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This year’s wave season, the annual first quarter when cruise sales hit their peak, was supposed to be smooth sailing for travel advisors. Thanks to the coronavirus, however, it’s bringing cancellations, itinerary changes, postponements, and a whole lot of uncertainty.
The past week has been one of long, hectic days for travel advisors like Deedra Chandler of AAA Travel in Wilmington, North Carolina, whose clients, shaken by the steadily worsening news reports of global outbreaks, are rethinking their cruise plans to just about everywhere.
“We’ve got people booked on cruises to Alaska next August who are asking if they should cancel,” she said. “Another client with an upcoming cruise around Italy has decided to postpone the trip until next year. We were able to change it, but there were penalties.”
Chandler has found herself scrambling to find answers to questions she never anticipated, some of them stemming from fear of being stranded overseas.
“One client asked me what would happen if he makes it to Norway but is denied boarding the ship because he has a fever, even if it’s totally unrelated to coronavirus,” she said. “Since the cruise lines are taking peoples’ temperatures before boarding, this is a really good question. I’m still working on the answer.”
So far no clients have canceled cruises, but many are asking to postpone the ones they have booked, Chandler added.
Wendy Denny with Pinnacle Cruise and Tour in Seattle has also found herself snowed under with handling date changes for clients, but so far the fallout has been confined to cruises calling in Southeast Asia. She’s also noticed an uptick for cruises in other destinations, including river cruises in North America.
“My Alaska bookings are up as well and cruises to the Caribbean, the Baltic region, and river cruises in Europe are unchanged,” she said.
At Cruise Planners, a travel agency franchise group representing 2,500 travel advisors, coronavirus fears have so far caused an estimated 10 percent decrease in bookings with most cruise lines, although a few are showing increases, said Michelle Fee, founder and CEO.
While bookings to Alaska and on European river cruises are so far unaffected, the damage is widespread, she added.
“We’re seeing much softer booking activity in most destinations due to the media coverage of the virus and especially with the recently quarantined ship in the news,” Fee said. “Of course, we are now concerned with the news that broke in Northern Italy and are waiting to see the impact on European sales.”
Cruise Planners is experiencing a mix of cancellations and postponements, Fee added.
“If someone is still outside of final payment, they tend to be in a ‘wait and see’ holding pattern,” she said. “Others who are booking are planning further out. We are also seeing a large amount of cancellations.”
Fee added that while older clients tend to be mostly concerned about catching the virus, younger and healthier clients are more concerned about the possibility of getting stuck in quarantine on board a ship.
Travel advisor Leah Bergner of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, California, said she is also experiencing cruise cancellations, particularly from clients who are not well-traveled or in poor health.
“Some are even canceling out of fear alone,” she said. “I don’t think guests fear being quarantined — not many have mentioned that — but they are worried about getting the virus. It is mostly affecting Asia cruises, but just this week I started to see many travelers wanting to cancel other areas in Italy and Spain.”
For Bergner’s clients, who tend to book luxury cruises, the concerns are not so much about catching the virus on board a ship, but contacting it on airplanes or in airports and ports, she said.
Travel insurance providers may be the biggest beneficiary of coronavirus fears, with travel advisors reporting that more clients are asking about coverage.
“The number-one questions I’m getting lately is about travel protection,” Denny said. “Most of my clients opt for travel protection when I explain its value.”
Thomas Carpenter, co-owner of Huckleberry Travel in New York City, said coronavirus concerns are bringing the opportunity to counsel clients on the benefits of purchasing insurance for protection against any unforeseen situation.
“We make the point that it’s not too late to put insurance in place, though we can’t make any representations of what it will cover at this point,” he said. “So we make the point that travel can be difficult in general, with extreme weather events, frequent trip delays, geopolitical tensions, and other factors — it isn’t just coronavirus. Having insurance can really provide peace of mind.”
Jay Johnson, CEO of Coastline Travel Advisors, noted that while cruise lines are making full refunds on the cruises they themselves cancel, insurance is still needed to cover related travel expenses such as air and transfers. He cautioned, however, that insurance coverage “becomes a bit murky” when clients cancel a trip due to concerns of potentially catching the virus or being quarantined.
“This has been by far the most difficult question to answer because the insurance companies have not been very clear on what they will or [will] not cover in case someone decides to cancel or postpone their trip,” he said. “I think they are still trying to get a handle on the situation.”
What could be the long-term impact of the coronavirus on cruises as well as on other types of travel business? Some in the industry worry that it could extend beyond this year.
“We’re hoping, similar to the flu or norovirus, the virus will subside as we get into warmer months around the world,” Fee said. “However, the decrease in booking activity will have long-term effects into early 2021. We do expect some pent-up demand once the virus has been contained and the media coverage tapers off. We are a resilient industry.”
While Johnson believed coronavirus is a short-term issue and is still optimistic about this year’s cruise business, he was concerned about its effect on the economy, especially given the recent fluctuations in the stock market.
“What we’ve seen is alarming, but also not all that surprising as there is so much uncertainty with how the virus will affect the global economy,” he said. “Our cruise business has always been tied to how well the market is doing, so if the market drops, so will our cruise sales.”