Sailing the seven seas has changed significantly and more changes are coming. The international pleasure cruise industry has seen its share of problems in recent years, but continues to add new services and amenities it hopes will lead to a rebound. The coronavirus pandemic has certainly caused cruise revenue to sink lately, but technology is coming aboard to help provide ballasts for the industry. Whether or not the technology will go far enough, like a landmass on the distant horizon, will only be revealed with time.
It’s hard to practice social distancing on cruises – everything about the trip is built around social interaction. As Cornell University Professor of Marketing Chekitan Dev explains to Bloomberg, “Cruising has always been a ‘high touch’ business in almost every aspect. Going to a ‘less touch’ model is going to have to have cruise companies rethink almost everything they do.”
Going forward, cruise ships are going to be managed differently than before. Some, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, have begun to install medical-grade air filters that can reportedly clear 99.95% of all airborne pathogens (although there is no scientific study to back up the claim). Others, like Princess Cruises, already use touchless systems on their ships for convenience, and these solutions will be integrated into more operations. For example, passengers on some Princess vessels are given quarter-sized devices that allow them to open cabin door or make purchases. Touchless soap disepensers, touchless toilets, touchless menus and much more are on their way. It’s Star Trek on the open waters.
All of the innovative solutions will most likely be tried in live environments, not in a lab, which means there may be glitches. Dev adds, “[The first cruise passengers] are risk-takers, so they are the perfect profile with whom to beta test some of these ideas and iron them out for eventual rollout.”
There is still the need to address how to control crowds. A cruise ship that holds 8,000 people or more can’t have everyone making a run on the pools at once. Applications that allow passengers to see what areas of the ship are, or aren’t, congested are on their way, and cruise lines are also implementing human-controlled solutions to “suggest” that passengers seek out alternative means of entertainment when in an area that is deemed to be too crowded.
Of course, all the advances come at a cost, and most companies aren’t going to be willing to break out the wallet to cover the expenses. According to a former cruise line executive, Art Sbarsky, “It works in contrast to the thinking there is going to be low-ball pricing when the ships come back” to increase bookings. “They will need to offset [all the new technology],” he adds. So, while some travel is going to be offered at greatly reduced prices, don’t expect to find a lot of major deals on cruises.