The past two years have been anything but smooth sailing for the cruise industry. It was inextricably linked with the emergence of COVID-19: One of the earliest international headlines about the pandemic was the Diamond Princess cruise ship’s quarantine off the coast of Japan in February 2020 due to an outbreak, which eventually resulted in 712 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nine deaths among passengers and crew.
After a complete shutdown of the industry in March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed cruises to resume in November 2020 under a Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) that mandated strict health and safety protocols for crew and passengers.
The CSO expired on Jan. 15, 2022, meaning those protocols are now optional for cruise lines. And while debate rages across various sectors of the travel industry about whether companies should enact policies that go above and beyond government-mandated safety measures, the cruise industry would be best served by pressing on with existing protocols in place.
The pandemic has bruised, but not broken, the cruise industry
The CDC recently recommended that even fully vaccinated travelers should avoid cruises due to the highly transmissible omicron variant. While consumer intent to cruise did drop after the recommendation, the share of those who plan to travel in the next year whose plans “definitely” or “probably” involve a cruise — 17 percent — is now the same as what was measured in October 2021, before the omicron variant introduced a new wave of chaos to the industry.
It’s not just the most dedicated cruisers planning to set sail — 27 percent of those who will or might cruise in the coming year have never done so before, meaning the industry is enticing new entrants despite the challenges of recent months.
Those who plan to travel for leisure in the next year were asked what influenced their plans
Encouragingly, those who plan to cruise are ready to spend. When asked what influenced their upcoming travel plans, cruisers were more likely than travelers in general to say they’re planning a trip because they have money saved up that they want to spend (23 percent versus 16 percent), and nearly a third (31 percent) said their financial situation in the pandemic makes them want to travel more rather than less, compared to only 8 percent of the general population. This represents a compelling opportunity for cruise lines, which count on onboard revenue to make up a significant portion of profits.
Those with cruise plans are more safety-conscious than the average American
Given the rocky path to recovery to this point, cruise brands must be cautious not to sink this emerging momentum. Opting out of the CDC regulations could do just that.
In the short term, while it may seem financially and logistically easier for cruise lines to lift pandemic-related safety measures, doing so threatens to hinder recovery by alienating cruisers, who are more safety-conscious and open to pandemic protocols than the general population. When asked about specific actions travel brands should take to keep their employees and customers safe, potential cruisers were more likely than the average American to agree that brands should engage in all efforts.
Share of respondents who believe travel and hospitality companies should “definitely” or “probably” do the following:
What’s more, cruisers’ support is even stronger for the most stringent preventative measures — while most agree on the need for cleaning, sanitizing and distancing protocols, the biggest differences in agreement between cruisers and all adults occur in areas like compulsory masking and vaccination for both employees and customers, as well as more extreme measures such as completely separating vaccinated and unvaccinated customers, which have yet to be implemented by any travel brand.
Cruising continues to attract younger generations with new needs
Cruise lines must balance the immediate needs of recovery with long-term strategies to retain and grow their customer base. It’s not news to the industry that attracting millennials and Gen Zers will be crucial to future success, and encouragingly, more than half of those with plans to cruise in the coming year are members of these younger generations.
Younger travelers bring new attitudes, behaviors and expectations to the industry. While traditionally cruising has been billed as a worry-free escape, several other desires are more prevalent among Gen Z and millennial travelers than their older counterparts — namely, the desire to experience adventure and luxury.
Those who plan on traveling for leisure in the coming year were asked about the purpose of their trip(s)
To attract younger travelers, cruise lines may also want to consider opportunities presented by the shift to remote and flexible work policies. Gen Zers and millennials are much more likely than older generations (12 percent versus 4 percent) to say their jobs’ requirements to report in person — or lack thereof — make them more willing to travel. If cruise lines can offer the tools and technology needed to work at sea — think consistent connectivity and quiet places for productivity — they can appeal to digital nomads and encourage longer and more frequent journeys among those with fluid work arrangements.