Two weeks before their April 2020 cruise Stephanie Boucher and her daughter Trisha Boucher found out the inevitable -- their trip was canceled
The cruise was Nursecon at Sea, a nurses conference slated to take place over five days aboard a Royal Caribbean bound for the Bahamas. The cancelation wasn’t totally out of the blue as a No Sail Order had been in effect since the middle of March as COVID-19 was docking boats coast to coast.
As nurses, Stephanie, from Nottingham, and Trisha, from Manchester, understand the seriousness of the virus and will not rush back to cruising.
“I’ll probably take all of next year off from cruising,” Stephanie said. “I’ll probably feel comfortable in 2022 after this thing hopefully blows through.”
The industry took major hits, publicity-wise, right from the onset of the pandemic. In the first week of February the Diamond Princess, run by Princess Cruises, saw 700 of its 3,711 passengers diagnosed with COVID-19, only two days after the first sick passenger disembarked the ship in Hong Kong and was later found to be positive. A month later the Grand Princess saw 70 cases and was quarantined off the coast of California for a couple days. When outbreaks on ships were discovered early in the pandemic news outlets ran the stories, depicting the industry’s giants as petri dishes during pandemics.
Despite the bad publicity, NH travel agents and cruise enthusiasts say that coronavirus won’t be fatal for cruising.
“(The industry) will come back,” said Kim Terrio of Penny Pitou Travel, which has offices in Laconia and North Conway. “Travelers I know want to get back. For some people it is for their own mental health. How long it will take to get back (to pre-Covid) is the question. I’d say to get back where we were in February may take two to three years.”
Currently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended the No Sail Order in waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction through Oct. 31. The edict first went into effect on March 14. The CDC said on Sept. 30 that 3,689 COVID-19 or COVID-like cases and 41 deaths have been linked to cruise ships in the U.S. from March 1 through Sept. 29.
“I think we’ll lose (some clients) but diehard cruisers will cruise again and (many) want to get back on ships now,” said Bill Walsh, owner of Cruise Travel Outlet in Salem. “Many feel safe, however, and know cruise lines are going way overboard in terms of making sure it is a safe environment.”
Not Anticipating A Permanent Change To Cruising
Other NH residents are looking forward to a cruise after navigating the stressors of 2020.
“A lot of people are not spending money (during the pandemic) and they are saying they now deserve a cruise,” Walsh said. “I think we will see a lot of first-time cruisers take the place of those who are not comfortable cruising.”
According to a Cruise Lines International Association poll taken in August, 77% of respondents plan to cruise in the next two years; that’s just 1% lower than people who believed they’d cruise in the next two years when polled in December 2019, before coronavirus was a pandemic.
Still, Jane Broderick of Windham, isn’t pushing for an early return to cruising. She, along with her husband Michael, have enjoyed up to four cruises a year during their more than 40 years of vacationing on the seas. But after seeing what has happened the past seven months they know it will be some time before they meet up with friends on the high seas.
“I’m not ready to jump back on a ship until COVID is under control, really under control,” Broderick said. “I’ve been saying that there is no way I am going to sail having to wear a mask. Until it is entirely over and there is a vaccine I don’t feel comfortable going back to cruising. I will go back when everything is clear. The crew takes care of you on the ship, but you can't trust other people (on the ship) to be good.”
The Brodericks were on a cruise when the first No Sail Order came down. Passengers were only allowed on two of the scheduled five island stops because the countries closed their borders. Barbados was so busy with five ships docked that the Brodericks turned right around and re-boarded the boat. Luckily, they were able to get off the ship in Maryland on March 17 as planned.
“We were thinking (COVID-19) would last a couple weeks and it would be all over and done and then we could continue cruising,” said Broderick, who has cancelled three additional 2020 trips. “We’ve been missing out on cruising a lot.”
Like Broderick, Lisa Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Travel in Spofford, also thought coronavirus would be a quick blip and the industry would be back in no time.
“I was one of those people who said to stop worrying, it’s the flu, it will blow over,” said Fitzgerald. “I truly believed that until probably the first week in April when I followed a website that showed every death per minute. I was watching it like a bad series on Netflix. That’s when I knew this was bad and it wasn’t changing.”
Adjusting Business, But Not Giving Up
For almost a decade Walsh had been hoping to create a new brand that focuses on smaller ships like river cruises or ones with different itineraries. The pandemic has presented the perfect opportunity. While losing up to 80% of his business in 2020 compared to this time in 2019 is never a good thing, he believes the timing is right.
“I think people will be more comfortable on small ships, so the timing will be good for us,” said Walsh. “(This sector of cruising) has been trending up. Our company has been trending more to luxury and most those higher end products.
Fitzgerald has been keeping busy staying in touch with her clients, initially with weekly calls that have changed to monthly. She updates them on important news and developments like how to get credit for lost vacations, cruise line news, and what countries are opening up to ships
“The calls make them feel important and puts their trust in the industry,” said Fitzgerald. “Then when it’s the right time (for them to return) they are ready to go.
Fitzgerald has also started a video conference series when she has industry experts and representatives on with her. Fitzgerald even did a virtual wine tasting night that had 38 guests
“February, March and April, to all of us in the field, was a blur,” she said. “When it started to settle down and the storm cleared up we had to think of different avenues to stay in front of our clients. Someone in my group discovered Zoom and we all jumped on that bandwagon. We had to be creative to (stand out).”
No matter when ships are able to set sail, cruisers can expect a different experience than what they’re used to. Buffets, pool areas and casinos are just a few of the spots on the boat that may be altered, according to the Royal Caribbean website blog. Mask requirements and pre-boarding covid tests should also be expected.
“People will hopefully feel more comfortable and start booking (with new requirements),” Boucher said. “With covid (ships) will have social distancing, hand sanitizing and cleaning efforts will be more detailed than before. They had already done a great job as it is.”
Pictured: Trisha Boucher enjoys a drink in the pool area on a Carnival Cruise in 2018.
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