Here at Cruise Passenger, we field a lot of questions about the current pandemic and the plethora of changing “pause” dates put out by the world’s cruise lines.

Our readers are mostly seasoned cruise passengers. They can’t wait to march back up the gang plank and greet their favourite crews. Well over 60% told us in a recent survey they are ready and willing to cruise again as soon as it is safe, and 25 per cent already have a booking for 2021.

So it breaks our hearts when so many ask: “I’m being pressed for a payment. Do you think my cruise will go ahead?”

Because our answer, so often, has to be: “We don’t know.”

Cruise detractors have had a field day over the past few weeks, reviewing with the benefit of hindsight an industry which, like so many others, has been seriously crippled by a disease that came out of nowhere.

Our own federal tourism minister Simon Birmingham was at it again this morning, warning against booking cruise tickets, stressing that there is no set date for cruise ships to return to sea.

He said it would be “optimistic” to think cruise lines would be operating again by September. “We haven’t got to the specifics of talking about their restarting, and frankly, the first hurdle they’ve got to clear is with health officials, not with tourism ministers, to demonstrate that they can operate in a COVID-safe way.”

Even lines like Carnival, who recently said they would resume sailings on August 31, covered themselves with this caveat: “Any resumption of cruise operations – whenever that may be – is fully dependent on our continued efforts in cooperation with federal, state, local and international government officials.

“In our continued support of public health efforts, any return to service will also include whatever enhanced operational protocols and social gathering guidelines that are in place at the time of the resumption of cruise operations.  We are committed to supporting all public health efforts to manage the COVID-19 situation and will continue to keep our guests, travel agent partners and other stakeholders informed.”

Cruise Passenger is a great supporter of the cruise industry. We love to cruise, and thankfully almost all the lines today are well run, safe and provide great value holidays for everyone.

But we are also the consumer’s voice. We don’t sell cruises – we are independent. That’s why upwards of 500,000 Australians visit our sites every month, read our magazine, subscribe to our weekly newsletters, follow us on socials, watch our videos and listen to our podcasts.

We continue to publish newsletters and keep our website up to date as a service to the industry. It is supported through advertising by a few reputable lines who care about the cruise community. We thank them and we know that cruise will return, all the better for the learnings of this pandemic.

But as we have reported over the past two weeks, some passengers have been caught up in the chaos of reimbursements, and confused by Free Cruise Credits, and all sorts of other incentives to hold bookings and cash.

Cruise lines have done much to relax the often tight policies around deposits,  cancellations and refunds. But they are not retrospective. And still, many feel hard done by, whether it is by travel agents, airlines or cruise companies.

Australia’s consumer watchdog, the ACCC,  has had to warn some travel agents about their practices on refunds. And this week, the boss of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents had to resign after suggesting that veteran TV consumer advocate Tracy Grimshaw deserved a “slap across the face” or a “firm uppercut” after a show in which she questioned some agents’ refund policies.

We are also aware of the huge task faced by the industry to get itself ship shape for cruising in the new world, post pandemic.

Joel Katz, the MD of Cruise Lines International Association Australasia, asked whether there is a timescale for the health protocols which, it is hoped, will reassure cruisers and trigger a safe, orderly return to cruising, told Cruise Passenger:

“The intention is to have the overarching goals of the health protocols to share for discussions in the near future, though I understand this may be some weeks away.

“In addition to the cruise lines there are a lot of industry stakeholders who will play a role in developing  a coordinated framework for operations, including our ports and destinations partners, and these stakeholders will all need to be part of the process of developing the restart plans.”

And asked if states, territories and port authorities will need to sign off on them, he said: “While the industry protocols will be global, there will need to be discussions with each jurisdiction where cruise operates. Different regions are at different stages of where they are up to in tackling the virus, and have taken different approaches, so when we have the protocols we will certainly be working with the appropriate health authorities and governments to determine how they will be applied locally and when the time will be right to restart cruising.”

So if you are faced with the dilemma of maintaining a booking, here’s what you need to think about:

  • Until there is an agreed protocol for dealing with the health and safety of passengers on board cruise ships, it’s unlikely we will see widespread cruising
  • While many lines have announced new pause dates, none of them can really be sure when they will sail or where they will sail to. Each country and port on an itinerary has to accept cruise ships
  • For your own security, there needs to be an agreed procedure to deal with any outbreaks on board, and a way to get passengers off the ship and home
  • Check the many new and much more sensible cancellation policies the major lines have published before booking
  • Use a reputable CLIA travel agent who you trust

We’re optimistic that the industry is focussed on solving these huge problems, and will do so. Watch this space… and carry on dreaming.

By Peter Lynch, Editor in Chief