It’s no secret that the cruise industry has been shaken to its core by the impact of Covid-19.
Other than a coastal route starting in Norway, ocean cruising remains all at sea with Canada, the Cayman Islands, Australia, New Zealand and Spain extending their cruise ship bans until later this year, a voluntary extension by major cruise lines in the US until at least October, and the Seychelles turning away ships until 2022.
Cruise lines are selling off – or scrapping – a number of their ships; coronavirus has been blamed for Carnival accelerating the departure of nine vessels.
But the beleaguered travel sector is fighting for a comeback, and it believes it has an ace in the hole: an unusually loyal customer base, eager to set sail as soon as it is safe to do so.
A survey by travel agency Mundy Cruising showed almost two-thirds – 63 per cent – of its customers plan to cruise in 2021, with 15 per cent hoping to sail this year.
Edwina Lonsdale, managing director of the specialist in small ship ocean, river and expedition cruising, said: “We are buoyed by our clients’ confidence in the future and their excitement about cruising again. The cruise industry is leading the way in safe global travel, collaborating widely to ensure guests can return safely to their favourite type of holiday.”
The majority of respondents (56 per cent) plan to travel on a ship carrying 50-500 passengers, compared to 44 per cent who preferred this size of ship before.
At the other end of the spectrum just seven per cent of the 332 people polled, plan to travel on a ship carrying more than 1,000 passengers in future, compared to 19 per cent before coronavirus.
All of which suggests that the winds of change are blowing in the cruise world and the era of colossal cruise ships might finally be coming to an end.
“Our clients have always recognised the many appeals of small ship cruising: the intimate onboard experience, the friendly atmosphere, the highly personalised service, the speed of getting on and off the ship, the off-the-beaten-track itineraries and not least the proximity to the sea,” said Lonsdale.
“Now they are further motivated by the logistics: no long queues for health checks, small group tours ashore, remote ports of call away from the crowds, the opportunity to swim off the back of the ship rather than wait your turn in the pool, limited exposure to loads of other people and lots of personal space to unwind.”
Travel restrictions related to coronavirus have shifted the focus on the smaller ships. Britons can only cruise along rivers, where ships are smaller by their nature.
And in the US, ships carrying 250 or more people (passengers and crew) aren’t able to take to the water due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order. Smaller vessels, however, are exempt, and having implemented new Covid-19 health and safety protocols, they are gearing up to welcome passengers once again.
Next month, both American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company will relaunch their 2020 US cruising seasons along the Mississippi River.
Closer to home German companies, Nicko Cruises and A-Rosa, together with French cruise lines CroisiEurope and Ponant have resumed sailing in Europe.
Boutique company Katarina Line, Croatia's premier specialist cruise line, also set sail last month with departures from Opatija, Split and Dubrovnik.
“Small-ship cruising is one of the safest ways to enjoy an unforgettable vacation experience in Croatia,” said Daniel Hauptfeld, marketing director for Katarina Line.
“Our vessels hold a maximum of just 36 guests, so they are perfect for small groups, families and friends to travel from one island to another, swimming in secluded beaches that are approachable only by boat – all without the crowds of larger vessels.”
Elsewhere Coral Expeditions, Australia’s small ship expedition company, is planning to restart its Kimberley cruises from Darwin to Broome on August 1.
Size and capacity, particularly post-coronavirus, aren’t the only attractions of small ship cruising. It’s a market that has experienced enormous growth in recent years, and it’s only just the beginning.
Part of the appeal lies in the fact that smaller ships can access ports that mega-ships simply can’t squeeze into. Tampa, in Florida, and Sydney are two ports where the height of bridges limits the size of arrival vessels while ‘newer’ destinations – such as the Chilean fjords, smaller Greek islands, the Kimberley in western Australia, Central America and Raja Ampat in West Papua – don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate super-sized ships.
Another factor driving the interest in smaller ships is that not every destination wants to welcome big ships – and that was even before the outbreak of coronavirus. Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona are three popular cruise destinations that have capped the number of big ships docking – citing over tourism and environmental concerns.
As countries around the world slowly ease out of lockdowns, cruise lines can’t build small ships fast enough.
Last week Viking announced it has a new ship, the 80-passenger Viking Saigon, under construction and expected to launch next summer. Viking’s newest vessel, which will sail between Kampong Cham in Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, represents a huge vote of confidence in the future of the small ship market.
Meanwhile Emerald Waterways has announced a new brand, Emerald Yacht Cruises. Currently under construction, the super yacht Emerald Azzurra will have just 100 passengers when it sails from Venice to the Dalmatian Coast and the Greek Islands in September 2021.