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COVID-19 Tourism Trends

Rising From the Dead — What Will Post-Pandemic Cruising Be Like?

Will we see a new, more conscious cruise industry or will it be a return to business as usual?

by Mariano Mantel (Flikr.com, cc-by-nc)

Until the emergence of COVID-19, cruising holidays faced little public scrutiny. Despite massive environmental and social impacts on destinations, the industry maintained its allure. But in the space of a few weeks in March of 2020, the public gaze was set on the predicament of passengers and crew of several cruise ships stranded at sea.

Cruising has a long history, with the first transatlantic leisure cruise taking place in 1844. This was more than a century before international air travel became commonplace. In those days, long, languid journeys to exotic destinations were de rigueur — at least for the well-to-do and privileged few.

Cruising hotspots included the islands of the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and the Mediterranean. Other popular destinations included central Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia, and Alaska. These continue to be popular today, as cruise ships expand their all-inclusive itineraries to ever more remote corners of the globe.

Cruising as a mode of travel has gained enormous popularity and a loyal customer base. They draw customers seeking the convenience of visiting different destinations without the hassle of changing hotels and suffering tedious airport transits. They see cruises as safe and predictable —like going to an amusement park.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation dominate the global cruise tourism industry. These behemoths operate under a myriad of brands and have complicated and opaque financial structures.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, cruising enjoyed a non-stop growth trajectory. That growth soon became overtourism in ports such as Barcelona, Venice, and Dubrovnik. Beyond these destinations, the cruise industry has managed to stay under the radar of public scrutiny. It has, for example, avoided the recent ‘flight shame’ movement that advocates flying less.

The Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA) claims that “cruising sustained 1,177,000 jobs equalling US$50.24 billion in wages and salaries and US$150 billion total output worldwide in 2018”. Before the pandemic, CLIA was projecting 32 million passengers in 2020.

Cruise ships also continue to grow in size. They have become floating hotels and shopping malls. In port, they cast long shadows over the surrounding destination landscape, obliterating any sense of place.

There are differences between large cruise liners that drive mass cruise tourism and smaller expedition and other vessels. Still, for operators there are many advantages of having everything centred on the cruise ship:

  • They are cheaper to operate
  • They can visit multiple destinations
  • They are more convenient, with all-inclusive prices covering meals and many activities
The Disney themed cruise ship “Wonder” is being re-provisioned at night in Vancouver, Canada. Patrick Brouder, TGx editor, cc-by

by Joseph M. Cheer

Cruising’s Day of Reckoning

In early 2020, the Diamond Princess was quarantined off the coast of Yokohama due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Officials struggled over what to do with a cruise ship stricken with hundreds of coronavirus cases. This proved to be a forerunner of what was to come elsewhere around the world.

Soon after, Australia quarantined the Ruby Princess, as cruise ships became “petri dishes” for COVID-19.

Health crises onboard cruise ships were not unheard of. The prominence of norovirus, a driver of acute gastroenteritis, is well known. But, unlike past problems on cruise ships, the CLIA was not able to avert the public’s association between cruising and the spread of the virus.

As the World Health Organisation related:

“The rapid movement of cruise ships from one port to another, with the likelihood of wide variations in sanitation standards and infectious disease exposure risks, often results in the introduction of communicable diseases by embarking passengers and crew members.”

COVID-19 has given the cruise sector its greatest day of reckoning. Whether it can regain the goodwill and trust of the travelling public is uncertain. Prognostications about the demise of cruise tourism might prove to be premature. This is especially true given the bottomless bucket of money it has at its disposal.

Cruise Tourism Critique

Cruise tourism is often seen as a way to develop a destination. But this development comes with social, economic, and environmental impacts. Researchers have spotlighted the failure of the cruise sector to address these impacts despite their promises to do so.

The Canadian academic Ross Klein has long argued that the cruise industry has ridden roughshod over its obligations to ensure environmental integrity. He criticises the sector’s poor corporate social responsibility policies. The industry evades tax obligations, flouts labour rights, and compromises the sustainability of destinations.

Cruise ships sail in international waters under flags of convenience from countries prepared to ignore labour and international maritime standards, providing opportunities for abuse of labour rights and environmental regulations. (Klein and Roberts, 2003)

Christine Chin has also investigated the cruise sector. She argues that its primary focus is on the “pursuit of profits, passengers’ consumption of pleasure, and foreign seafarers’ performance of work”. She says that this results in many contradictions, especially on the morality and ethics of production and consumption.

Photo by Julius Jansson on Unsplash

Ross Dowling and Claire Weeden examined recent technology advances in the cruise industry. Their exposé of the cruise sector notes that the number of people cruising has more than doubled, from 10.6 million passengers in 2004 to more than 22.3 million in 2015.

The size of ships has increased, from a high of 3500-passenger capacity in 2006 to vessels that now carry more than 6000 guests and 2500 crew members! And cruise ships are visiting more remote destinations than ever before.

Its investment in ever newer and larger ships shows that the sector is counting on continued growth well into the future. This also means that destinations need to build ever larger and more elaborate port facilities. Key industry players also maintain a labyrinth of financial structures and avoid scrutiny by registering in tax havens.

Friends of the Earth has been one of the most ardent critics of the cruise sector’s claims of adopting environmentally responsible practices. Such claims are impossible to prove.

Most travellers don’t realise that taking a cruise is more harmful to the environment and human health than many other forms of travel. (Friends of the Earth, 2019)

An example of this is the millions of dollars in fines issued to Carnival Corporation in 2019 for repeatedly dumping plastics and contaminated waste into the oceans. Many considered those fines a small slap on the wrist compared to the damage they caused.

The cruising sector knows no bounds. Highly vulnerable social and ecological backdrops , such as the Arctic and Antarctica, are the new frontiers of cruising

In their examination of cruise expansion in the polar regions, Michael Lück, Patrick Maher, and Emma Stewart ask:

Can cruise activities in the polar regions ever be synonymous with environmental and social sustainability?

Based on the cruise industry’s checkered past, they conclude that the sector’s ability to self-regulate is limited. Stringent government regulation will be needed to avoid environmental disasters.

A Norwegian Cruise Liner (“Jewel”, foreground) departs Vancouver Harbour as its sister ship (“Bliss” background) readies to take its berth. by Patrick Brouder, TGx editor, cc-by

Pros and Cons

Cruising has pros and cons. The question for destinations is whether the costs associated with attracting and hosting cruise ships is worth it. There’s little doubt that cruise tourism leads to increased visitation. But there is also little doubt that it also leads to negative outcomes.

At the same time, and as a result of COVID-19, cruise tourists are more aware of one major pitfall of cruising. They are now more aware of the risk of contracting a serious illness while at sea.

The challenge for port jurisdictions and communities is how to assess the contributions of cruise tourism. And how to weigh the benefits of such growth against possible social environmental, and economic impacts.

  1. Cruise tourism can increase visitation to a destination. In raw numbers alone, the number of passengers on board generally points to direct visitation. But, given the general opaqueness of cruise tourism data, the share of passengers who actually disembark remains unclear.
  2. Cruise tourists can make an economic impact on destinations. While inflated numbers abound, for some destinations their entire tourism economy is based on cruises. In general, cruises try to keep as much passenger spending on the ship as possible. But there are also higher-than-normal commissions for onshore tours, which offer some economic benefits to port-of-call communities.
  3. ‘Cruising helps connect regional destinations to the visitor economy’. This truism may apply to off-the-beaten-track locations. This is especially true for ports of call in small island developing states, or regional, coastal and, river towns.
  4. Cruise holidays are popular with those tourists most eager to travel again. Bookings beyond 2021 show rapid recovery to 2019 levels, suggesting that the sector’s ability to bounce back is almost assured. This is a pressing hope for destinations reeling from COVID-19 closures.
  5. The environmental impacts of cruise tourism are still glossed over. The greatest difficulty in assessing the true environmental impacts of cruises is the opaqueness of the sector’s operations. Voluntary compliance and reporting seem to be the only course of action but adherence is patchy.
  6. Occupational health and safety standards on cruise ships have a poor history. COVID-19 exposed the ongoing problem of the easy and rapid spread of illness on cruise ships. Additionally, crimes on board are difficult to resolve due to the flags that ships sail under and incidents taking place in international waters.
  7. Popular destinations can become inundated with cruise ships. This is seen in popular port destinations, such as Venice, where cruise ships disgorge thousands of passengers for the day in a small area. This impacts the experience of other tourists, the local community, and, ultimately, the sustainability of the destination.
  8. Cruise tourism operators sail under flags of convenience to avoid taxes and safety regulations. This arrangement also limits their liability in situations where crimes occur onboard. Their legal obligation to uphold labour rights is also less, reducing workers’ protections.
by Roderick Eime (Flickr.com, cc-by-nd)
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Cruise Tourism Going Forward

Cruise tourism came to a standstill in the COVID-19 pandemic. Some questioned whether it could return. Others question whether it should return.

The extent to which cruises are able to bounce back is seen in the forward bookings for cruises into 2021. These are showing considerable growth as compared to the pre-COVID-19 era in 2019. This is driven by people who have vouchers to use from canceled cruises, and by steep discounts offered by cruise lines, with flexible cancellation policies.

There’s no doubt that the pressure on the cruise sector to exercise more diligent corporate social responsibility should not let up. What little has been exposed suggests that flagrant violations of environmental and social obligations are much more widespread than thought.

Yet it is difficult to ignore the cruise sector’s size. It has also been among the fastest-growing sectors in tourism. Size and growth potential are what drive its success. This is why destinations want to be cruise destinations. Ans this is what challenges regulators, policymakers, destination managers, and communities. The question is how to find the sweet spot of gaining benefits and limiting negative impacts from cruise tourism.

Cruise tourists have a vital role to play in demanding higher levels of corporate social responsibility from the industry. They can do this by exercising their own responsible consumption. Operators that can show transparent, ethical, and trustworthy practices are the ones that should be rewarded.

Prognostications about the demise of cruise tourism are probably premature. Given the financial resources it has at its disposal, and the extent to which financial markets remain bullish on an eventual recovery.

The cruise sector’s largest organisations need to address the industry’s operational deficiencies. They cannot continue to thumb their nose at critics in their pursuit of profitability. Such an attitude is no longer possible in a time where reforming the entire tourism industry is under serious discussion.

Photo by Dan Kb on Unsplash

Afterword

At the time of updated writing (mid-June 2021), howls of protests have accompanied the return of cruise ships to the Venice lagoon. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has rubber-stamped “test cruises” to establish whether masks, social distancing, and other measures will be enough to protect non-vaccinated passengers.

Cruises are gradually returning, but mostly to domestic destinations within a single country. International cruising is still a ways off. The cruise industry is in flux, there are still many barriers to its return, and the best way forward is remains hotly debated.

For example:

Photo by Alonso Reyes on Unsplash

See scholarly Research Papers from ‘Tourism Geographies’ on “Cruise Tourism

Note

This is an updated and heavily edited version of an original article published online in Monash Lens, 21 April 2020. https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2020/04/21/1380110/not-drowning-waving-where-to-for-cruise-tourism-post-covid-19

About the Author

Joseph M. Cheer is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal Tourism Geographies and Professor in Sustainable Tourism, Centre for Tourism Research, Wakayama University, Japan. He is also Adjunct Professor, AUT New Zealand and UCSI University Malaysia, and Adjunct Research Fellow, Monash University, Australia.

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J.M. Cheer

J.M. Cheer

I write about tourism, travel and everything in between. My day job is as a professor in sustainable tourism - I’m an Australian, currently based in Japan.