Will you ever take a cruise ship out of San Diego again?

The cruise ships Disney Wonder and Celebrity Millennium returned to the B Street Pier on May 1 after being anchored just off the coast of San Diego. For the last few weeks, the ships, which still have crew members aboard, have been alternating between the pier and the outer anchorage area. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
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By Lori Weisberg The San Diego Union-Tribune (TNS)

SAN DIEGO — In recent weeks, mammoth ocean liners have been moving in and out of San Diego’s downtown harbor, a welcome sign, in normal times, of a thriving cruise industry pumping tens of millions of dollars into the local economy.

But these are not ordinary times.

Far from signaling prosperity, the three Celebrity and Disney ships that are intermittently parked alongside San Diego’s waterfront are grim reminders of a global industry abruptly idled by the coronavirus, sickening people on land — and at sea. Instead of readying the ships docked here for future voyages to the Mexican Riviera and Panama Canal, the cruise lines are grappling with how to return hundreds of crew members still on board to their home countries in the Philippines and India. A few of the crew remain infected with the COVID-19 illness.

Where the Port of San Diego had forecast about 104 cruise calls accounting for 338,000 passengers through the end of its current cruise season this month, those numbers have now plunged by 30% since cruising was closed for business March 14 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The economic hit is estimated to be more than $50 million.

While the CDC’s extended “no sail order” isn’t due to expire until the end of July — well ahead of the scheduled fall start of San Diego’s new cruise season — no one really knows for sure when cruising, in whatever revamped form it takes, will resume. Major cruise lines last week began canceling many summer and fall sailings but not in San Diego.

Long before the coronavirus crash, port officials here had been anticipating a robust 135 cruise calls, accounting for close to half a million passengers, for the 2020-21 cruise season.

While hopeful for a fall resumption, based on its discussions with some of the cruise lines, the port acknowledges everyone is in a wait-and-see mode.

“We’ve talked to them and they say their intention is to have cruising in the fall, but they’ll have to keep evaluating the situation with the coronavirus,” said Adam Deaton, senior trade account representative for the port. “It’s really evaluate as you go. As it is now, for San Diego, they’re targeting September, so hopefully that happens.”

Cruise lines are largely mum on when — and how — they plan to restart their crippled business, in part, because they’re at the mercy of the CDC and its estimation of whether precautions being taken by the companies will be sufficient to protect the public once sailings do resume.

Many of the well-known cruise lines, from Carnival and Celebrity to Princess, Holland America and Royal Caribbean, have ships capable of carrying thousands of passengers for days and weeks at a time, dining and drinking together, gambling in on-board casinos and enjoying live shows in large theaters.

In its no-sail order, the CDC was blunt in its assessment of the industry’s role in the pandemic, stating that “cruise ship travel exacerbates the global spread of COVID-19” and “if unrestricted cruise ship passenger operations were permitted to resume, infected and exposed cruise ship cases would place health care workers at substantial increased risk.”

Holland America, the cruise line that operates the most sailings out of San Diego, announced April 29 that it was canceling all 2020 cruises to Alaska, Europe and Canada/New England. For now, though, its sailings out of San Diego, starting in October, remain scheduled. Carnival Cruise Line, which has 34 San Diego sailings for the upcoming season, said last week it is extending its suspension of future cruises through the end of August.

Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America, says the company is eager to restart its operations but acknowledges there are still too many unanswered questions to know when there will be a firm date for resumption. The line, whose parent company is Carnival Corp., was planning 44 calls out of San Diego for later this year and early 2021, with an expected 175,000 passengers.

“Of course, we’d prefer sooner rather than later,” he said in an email. “However, we need to first see how society reopens, how we go to restaurants, sporting events, shopping malls, shows/movies, etc. We will need to see what role social distancing, testing, and other new protocols will play in daily life, and in the communities we would visit. We will also need to see how the commercial air system comes back, how people are able to travel and when they feel comfortable doing so. And as an industry we will be working closely with the U.S. CDC and other global health officials to determine the appropriate protocols for cruise ships.”

Beyond all that, how willing will consumers be to board ships after seeing a marketer’s nightmare of news reports showing vessels with COVID-sickened passengers as they tried to return to ports — including San Diego’s — amid the March order to cease operations? More recently, investigative reports by major news outlets revealed that many cruise ships opted to continue sailing in late February and early March, even after it became known that the coronavirus had been detected on board ocean liners.

Scores of avid cruisers from San Diego, responding to a query from The San Diego Union-Tribune, say they’re eager to resume traveling aboard ships, which they believe will only be safer once the moratorium on cruising is lifted.

“Am I afraid to cruise? Absolutely not,” wrote Gail Davie, 79, of La Jolla. “I understand that many people have gotten ill over the past, what, many years and now everyone is so hyper aware of ‘bad bugs’ that lurk on these ships that they will not cruise. I, on the other hand, know that fares are fabulous and that I may even get an upgrade to a suite. As a retired nurse, I am aware of basic hygiene and know that hand washing is the best defense.

“A viable vaccine is at least a year away. I want my life back now! Yep, I’m taking a Mexican Riviera cruise over the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Others, though, are more wary, believing that it won’t be entirely safe to cruise until there’s a vaccine capable of defeating COVID-19.

“I would love to go on a cruise tomorrow if I could but I’m not going to jeopardize my health or safety, so basically I’m waiting for a vaccine,” said Doug Shimansky, 62, of Rancho Penasquitos, who returned in March, with his wife Mary, from a repositioning cruise that almost left them stranded in Barcelona just as Spain was imposing a nationwide lockdown. “We were going to do an Alaska cruise in September and were planning another trans-Atlantic cruise from Florida, but we have decided to not do those because of the coronavirus. There are too many outstanding issues, and the ships don’t have a protocol out yet.”

The outlook for consumer demand so far is mixed. CruisePlanners, a franchised network of travel agents, reports that its business for 2021 is up 15% so far this year, and a recent survey by CruiseCritic, a consumer review site, found that 75% of those queried plan to resume taking cruises either at the same frequency as before or more often once the industry resumes sailings.

That’s at odds with findings by CruiseCompete.com, an online marketplace, which reports that compared to last year at this time, booked sailings out of San Diego for 2021 are down 13.2%. Bookings in general, across all markets, are down nearly 24%, said CEO Bob Levinstein.

And some local travel agents say most of their time is now spent handling cancellations and rebookings for the following year but are seeing very few new reservations as people continue to monitor the still uncertain coronavirus landscape.

“I have stacks of folders of all these people who canceled so the whole year of business has gone to hell and a handbasket,” said longtime San Diego travel agent Jayne Gomes. “So people who have spent a lot of money on cruises for this year are moving it to next year, so right now 98% of my business is gone.”

La Jolla travel agent Margaret Stein, whose business caters more to those booking trips on smaller luxury liners, is also feeling the pinch of the current slowdown but expects that eventually reservations will pick up.

“Right now, I’m doing a lot of business losing money. I have a lot of clients chomping at the bit, but they’re a little bit worried about this year,” said Stein, of Cadence Travel. “I’m sure business will pick up, and I do have a very good business for people who cruise a lot and they’re eager to resume cruising. They are pretty trusting that the cruise ships will be very careful and clean, and probably will be one of the safest environments on those small ships.”

Beyond what will likely be stricter medical protocols and boarding procedures, it’s still unclear what the cruise lines have in mind in terms of changed layouts and social distancing guidelines. Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, offers a hint of what may be coming. Chief Operating Officer Vicki Garcia said that in the agency’s conversations with the cruise companies, they have talked about keeping ships at 70% capacity, more physicians and nurses on board, required separations between people when seated.

“We talk to the executives frequently and these are some of the ideas they’re looking at,” said Garcia, whose company has 2,500 franchised owners across the country. “Masks are still a question now, it depends on when the ships are back in business. The cruise lines all have ‘book with confidence’ policies, so you can cancel up to 48 hours before sailing so you don’t feel bad about having to cancel.”

Also a big question mark are the ports themselves and how welcoming they will be when thousands of passengers disembark from arriving ships. Each of the lines, Garcia said, has been working with the ports of call to ensure they will be ready and willing when the time comes to restart cruising.

Port of San Diego officials say they haven’t yet reached out to the cruise destinations in Mexico, like Ensenada and Puerto Vallarta, but expect to by late summer.

“One positive thing we have going for us, and we heard this from the cruise lines, is that because our itinerary is the Mexican Riviera, it’s one of the easiest cruise line routes to resurrect because it involves a younger demographic, the price is right and the cruises are relatively shorter,” said Joel Valenzuela, director of maritime operations for the port.”

In the meantime, the port has been thinking about what changes it will need to make as part of the check-in process. That could entail staggered times for boarding, social distancing, and personnel wearing masks and gloves. Temperature checks would be up to the cruise lines.

Mick Scrivener, 53, and his wife Julie have gone on 35 cruises over the years but for now are proceeding with caution despite their passion for ocean travel. The Sabre Springs couple had reserved a Carnival cruise next February, timed to the Super Bowl, but three of his friends are reluctant to go unless there’s a vaccine, Scrivener said.

“I think until they get a vaccine, it will be a struggle for the cruise industry,” said Scrivener, who works as a wedding DJ. “The people you see on these chat boards are avid cruisers who will take the risk but I don’t think it will get back to normal until they get a vaccine.”

One thing for certain is that until virus treatments and cures are widely available, the cruise lines face a herculean task of luring timid travelers on board mammoth ships, says San Diego State University marketing professor George Belch.

“Initially, you really have to focus your attention on those you believe you have the opportunity to get back on the quickest,” said Belch, who chairs the marketing department at SDSU. “It’s interesting, the retirees are the groups that are most vulnerable yet they’re also the cruise lines’ bread and butter.

“If you think about what industry has had the most negative publicity, it’s the cruise industry. We don’t know yet how this will work out, not until they start ramping up at a larger scale. The knee jerk reaction is to write the industry off but I think the industry will recover; however, they’ll have to pull out all the stops in the near term for marketing. That will be critical.”

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