Dystopian Cruise Industry: Robots Instead of BuffetsBy Daniel González | Thu, 04/23/2020 - 17:10
Last Monday, the MSC Magnifica arrived at the port of Marseille after an odyssey that lasted months and has made it one of the major media players in the COVID-19 pandemic. With hundreds of passengers and crew on board, most of them German, French and Italian, the cruise ship, one of the most luxurious in the world, had departed from Genoa, Italy, on January 5. Among its plans, to go around the world and visit some of the most mythical destinations in the history of sailing, such as Cape Verde, Pitcairn Islands, Cape Horn, Polynesia, Cook Islands or Tasmania. When it left, there were only 59 cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic. But when he arrived on the Côte d’Azur on Monday after a trip of tens of thousands of miles, with no known destination and many ports closing their doors upon his arrival, the world had changed forever. Today, the Magnificent has become the paradigm of what the global cruise industry can become in the future. An industry that according to data from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) moved 28.2 million passengers in 2018 and generated US$134 billion. As in other sectors of the tourism industry, nothing will ever be the same for cruise ships.
As Stewart Chiron, an analyst and consultant to the cruise industry, told CNBC, the CLIA, in collaboration with the US Government, is already working on benchmark models with key industry companies such as Royal Caribbean or Carnival that could give us a clue about the lines the industry will follow in the future. For the time being, and according to CNBC, the main changes will be in the way reservations are made, which will be more digital. In addition, passengers will be required to undergo stringent medical checks when boarding the ship for the first time which will be updated after each visit to a port. At the same time, according to Claire Lee, an analyst at Euromonitor, sterilization robots will be installed to protect travellers as much as possible from infection. These robots will be responsible for sterilizing all areas of a cruise ship, with special emphasis on common areas such as swimming pools or recreation areas. The same will happen in the cinemas and theaters that offer the cruises to their clients. The maximum number of attendees will be reduced and social distancing measures will be imposed following guidelines that will also be implemented by other means of transportation such as airplanes or buses. The objective? To recover tourist trust in the industry.
But perhaps the measure that can most change the industry as we know it is the elimination of buffets, a classic of this type of vacation that will be replaced by crew-run stations, while increasing table services, all with the idea of eliminating the transmission of a possible virus. In addition, reservations will be required to go to the cruise ship’s restaurants and bars. In other words, the number of workers assigned to meet the needs of customers will increase, the companies’ expenses will rise and, as a consequence, so will the final price of a trip of this kind.
Mexico, sixth world power in terms of receiving tourists, will be one of the countries most affected by these measures. According to INEGI, during Easter Week 2019, 1.9 million tourists arrived in Mexico aboard a cruise ship at the ports of Cozumel, Progreso, Mahahual, Puerto Vallarta, San Jose del Cabo and Ensenada, leaving a total of US$129 million. The most conservative projections made by the industry stipulate that there will be a 20.6 percent drop in the spill left by tourists in Mexico, although there is absolute uncertainty about how the industry will behave in the future. For now, the mirror in which the industry looks at itself is the H1N1 epidemic of 2008. In May of that year, with the entire country totally closed, the decline in travelers was 93.6 percent according to INEGI. In this context, Cozumel and Mahahual will be the most affected ports, since, according to the Center for Research and Tourism Competitiveness of Spain, in 2019 between them totaled 6.2 million passengers, in other words, 70 percent of all travelers arriving in Mexico through this means of transport.
In this dystopian present, big companies will be the winners, since they are the only ones with the economic capacity to face the big investments that will allow the companies to work again with certain normality. In addition, mega cruise ships could disappear in the medium term, giving way to more boutique, more select and smaller trips, both in size and number of passengers, which will also increase their price.
The good news for the industry is that despite the limitations of ports and the measures taken by the major companies in the world, the demand for contracting a cruise ship by 2021 has not ceased to increase. According to Heidi Alison, President of cruisecompete.com, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “the online cruise market has seen a 40 percent demand for reservations by 2021” compared to the same period in 2020. “The public is eager to sail when this is all over,” he said.