Unlike North America and Europe where cruising already has a loyal following — and critics in equal measures — Asia’s nascent cruise market also means the region’s travelers are likely more malleable and open in their impressions of cruising in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The cruise industry is facing its toughest year ever, as the coronavirus pandemic has brought the global cruise industry to a standstill and major cruise lines were forced to temporarily suspend new sailings and repatriate customers and crew around the world.
Caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm, the cruise industry has also suffered massive reputation damage during the pandemic, when Covid-19 outbreaks on board the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess and news of multiple cruise ships stranded at sea with ill passengers made global headlines.
Skift spoke to Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales of Genting Cruise Lines — the parent company of Star Cruises, Dream Cruises and Crystal Cruises — who said that the image of cruising as unsafe is a misperception. Cruise ships, stated the Asian cruise leader, are no more riskier than other social gatherings or holiday formats.
And come back cruises will as a growing vacation concept in Asia, said Goh, as cruise lines are doing all they can behind the scenes to make sure that future sailings are safe and sanitized experiences to prevent coronavirus and other illness from spreading.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Skift: How will Covid-19 change and transform cruise ship travel?
Goh: Things will be very different in the new norm because Covid-19 really changes the way people travel, so we strongly believe that people will be very cautious about where they want to travel. They want to make sure that whatever we provide will be safe for them to travel.
The way that we conduct our business will be totally different, from the point of time of ship embarkation until disembarkation, and once on board there is also accommodation, entertainment facilities, and the kind of cleaning process, sanitation and disinfection process for the common public area. There are many, many questions going through customers’ minds, so it is important for us to make them aware of the many measures being implemented to regain confidence in cruising again.
Skift: What are some examples of new norms on cruise ships that we can expect to see?
Goh: When it comes to embarkation and disembarkation there will be mandatory temperature screening, and also a very high frequency of sanitization and disinfection at the gangway and the passenger walkway. For example, in the public area, if we used to do two times sanitization, now we have to do four times sanitization when business resumes. The common touch point areas are the ones we even have to sanitize more often. On board the ship, we also have our doctors, nurses and a medical center where we also have isolation room to isolate guests with fever. We’ve done a very complex graphic explanation to our consumers – from embarkation point and the public area to the restaurants and entertainment facilities.
Skift: How can social distancing be practiced on cruise ships? Will Genting Cruise Lines’ ships operate at partial capacity and how will that affect revenue?
Goh: When we restart business again, the business will not be back to 100 percent. If we restrict our business to 60-70 percent for a start it means, we will have a lot less passengers and so we are able to practice social distancing on board. In a restaurant, we will seat less people, and in the theater we will leave seats empty in between. In the kids’ club, we will have to do a lot more cleaning and disinfection on our games and toys more frequently or at least twice daily. Social distancing is something that we will be strictly adhere to.
When you run a lower occupancy, your operating costs, meanwhile, will also become lower, so that will mean that you might not need so many workers on the ship and we have to manage our labor cost. And with less food being served the food cost is also lower, so we’ve got to strike a balance there.
Skift: How can cruising make a comeback following the ‘unsafe’ image the sector acquired during the pandemic?
Goh: Cruising has existed as a popular holiday concept for the last 70, 80 years. Incidents like pandemics do not commonly happen on board the ship, and for Covid-19 there are a few isolated cases which do not represent that cruising is no longer a safe way of traveling. When it comes to Covid-19, whether you’re on board the cruise ship or anywhere else, say, the shopping center or some other public places the virus is also spreading as well.
A lot of consumers are really worried about the air ventilation system on cruise ships due to a few isolated cases that happened on other cruise lines. For Genting Cruise Lines, our ships have 100 percent external fresh air filtered and supplied to the cabin and the public area, which means a constant and healthy flow of fresh air and no circulation of air within the ships. Everybody has got this wrong perception that all ships are really confined, that if someone in this room gets Covid-19, someone in the next room will get it.
That the Singapore government is using our two ships — Superstar Gemini and SuperStar Aquarius — to temporarily house foreign workers who have recovered from the coronavirus is a good testimonial that a cruise ship is actually a safe experience. Both ships went through a very stringent process [before being used as temporary workers’ accommodation], which include the air ventilation system as well as the processes, e.g. how do we actually do disinfection and sanitization on board the ships, how do we handle the public area, how do we do social distancing, our crew knowledge in handling customers, etc.
Skift: Did housing these workers lead to any changes in post-pandemic processes and practices on board?
Goh: The two ships in Singapore have been a very good learning process for us as well as our crew on board. The ministry of health went on board our ships to train our crew before we took in any recovered patient. We are the only two ships in the world being used for this purpose right now, and the first-hand knowledge will go a long way for our future operation.
When these workers come on board the ships, they have free time, exercise hours, social distancing, all of which have to be strictly adhered to. Our staff is also trained in the areas of sanitization and cleaning process. How do they actually clean the toilet? What gear do they have to wear? In the public area they wear a mask, whereas those cleaning the toilet or housekeeping will don suits and a different type of mask. These are more of a precautionary measure, as these on board are recovered patients.
Processes are really important as we need to know what has to be done in areas such as air ventilation. If we can assure the customer about all this then their fear will be lightened and then we can regain their confidence to cruise again. In the last couple of weeks we have been conducting our training programs for our business partners in the region to educate them on our stringent cleaning process, so they could also share this with their customers or sub-agents.
Skift: For Asia, how soon do you think we can restart cruising? What’s the timeline that you are expecting?
Goh: We hope to start cruising very soon. When you talk about cruising business, we are talking about homeports as well as the ports we are calling to. Our ship in Singapore calls into Malaysia and Thailand, so we have to depend on when these countries reopen their borders and allow ships to go into their waters.
Before the borders open we hope to start cruises to nowhere in July or August and at least enable guests to have a good time or enjoy activities on board the ship. We are looking at very short cruises of two or three nights, then five nights, before we go on longer cruises. A cruise ship itself is actually a destination. For short cruises, we don’t need a destination to support the cruise experience, because there are plenty of activities on board.
Cruising has actually less logistics and is more likely safer than other forms of travel in terms of exposure to the coronavirus. If you are going on a three-night cruise to two destinations, you just have to board a ship and we take you into the destinations. If you go on a conventional holiday, you basically have to go to the airport and wait for a plane, and then you go to two different countries, check into the first hotel and then check out of the hotel to go to the next country, and repeat the process. The process is far more complex, whereas for cruise you just got to check in and check out once and then we go to different places. For a start, a cruising holiday most probably will be a really good option to travel through less channels.
Recovery also depends on location. Taiwan, China, Hong Kong do not have many cases, so most likely Asia will resume cruising first, followed by Europe and the America. The recovery is also subject to how the pandemic develops in each of these regions. And of course we hope Europe recovers soon so our Crystal Cruises can start river cruises in the continent soon.
To regain the confidence of consumers, the other thing we look at is the cancellation policy. We understand that no one wants to place a booking now only to be penalized with a cancellation fee should they decide to cancel their bookings. We introduced the Cruise As You Wish program for Dream Cruises and Star Cruises, which allows travelers to cancel the bookings 48 hours prior to sailing and receive 100 percent future cruise credit for use again by March 31, 2021.
Skift: Will the pandemic will put an end to the ‘bigger and fancier’ trend we have been seeing in new cruise ships in recent years?
Goh: Honestly, I don’t feel that size is the factor. If we have all the processes and measures in place, it doesn’t really matter whether this is a small-sized ship, mid-sized ship or large ship. In the wake of this pandemic, we are not going to pack the ships to their maximum capacity, so that will also allow us to do social distancing on board.
While consumers are on board the ships for holidays, we are not going to make it a way that they are under the shadow of Covid-19. This has to be applied very smartly. Safety distance still has to be practiced but customers still want to have a good time when they are on holiday.
That came a long way for us. We went through SARS and now there’s Covid-19, and we don’t know what else may come in the years ahead. As a responsible cruise line it is important for us to continue to acquire new knowledge to cater to business in the new normal.
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Photo credit: Foreign workers who have recovered from Covid-19 are temporarily housed in Genting Cruise Lines' cruise ships SuperStar Gemini and SuperStar Aquarius. Genting Cruise Lines