The Australian cruise market can’t reopen soon enough for the CEO of Carnival Corporation, the leisure travel giant with a nine-cruise line portfolio that includes Carnival, P&O and Princess.

“Australia is one of the most thriving cruise markets in the world,” said Arnold Donald by phone in a rare one-on-one print media interview from his St. Louis residence. “It’s had double-digit growth in cruise for something like 10 years in a row – I’ve lost count. It’s a great market for cruise, certainly with our P&O and Princess brands.”

When cruising returns from the months-long suspension of operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “we’ll be back and elated to sail all our ships that come into Australia because, like with every other market in the world, there’s a large population of people who are underpenetrated for cruise,” Mr Donald said.

Reasons for Carnival’s corporate captain sounding upbeat are not without merit. For one, even under the lingering dark cloud of the fatal Ruby Princess calamity, the end of an industry-wide shutdown appears to be within sight. Cruise lines worldwide are now setting specific dates for resuming service, most in time to salvage the Australian winter.

Raising anchor with passengers aboard is the first step. Much more needs to happen before the industry can chest-beat over a recovery. But in that respect, the land down under is primed to make a bigger and faster comeback than many markets, according to Donald.

“There’s possibilities that Australia will come back sooner than other regions because it’s had less impact from the pandemic than some other places in the world,” he said.

Echoing the big boss’ optimism is P&O, which on May 4 joined sister Carnival in announcing a return to operations in Australia and New Zealand after Aug. 31.

“Australia has to date been very successful in flattening the curve of COVID-19, and the nation is working hard to maintain this positive momentum to help achieve economic recovery,” P&O told Cruise Passenger, citing the $5 billion annual contribution the industry makes to the national, state and regional economies. “Australia is also in a beneficial position with an extremely long coastline and numerous cruise destinations that could support a resumption of domestic cruise itineraries as a prelude to a full restoration of cruise operations.”

As the cruise industry gears up for a grand reopening, Carnival’s CEO acknowledges the added challenge of its Princess brand, which during the COVID-19 pandemic has seen its name splashed more in the news section than travel section. In addition to the Ruby Princess, which has been linked to more than 20 coronavirus deaths and 600 infections across Australia, passengers on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess have accounted for more than 800 total COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths.

“With Princess, despite some of the recent noise and investigations going on, we’ll get through all of that. We welcome the investigations, and we know our top priority and responsibility is compliance and environmental protection, health, safety and wellbeing, and we act in good faith in that regard. Coming out of that we’re expecting for Australia to be the robust cruise market it’s been and return to whatever the new normal is.”

Normal will surely have a different look after the current crisis passes, according to Donald, noting that changes to the cruise experience depend greatly on global alignment around the epidemiology of COVID-19.

“What will be different will be based on what we learn over the next several weeks about what really mitigates the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “Today, there’s controversy around everything – on testing, temperature scanning …. So, rather than rush to a bunch of optical things that look good, we’re going to let the medical and science communities determine what should be put into protocol or regimens that would really help mitigate the spread of this particular virus.”

When cruise ships return to passenger service after the expected five-month shutdown, at a minimum crew members will engage in deep cleaning, a medical professional will be on board and passengers will be reminded to sanitise their hands at stations placed in common areas. Those measures, along with expected good-hygiene practices, are standard operation and how the cruise industry has battled norovirus, Ebola, SARS, MERS and other outbreaks, some more successfully than others.

OceanMedallion screens
OceanMedallion screens

As a novel virus, COVID-19 is new territory for an industry that thrives on taking passengers to exotic places. The rapidly spreading disease found its way aboard roughly 50 more cruise ships between the first reported onboard case in early February and the mass shutdown.

“The industry voluntarily put a pause on cruising before anyone else did – before hotels, restaurants – before anything else,” Donald said. “There was very little knowledge in February and March. We aggressively addressed it.”

Navigating through the Fog

Inherent with precedent-setting times is the great unknown, a truism not lost on Donald. When asked what success will look like for the cruise industry post-pandemic and when can it be claimed, he answered with an implied asterisk.

“Success looks like happy, engaged, confident guests having the time of their lives filling phenomenal memories – that the crew is happy, engaged and honouring our highest responsibilities, which are compliance, environmental protection and the health, safety and well-being of our guests, of the people and places we touch and, of course, our people shoreside and shipboard.”

Then came the “but.”

“But,” Donald continued, “the practical reality is this is a global pandemic. This is much, much bigger than cruise – bigger than even travel and tourism as an entire category. We have to fit into what works for society, so, clearly, when people are comfortable with social gathering, which a cruise is by definition, that creates the possibility for cruise.”

With the rebound of cruising being dependent on society’s attitude about social gathering, Donald is pleased to see strides toward a return to people assembling.

“You can see what’s happening around the world right now,” he said. “There are a number of places opening – like in Australia they’re opening up some beaches and talking about opening up schools, and other examples. You can see society starting to move to some level of social gathering.”

Although most of the world is in the infancy of ending social distancing, Donald said early efforts provide the cruise industry with learnings as approaches across the globe are compared.

“If people are willing to go to concerts or football stadiums or airport terminals or subway stations, then you have preconditions of them being willing to go on a cruise,” he said. “Cruising has to fit in with how society overall views social gathering.”

Harkening back to Carnival Corporation’s highest responsibility, the health and safety of its guests and crew across all its brands, Donald stressed the importance of the scientific and medical communities aligning on how best to move forward with the least amount of risk in spreading the virus.

“Using that as the basis, we’ll then be able to talk about cruise,” he said. “We’ll find the right balance as the world moves forward. It’s just going to be a little rocky road until we do.”

It’s a rocky road with shipping lanes not found on any nautical chart.

“This is a once in a several-hundred-year type of event that in many ways is devastating,” Donald said. “I don’t think anybody expected most of the world to go into shutdown. Stay at home, shelter in place, whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is it’s had a massive global impact in terms of reaction to this pandemic.

“Millions and millions and millions of people out of jobs, and governments writing unprecedented checks trying to support their citizenry as commerce comes to a screeching halt. There’s been nothing like that where the entire world goes on stand-down. It’s unprecedented.”

Carnival Cruise Line celebrated million guests

Despite so many question marks floating in the sea, the CEO said he is confident his industry will return like cruisers to a buffet line. He cited the large base of loyal supporters who made up the bulk of the 30 million who cruised last year, and he’s seeing strong demand for bookings through 2021. A comeback will not be without its challenges, however.

“I think in the early going there will be enough people who love cruising to fill the ships,” Donald said. “There’s no question that with the amount of media attention around cruising, there are people who have never done it having second thoughts at this point in time. But consistent delivery of experience and exceeding expectations has always been our formula. The industry was wildly successful before this and I’m quite confident we will return to that level of success over time.”