More robots, fewer buffet lines: You will cruise again, but it will look very different
Few images capture the coronavirus' crushing impact on the travel industry better than those of cruise ship passengers lining their balconies, awaiting return to a land quite changed from the one they left.
But soon those images may represent a form of travel from a bygone era.
As cruise companies embark on a raft of improvements to save their reputations, it could change the face of cruising as we know it.
"Lots of changes will occur before ships are permitted to resume service," The Cruise Guy's Stewart Chiron, an industry analyst who has been on 276 cruises, told CNBC.
Indeed, some of those changes have already played out. Strict medical protocols were implemented when a series of major cruise liners went into lockdown following outbreaks onboard.
Others changes will be more gradual. But they will need to be in place by the time travel returns.
UBS predicts "meaningful" cruise operations will resume by 2021 — and already, the demand is there. Reservations for next year are up 40% from 2019, according to booking site CruiseCompete, as holidaymakers rally to reschedule canceled trips and new customers plan ahead.
Strict health screenings
Enhanced health care measures will, of course, be the first port of call.
"They will have to rethink how everything is laid out for all public spaces, how the shore excursions are done, enhance sanitation procedures, (introduce) more stringent efforts to screen passengers," said travel influencer Scott Eddy.
Already the Cruise Lines International Association has been working with member cruise lines, such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean, as well as the U.S. government, to produce a framework of such guidelines. Those include "more stringent boarding procedures," better monitoring capabilities and quarantine arrangements.
But stricter medical protocols could be just the start, according to analysts who spoke to CNBC. Regular temperature checks, expanded onboard medical centers, improved air filtration systems and mandatory "fit to travel" documents for older travelers could all become part of the package for future cruises.
Beyond health care, there could be a further sea change ahead.
Love them or loath them, the quintessential, self-service buffet could soon be a thing of a past — replaced by crew-manned serving stations and table service.
"Historically, in the case of norovirus outbreaks on ships, this strategy has been employed by cruise companies to limit the spread of infectious disease," notes Sheri Griffiths of CruiseTipsTV.
Reservation systems, too, could become routine for both dining rooms and entertainment venues, as liners move to comply with stricter capacity limits.
Meanwhile, the outbreak could push cruise companies to invest in more modern technologies.
Sterilization robots already in use in other parts of the travel industry, such as hotels, could ensure hospital-level sanitation standards, suggests Clare Lee, a research analyst at Euromonitor International.
"The pandemic has accelerated the tourism industry's path towards higher hygiene standards to incorporate automated and digital cleaning systems," said Lee.
"Technologies that increase the tourism industry's level of safety (will) be prioritized by industry players in order to gain back confidence from consumers post pandemic," she added.
Winners and losers
Such sweeping changes will require heavy investment at a time when cruise operators are already struggling.
Commentators suggest major players will be best placed to handle that, with many having mothballed ships in anticipation of better days ahead. "Travel is going to return ... and when it does, we'll return with it," Carnival CEO Arnold Donald recently told CNBC.
But whether travelers will have the stomach to take to the seas with several thousand other passengers is unclear.
Travel influencers Don and Heidi Bucolo of EatSleepCruise.com say they plan to be "among the first" to cruise again when travel restrictions are lifted, though they acknowledge other holidaymakers may take more convincing.
"Could some cruisers be turned off by the size and the passenger count of these mega ships? Sure," said Bucolo. "But most cruise lines do offer ships of various sizes and capacity to appeal to all types of travelers."
That could spell new demand for smaller operators that can weather the storm, such as expeditions and river cruises, according to CruiseTipsTV's Griffiths. Indeed, Steve Ebsworth, co-founder and CEO of luxury yacht operator Rascal Voyages, thinks the pandemic could accelerate a wider industry shift toward "more considered," smaller-scale travel.
"People will want to be closer to nature, closer to the beach, closer to animals. I think the winners will be any experience that leans heavily towards that," he said.
That level of exclusivity comes at a cost, however, which few wallets may be able to justify in a post-coronavirus landscape. While Rascal Voyages has seen a surge in inquiries for late 2020 and early 2021, notably from U.S. and U.K. customers, Ebsworth said his will be among the many firms offering discounts to coax travelers back out to sea when it is once again safe to travel.
"We'll be trying to entice people to get back out to Southeast Asia when this passes," said Ebsworth. "So we will be offering deals."