Deck chair on a cruise ship on the promenade deck. (photo via grandriver/Getty Images)
The travel industry has been devastated by the impact of coronavirus and the travel-related restrictions, but few businesses have been scrutinized as harshly as cruise lines.
Despite the perception that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) inhibited the cruise industry’s ability to bounce back from COVID-19, bookings have skyrocketed as demand for leisure travel has surged.
On the front lines of the return to cruising have been travel agents, who helped tourists decipher and understand the evolving health and safety protocols cruise lines have been forced to implement by the CDC.
For most advisors, the biggest issue is the ever-changing coronavirus-related advisories and restrictions, which can be different at every port. Clients have told agents they want a streamlined process back that mirrors the hotel, airline or car rental industries.
“The protocols need to go. They are putting the industry at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the tourism industry,” CruiseOne’s Chris Caulfield said. “Almost every other travel option doesn’t have the same hurdles as getting on a ship. The protocols are adding expense and stress to people’s vacations.”
From dropping testing protocols to eliminating capacity limitations to ending mandatory vaccinations, travel advisors are hearing from their clients that the cruise industry must change before making a full-fledged comeback.
Another aspect of the outdated protocols agents would like to see changed is that some cruise lines are still allowing customers to cancel their voyages for any reason, which leaves travelers confused about how to use Future Cruise Credits.
“I would like to see the end of the ‘cancel for any reason’ policies that cruise lines had in place when travel first began to reopen,” Cruise Vacations International’s Jeremy Hall said. “Those policies were generous and useful in their day but those days are now past us and the cruise lines need to return to their standard cancelation and change policies.”
“Navigating the ever-changing rules on when and how the endless Future Cruise Credits can be used and whether or not agency commission is protected is taking up valuable time that is needed for brand new bookings,” Hall continued.
With the cruise industry already implementing so many changes over the last two-plus years, advisors are looking to continue the momentum and remedy some of the longest-standing issues, including streamlining pricing packages to avoid nickel-and-diming customers.
Some agents have looked to the all-inclusive resort model and would like to see more companies follow Princess Cruises’ lead, which just added a Premier package that includes unlimited Wi-Fi for up to four devices, premium beverages, photos, specialty dining and crew gratuities.
“I firmly believe it’s time to include gratuities into the cruise fare,” TheCruiseGenius.com’s Scott Lara said. “Too many people remove their tips near the end of the cruise which punishes the crew. While in the short-term prices would increase, I believe that avid cruisers would embrace this change.”
While travel agents would like to change many elements of the current cruise landscape, the core value that all advisors and their clients share is their desire to have fun during a voyage.
All of the changes aren’t negative, as most agents know customers just want more time to party.
“I would like to see more late nights and overnights especially in the Caribbean,” Caulfield continued. “Being able to experience the nightlife of an island is something that would draw new people to cruise. I love Bermuda cruises because I am able to enjoy the island without rushing back.”
The combination of technology and the lasting impact of the pandemic has formed a perfect storm of confusion for consumers, which is why they must book their trips with travel advisors.
As everything continues to return to some semblance of normalcy, agents will help push the cruise industry to make the improvements needed to meet the ever-changing demands of travelers.