Post-COVID cruising: The ships are back at sea, but where can they go?

Over the course of his life, Ray McDonald has taken 154 cruises. Sometimes they are back-to-back, other times they are back-to-back-to-back. When COVID-19 hit, he was on the last boat to dock. “They had to drag me off the ship,” he said. But as he gets ready to board one of the first ships planned to set sail from the U.S. on July 5, he’s worried about what a post-pandemic cruise will look like.

While experts and lifelong cruisers expect buffets to be suspended and a general reduction in social events onboard, they say the more than $55 billion industry is likely to survive relatively unscathed. The wild card at this point is where those cruise ships will go and what passengers will be able to do once they get there, because some ports are saying they don’t want the cruises back at all.

When the pandemic hit more than a year ago, the news was flooded with cruising horror stories: outbreaks on ships, stranded passengers and crew, countries unwilling to allow COVID-stricken boats to anchor in their ports. The U.S. issued a no-sail order on March 14, 2020, followed by a conditional sailing order on Oct. 30, which outlined a rigorous phased return to cruising. Over the last couple of months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has begun allowing trial voyages to take place, and on June 26, Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Edge is scheduled to be the first passenger cruise ship to set sail from the United States.

The Grand Princess cruise ship carrying passengers who have tested positive for coronavirus passes the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, California on March 9, 2020. (Kate Munsch/Reuters)
The Grand Princess cruise ship, seen in San Francisco on March 9, 2020, carrying passengers who tested positive for the coronavirus. (Kate Munsch/Reuters)

As cruises prepare to set back out to sea, and companies try to lure customers back onboard, the ships will still be facing potential limits on where they are allowed to stop and what passengers will be able to do at those destinations if they are even allowed to disembark.

Alexis Papathanassis, a professor of tourism management at the Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences in Germany and co-director of the Institute of Maritime Tourism, said the post-pandemic reality for cruises will be a shift to private islands. “The destination experience will presumably change, at least for the medium term,” he said, adding that there will be a trend toward any stops becoming an extension of the onboard experience.

Even ports that do allow cruise passengers to disembark may still place restrictions on their excursions. This is already happening in Singapore, one of the only countries that are currently allowing cruises. “When [passengers] go ashore, they keep them in a bubble and have organized tours to cities that have been certified as COVID-free,” said Andrew Coggins, a professor of management at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University and a cruise industry analyst. “If they go out of the group, they can’t get back on the ship.”

These changes would affect more than just the cruisers, however. The local destinations, some of which rely on cruise tourism for their economies, would lose out on the financial gain while still bearing the economic and environmental consequences of crowds.

In Juneau, Alaska, most of the economic benefit of cruises comes from local tours. Visitors take helicopters and planes to go ice fishing, dog mushing and hiking. In 2019, Alaska got about 60 percent of its visitors from cruise ships, but if passengers are restricted to cruise-organized excursions, the benefit to the city disappears.

A cruise ship sits docked near downtown Juneau, Alaska on June 4, 2017. (Becky Bohrer/AP)
A cruise ship docked near downtown Juneau, Alaska, in 2017. (Becky Bohrer/AP)

While cities like Juneau could struggle, cruise lines may benefit from the change. “Ultimately, increasing the control over guest consumption and the holiday experience as a whole has long been a key economic driver for the cruise sector and will become more so in a post-pandemic cruising reality,” Papathanassis said.

Arlo Haskell, the treasurer of the grassroots organization Safer, Cleaner Ships, which advocates for health and environmental issues in Key West, Fla., echoed this sentiment. “Cruises have gotten so much better at keeping all customer spending on the ship and not the ports,” said Haskell, a native of Key West.

The yearlong cruise hiatus has given locals in popular port destinations like Key West, Juneau and Bar Harbor, Maine, the chance to see what the actual benefits of cruise ships are to their cities, and contrary to popular belief, they are finding them to be negligible.

Key West, one of the most popular cruise ship ports in the United States, saw an increasing number of boats in recent years, until the pandemic hit. A port that saw just 17 ships per year in 1969 now sees 400. But when cruise ships stopped and local residents saw what things were like without the constant barrage of huge ships, they found that life flourished.

“Every cloud has a silver lining, and the silver lining of the pandemic for Key West is getting to see what this place is like without the daily onslaught of mega cruise ships,” said Haskell. “Nature can heal.”

Haskell is referring to the environmental and economic impact of the hiatus. Not only were waters clearer and ocean life rejuvenated, but Key West’s economy thrived.

Royal Caribbean Lines 'Vision of the Seas' docked in Key West, Fl. in 2014. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas docked in Key West, Fla., in 2014. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“We’ve had 13 months of no cruise ships, 13 months of virtually no international visitors and 13 months of no major events in Key West,” Mayor Teri Johnston told Yahoo News. “And we ended 2020 with 90 percent of our sales tax revenue.”

Though cruise lines heavily advertise the economic benefits of cruises for port cities, most visitors limit their spending to inexpensive souvenirs just off the boat and street-food snacks. These tourists, though plentiful, are not staying in the hotels or eating dinner at the restaurants. Many already choose to go on cruise ship excursions rather than book local tours.

A 2018 scientific study on the economic, social and environmental impacts of cruise tourism concluded that it does not provide benefits to the community in areas with low taxation and regulation. The researchers also found increased corruption and substantial negative environmental effects.

In March 2020, overwhelmed by the benefits gained from fewer cruise ships, the citizens of Key West attempted to permanently limit the size and number of cruise ships coming to their shore.

Through an effort led by Safer, Cleaner Ships, three questions were added to the November 2020 ballot that would limit the size and number of cruise ships, as well as give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records. The proposal would effectively halve the numbers during high season. Despite a $250,000 targeted campaign from the cruise industry, all three reforms were approved by more than 60 percent of the city’s voting population.

The permanence of the change is still in question, however. In January, two Republican state representatives introduced legislation to nullify the vote. The new legislation passed through the Florida state House and Senate, and Key West is waiting anxiously to see what Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis will do.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during a news conference surrounded by officials and cruise workers on April 8, 2021, at PortMiami in Miami, Fl. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at an April news conference in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

In an email to Yahoo News, the governor’s office said that “there are many bills still awaiting Gov. Desantis’ consideration. Any of these bills, including this one, would have to be signed by July 1 in order to become law.” DeSantis’s office did not provide any indication of his leanings on the issue.

Other port cities are weighing the benefits and drawbacks of allowing cruises to return. In Bar Harbor, Maine, cruises extended the tourist season, benefiting local businesses.

Alf Anderson, the executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said the city benefits from cruise tourism. “Our downtown restaurants, shops and experience-based businesses thrive when cruise passengers meander along our streets and find the opportunities that best suit their tastes,” he said.

However, as in Key West, some locals are questioning the benefit of cruise ships for the city.

“COVID-19 has shown the town of Bar Harbor several things — that life without cruise visitation was enjoyable, manageable and, for many people and businesses, better,” said Renata Moise, a member of the board of Friends of Frenchman Bay, a coalition of people who advocate for protections against mega cruise ships in the Bar Harbor pier.

Moise said cruise passengers don’t spend much money in Bar Harbor, adding that they are often seen bringing food off the ship into town to eat in the parks, while others buy just ice cream and T-shirts. In addition, Maine doesn’t have local tax, only state tax.

“I’m not sure that state sales tax loss is worth the air quality of Bar Harbor and the quality of life,” Moise said.

The cruise ship Maasdam lies docked in Bar Harbor, just off the waterfront as visitors walk along the scenic Shore Path. Cruise ships visiting  Bar Harbor in 2017.  (John Tlumacki/Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A cruise ship docked in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 2017. (John Tlumacki/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Following the first six months of the pandemic, three of which were during Bar Harbor’s peak cruise ship season, Maine topped the Back-to-Normal Index compiled by CNN Business and Moody’s Analytics. By September it was operating at 93 percent of its pre-pandemic economic activity. This puts Bar Harbor in a similar position to Key West and adds to the question of how economically beneficial cruise ships are to the ports.

Moise said the loss of revenue from reduced cruising “will be made up for in the income generated by higher-end tourism: hotels, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, ecotourism to the national park, land-based tourism, which is now pushed away by the unpleasant situation the cruise ships bring to the town.”

In March and April, Bar Harbor citizens lobbied the government to construct a survey that asked residents what they thought about the impact of land-based tourism and the impact of cruise-based tourism. The survey even laid out that cruise tourism contributes $20 million in annual revenue to local businesses, approximately 380 jobs and $5.4 million in labor income, and asked citizens to rate how important they feel those benefits are to the community.

The survey closed on April 26 and is being tallied. However, it came together too late to lead to anything appearing on the ballot in the June elections.

In Juneau too, residents are hoping to keep the quality-of-life improvements gained by the reduction in cruise ships. For the first time in years, downtown Juneau is no longer bombarded with visitors. The seas are calm enough to go kayaking, and helicopter tours are no longer interrupting conversations every 15 minutes for at least five minutes.

Kayakers are nearing shore on Douglas Island, with Mendenhall Glacier seen in the background in 2016, in Juneau, Alaska. (Becky Bohrer/AP)
Kayakers in Juneau, Alaska, approach Douglas Island, with Mendenhall Glacier in the background. (Becky Bohrer/AP)

“If this were cruise season, we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation, even with my insulation and with the windows closed,” said Karla Hart, a resident of Juneau and an activist for limiting cruise ships in the area. “They fly over my house, and it really fuels my activism.”

Hart said the tours take passengers throughout Juneau, driving buses through residential areas and polluting remote hiking trails.

“There is no neighborhood not impacted by the noise of helicopters,” she said.

As part of a local initiative, a group of Juneau citizens took a page out of Key West’s book and developed three proposals to limit the size of the ships and the hours when passengers are allowed to be in the city. The effort is still in the early phases, but Hart feels there could be popular support for moderation.

“Most of the people who live here now who are not old had never experienced a summer day without cruise ships,” said Hart. “But last summer was gloomy, and yet everywhere was packed.

“Now people have an understanding of what it could be like here without cruise ships,” she said.

With a number of ports looking to turn cruises away, at least for now, the alternative for the industry is private islands. Some ships have already integrated such islands into their stops. Disney, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess and Holland America all own private islands in the Caribbean. However, the islands have always served more as a final stop after places like Belize or Panama, which provide a more cultural experience.

The Carnival Panorama cruise ship sits docked, empty of passengers, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Long Beach, California on April 16, 2020.  (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
The Carnival Panorama cruise ship sits empty in Long Beach, Calif., in April 2020. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

“I think the number of calls to private islands will increase,” said Coggins, the cruise industry analyst. “The cruise line has more positive control of the environment.”

For at least some cruisers, that’s a less than ideal option and one that could make them rethink how they spend their vacations. “We definitely cruise for the different cultures and experiences,” said Peta-Gaye Daniel, an avid cruiser and blogger.

While the mandatory masks and vaccinations, lack of buffets and fewer social gatherings wouldn’t sway her from going on a cruise, a private-island-only schedule would.

“The private islands are really just another slice of the ship but on land,” said Daniel. “I welcome it, but not by itself.”

Cover thumbnail photo: Daniel Bockwoldt/picture alliance via Getty Images


Read more from Yahoo News: