industry Will Make a Comeback

Some cruise lines, of course, may not recover from the pandemic at all. Smaller lines with limited investment capital may be facing financial difficulties and be unable to recover from the extended shutdown. This is especially possible if those lines cannot resume operations quickly or are unable to adapt their operations to new health and safety requirements.

When will different cruise lines resume sailing throughout 2020 and into 2021? Cruise Hive has the complete list, and will update it regularly as new information becomes available, whenever and wherever your favorite line sets sail.

Photo Credit: Yo_aphinya / Shutterstock.com

Melissa Mayntz
Melissa Mayntz
Avid, enthusiastic cruiser (35+ cruises and counting!), having sailed on multiple cruise lines, 25+ different ships in a variety of classes, and visited ports of call in more than 6 countries, including Caribbean, Mexican, Alaskan, and Hawaiian ports. Widely traveled on multiple continents and homeported from Port Canaveral, as well as a professional freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience and thousands of articles published. Find out more about us here.


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