The Cruise Industry Faces Challenges with Optimism

By: Amy Wang '24
Dean Kate Walsh and 4 industry executives on a webinar panel.

The panelists and Dean Walsh as they began their conversation on the challenges faced by the cruise industry in the wake of COVID-19, and their efforts to overcome them.

For a large part of the pandemic, U.S. cruise operations were suspended by the Centers for Disease Control’s No Sail Order. Issued in October of 2020, and still in effect today, the Framework for Conditional Sailing replaced the No Sail Order and dictates the cruise industry’s phased reopening, which is currently underway.

On April 28, 2021, a panel of experts and industry leaders joined Kate Walsh, dean of the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration and E. M. Statler Professor, for a keynote webinar on the unique challenges faced by the cruise industry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, lessons learned, and preparations for setting sail once again. The panel consisted of Frank Del Rio, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.; Richard Fain, chairman and chief executive officer of Royal Caribbean Group; Dr. Helene Gayle, MD, MPH, president and chief executive officer of The Chicago Community Trust as well as public health expert; and Cornell Nolan School associate professor of services marketing Robert Kwortnik.

Produced by the Center for Hospitality Research (CHR) and eCornell, the webinar was titled “Restarting the Cruise Industry: Challenges and Opportunities.”

Here are some of the highlights of the discussion.

Prioritizing responses to the pandemic and working together

When faced with challenges like COVID, industry leaders had to prioritize and work together. According to Frank Del Rio, people—guests and crew—were his top concern as the pandemic abruptly halted cruising and forced the industry into a holding pattern until operations could be deemed safe. Facing similar hurdles, Richard Fain spoke about the Healthy Sail Panel a collaborative effort between his and Del Rio’s organizations, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, which brought leading public health experts, industry veterans, and academics (including the Nolan School’s very own Dean Kate Walsh) together to detail “best practices [for protecting] the public health and safety of guests, crew, and the communities where cruise ships call.”

Recognizing the need for industry-wide collaboration and support during these challenging times, the 69-page Healthy Sail Panel report has been shared with the entire cruise industry and any other industry—which, as it turns out, are many—that might benefit from its recommendations. Professor Robert Kwortnik, an expert on the leisure cruise industry, gave some insight into the far-reaching effects of the pandemic and the CDC’s No Sail Order on ports and other businesses that rely on revenue generated by cruisers. Since ships ceased sailing in 2020, explained Kwortnik, travel agents’, airlines’, hotels’, restaurants’, and tour operators’ cruise-related revenue ceased too, pitching many of these businesses—and entire communities—into “economic paralysis.”

Ultimately, the report—secondary to preserving peoples’ health and safety—is about knowledge-sharing within and across these interconnected industries and businesses with the hope that widespread implementation of its recommendations will help stop the spread of disease and spark a domino effect of recovery for all.

Controlled environments help maximize health and safety

At the start of the pandemic and prior to the emergence of vaccines, the gathering of large groups of people, especially in confined spaces like cruise ships, posed a health risk. But as the Healthy Sail Panel discovered, a cruise ship’s uniquely “controlled environment” actually proves advantageous for stopping the spread of the virus and mitigating other risks to health and safety. When equipped with infrastructure and personnel for testing, lab work, treatment, and individual medical care, each ship has the ability to proactively prevent and safely contain any potential outbreaks, more so than most other businesses and establishments that people have been frequenting during the pandemic.

More than guidance for onboard procedures, the Healthy Sail Panel’s report also recommends “sailing to strictly controlled ports and destinations where cruise operators can ensure health and safety protocols are in place,” including “limited destinations, controlled excursions, and short trip lengths.” Fain highlighted “curated tours” on which guests can visit a variety of pre-approved—meaning that the proprietors have taken precautions against the spread of COVID-19—onshore attractions in a controlled manner. Meanwhile, Kwortnik drew attention to private islands, which have found new use in the pandemic as additional controlled settings for guests’ onshore exploring.

Finally, Del Rio stressed that fully-vaccinated crews and passengers are the ultimate requirement for controlling the spread—even if that means losing potential profit from families with children who are still too young to be inoculated.

Future of industry and broader implications for public health

Looking toward the future of the industry, Del Rio expressed optimism on demand, saying that Norwegian is “substantially better booked” for 2022 than for both 2019 and 2020. Kwortnik agreed, calling the industry “historically very resilient” and noting that in many ways, they are “ahead of the curve” in sanitation and operational procedures.

On her outlook, Dr. Helene Gayle noted the potential for the cruise industry to “influence public health more broadly” with what they’ve learned, given the likelihood of more pandemics emerging in the future. She hoped that the Healthy Sail Panel’s work would provide a “shortcut” in terms of public health measures and “build resiliency” for future pandemics. Drawing attention to the “imperative” of vaccination for crew and passengers, she also raised the issue of overcoming inequality in international access to vaccines—especially considering the cruise industry’s “global workforce,” with many crew members coming from countries with less access to vaccines than in the United States.

Finally, Del Rio and Fain imparted some insights to future leaders. These included the importance of teamwork and communication, and navigating the new and evolving responsibilities of their jobs, such as talking with governments about health standards. In particular, Del Rio stressed the need to “quickly develop” a plan with input from one’s team rather than feeling sorry for oneself, and to “overcommunicate when in doubt.” Fain placed emphasis on the human aspects of the industry, with regards to “help[ing] people into new areas,” saying that people are ultimately what it “really does come down to.”

The cruise industry has come together to create a multi-layered healthy cruise experience. It is likely one of the safest vacation experiences available to travelers, and with extraordinary pent-up demand, the industry is looking forward to its exciting return.

If you’re interested in learning more, watch the recording for more details on restarting the cruise industry.

Learn about the CHR

Amy Wang

Amy Wang '24

Amy Wang is a staff writer for the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration's Centers & Institutes. She is a prospective English major in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences. She can often be found writing for the Cornell Daily Sun and editing for the literary magazine Rainy Day. It is her appreciation for the written word that motivates her to produce articles on the research taking place at the Centers & Institutes.

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