How the Cruise Industry Got Passengers Home After the Travel Ban
As the coronavirus exploded on the world stage, cruise lines faced the most visible challenge of any sector of the travel industry. Their first problem was assisting stranded cruisers. When President Trump announced his European travel ban on March 11, an estimated 1.1 million passengers were still at sea, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Crews, no strangers to the art of crisis response, launched a coordinated effort to bring them back, in spite of port closures and other obstacles. “Their dedication shined during this time,” says Crystal Cruises president and CEO Tom Wolber. His company was one of many that had no reported COVID-19 cases—a reality that may surprise some, given the media's sensationalistic depictions of the pandemic's impact on cruise ships.
Those aboard Viking Cruises' In Search of the Northern Lights expedition, which was called back two days into a 13-day sail around the North Sea, describe seamless service by the crew, who provided cocktails and news to jittery guests as the ship reversed course and arranged transfers. “Announcements were made regularly, and the entire team was supportive of us, and each other", according to passengers.
Silversea's expedition branch navigated travel restrictions that changed daily to retrieve guests from remote corners of Southeast Asia. In the end, says Roberto Martinoli, president and CEO, “We even chartered 24 private planes to fly guests home.”
Simultaneously, cruise lines had to help travelers whose plans had been scuttled by the pandemic, with sailings paused and reports of furloughed cruise staff. By May, companies were offering full cash refunds or large compensation alternatives, including 125 percent credits for sailings through 2022.
As the industry readies for its eventual return to the seas, what's most reassuring is the spirit of solidarity and cooperation cruise companies have demonstrated. In July, two of the world's largest, Royal Caribbean Group (owner of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Silversea) and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (owner of Norwegian, Regent Seven Seas, and Oceania), announced the Healthy Sail Panel, a consortium of prominent physicians and public health experts, to develop sharper safety standards. As Frank J. Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian, says, “We compete for the vacationing consumer's business every day, but we never compete on health and safety standards.” One more reason to feel good about setting sail again.