Following a turbulent fortnight for the UK cruise industry, Tom Parry assesses where river and ocean lines stand and where things go from here.
The fortunes of the cruise sector have been as tempestuous as the Bay of Biscay in recent weeks, after sudden Foreign Office advice against “all cruise ship travel at this time” angered an industry working hard on its restart.
With the update derided by agents as “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted”, just a week later the FCO clarified its poorly worded statement, green-lighting Brits to sail Europe’s rivers this summer and offering hope of a return to normality – for the river cruise sector at least.
Meanwhile, new players have been entering the market and the historic Swan Hellenic name has returned, and ships have been changing hands at a rate of knots – showing lines still have the confidence to plan and invest.
But then last week the sector was dealt another cruel blow as the much-loved Cruise & Maritime Voyages fell into administration, unable to secure financing to see it through the pandemic.
So with cruise’s changing tides likely to spring more obstacles and surprises, how are lines coping, operating and setting a course towards calmer waters?
State of play: ocean
With most ocean lines suspending sailings well into the autumn, Brits’ hopes of a summer at sea have faded, but the industry remains focused on its return.
“All our efforts are focused on working towards restarting,” says Clia UK and Ireland director Andy Harmer.
The FCO’s advice on 9 July – based on recommendations from Public Health England – was “not what we wanted, or needed” Harmer admits, explaining the industry is engaging in “very open dialogue” about “all aspects of cruising” with government as it strives to make a safe return.
Harmer says CMV’s collapse – impacting 4,000 staff – shows the “economic strain” lines are facing, but he believes the voluntary suspension of operations “continues to be the right thing for us to do” as Westminster talks continue.
But while the FCO advice may have dealt a blow for ocean lines, Europe’s rivers beckon for Brits desperate to cruise this summer thanks to that clarification.
State of play: river
Since EU nations reopened borders on 15 June and following its Healthy Gateways protocols, European-based river lines have been operating successfully for a number of weeks.
The experience may have changed slightly – from pre- boarding checks to luggage disinfection, onboard social distancing and the wearing of face masks at certain times – but ships are sailing nonetheless.
A-Rosa’s UK and Ireland managing director Lucia Rowe says the moment feels like “a turning point” for the river sector: an opportunity to grow in popularity in the absence of ocean options.
“The big question when we restarted was whether anyone would like [the new travel experience], but the reaction from guests has been so heartening – people want to get away and Europe is the most accessible place for Brits right now,” she says.
Rowe is confident A-Rosa will welcome back British guests during August and September – and describes “a significant increase in interest” from the trade following the FCO’s clarification.
She believes differences in air conditioning systems compared with ocean ships; avoiding international waters; and a river vessel’s proximity to the shore all helped the sector secure the FCO’s blessing.
John Fair, UK sales director for CroisiEurope – which resumed itineraries earlier this month – says the FCO and river lines took a “sensible, pragmatic approach”.
River operators can “show how safe it is” and help to grow confidence for the government to bring back ocean, Fair believes.
Elsewhere in Europe, work is ongoing for the resumption of ocean cruising, with expedition specialist Hurtigruten and luxury yacht brand SeaDream operating out of Norway since mid-June.
SeaDream’s UK sales chief Jos Dewing says not only has the restart allowed for onboard protocols to be honed, but has helped the brand welcome new guests and boost awareness.
Despite the FCO advice stalling SeaDream’s hopes of having UK guests onboard soon, Dewing is upbeat.
“Naturally UK guests will be concerned about cruise travel until advice is lifted [but] I hope it’s lifted soon. This industry has worked tirelessly to adapt from a very high standard it already had pre-Covid.”
The easing of river restrictions, Dewing believes, “suggests they will seek to ease advice in stages”.“You would expect a 112-passenger yacht that has safely and successfully operated since June would be OK... we shall see,” he adds.
In Germany, Tui Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd restarted sailings this week, with Aida set to follow next month.
And this regional trend will likely continue, as Clia’s global chair and cruise industry veteran Adam Goldstein explains. He says he is “optimistic” more countries will allow for operations to resume in the near future in a “more sequential manner”.
Clia, he explains, is striving to develop “a unified set of processes” post-Covid to be adopted by all cruise line members – as well as other efforts from industry brands – such as the partnership between rivals Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings – unprecedented pre-pandemic – on their Healthy Sail Panel of experts.
“So now we know a million times more [about Covid] than we did in March, am I confident this industry can make the necessary adjustments, work with the regulators in the right way and deliver an experience that brings people together but in a healthy manner? Yes I am,” Goldstein insists.
“But there’s a lot of execution that needs to be done between now and then to get us to the point we need to be, and that’s when we should begin cruising in earnest.”Harmer too agrees that a “phased return” with “more closer to home cruising” is most likely as sailings eventually restart."
Despite the challenges, there are reasons to be hopeful.
New UK-based line Tradewind Voyages will operate the world’s largest square-rigged sailing ship Golden Horizon from British shores next May, and the industry was further buoyed last week with the news of Swan Hellenic’s return with two expedition vessels under construction.
Meanwhile, Fred Olsen may well fill the regional gap left by CMV with its acquisition of two former Holland America Line ships – set to join its fleet later this year.
Harmer says the wider reopening of the holiday market will also help to imbue the travelling public with greater confidence – all aiding the cruise industry in its mission.
“Once people feel confident enough to go on holiday, they will want to cruise again,” he says. “We’re still part of the holiday ecosystem and things have been changing so quickly these past few weeks. We’re doing all we can to work with government to come back.”