Cruising -- and travel in general -- is facing a crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic. The future of cruising is especially unclear, from when it will resume to what the experience will look like when ships begin sailing again.
Not all cruise experiences are the same, however.
I have long been a fan of smaller ships for many reasons that I have documented in numerous stories on this site.
River cruises and expedition voyages are attractive because they offer an intimacy and destination immersion that you won't find on the bigger cruise ships.
When sailing on the smaller ships, especially for expedition voyages, you join anywhere from about 22 to up to 100 fellow travelers who typically share a desire to learn more about the world, cultures and history in a more in-depth way. The destination, activities and chance to bond over fantastic experiences make these trips attractive.
Since the onset of this health crisis and the subsequent halt to travel and cruising, I have been concerned with what the world of travel will look like when we come out on the other side. Of course, things will be different. They have to be.
I am convinced that small cruise lines have a clear advantage over the mega-ships in emerging from this health crisis in a way that will give travelers confidence.
There are a number of reasons. With fewer passengers and a smaller amount of space onboard the ships, the lines can more easily and effectively control the environment.
A group of small U.S.-based cruise lines has formed the U.S. Small Overnight Passenger Boat Operators Coalition in order to combine forces to help one another navigate the rough waters brought on by the pandemic and to distinguish themselves from large cruise lines.
UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard envisioned the small lines coming together during these extraordinary times, and in the first week of March, invited the other lines into a conversation. The result was the creation of a new coalition among cruise lines that often compete against one another.
The U.S. Small Overnight Passenger Boat Operators Coalition includes these cruise lines: UnCruise Adventures, American Queen Steamboat Company, The Boat Company, Blount Small Ship Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions and American Cruise Lines.
All members of the group operate ships that are flagged and based in the United States and employ U.S. crew. Most of their ships carry fewer than 100 passengers. American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company feature ships that carry anywhere from 100 to 400 passengers while sailing journeys on the Mississippi River and other rivers within the United States.
The Centers of Diseases Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order for cruise ships that can carry more than 250 people (crew and passengers) that lasts until July 24 (or until the CDC modifies the order or declares the pandemic over).
"Regarding the CDC's no-sail order, the coalition is advocating that U.S. domestic inland cruise operators should be exempted from the current ban, which we believe is aimed at large foreign-flagged cruise operators," American Queen Steamboat Company founder and CEO John Waggoner said. "For American Queen Steamboat Company, we anticipate restarting operations with a phased-in approach beginning in late June. . . .
"Of course, this will depend on when states and local authorities relax their policy on social distancing and stay-at-home policies."
This means most in the small-ship coalition should be able to offer cruises and expeditions quite a bit sooner than the mega-cruise lines. However, the main purpose of the group is to work together to distinguish itself within an industry that has been battered by bad press.
First of all, the smaller ships are not restricted by the CDC's no-sail order, so they can start back up whenever things open up in general in society.
Traveling closer to home would seem to be the more favorable option for most travelers willing to get back out there -- at least in the short term. Because of this, and because they don't face the same CDC restrictions as the big cruise ships, small lines that depart from U.S. ports and have itineraries within the United States face fewer obstacles in getting back up and running.
Some of the lines, though, have already ruled out sailing again this year.
The Boat Company is the oldest overnight small ship operator in Southeast Alaska, sailing on vessels that carry 20 to 24 passengers. It would have been celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer.
"With the pandemic and everything that goes with that, from travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine times to consumer fears and potential port shut downs, we sadly had to cancel our entire operating schedule for 2020," said Hunter McIntosh, president of The Boat Company. "For the first time since 1980, our vessels will not be bringing guests to the Tongass National Forest."
Likewise, Blount Small Ship Adventures, which sails unique itineraries on the Great Lakes, at islands in New England and on small rivers, canals and intracoastal waterways throughout the U.S., says its cruises aren't likely to resume until May or June 2021, according to Peter Palumbo, the line's vice president.
UnCruise Adventures said it "is looking towards mid- to late-summer for our Alaskan voyages to resume, but our booked guests will really decide the 'when' regarding the confidence level for travel and the evolving information about COVID-19."
These small U.S.-based cruise lines must overcome what seems to be an increasingly negative public perception of the industry, mainly brought on by large vessels suffering coronavirus outbreaks onboard. Major media outlets have sensationalized a crisis that nobody was prepared for with headlines like "Covid Cruises" and other damaging coverage.
I asked leaders of the small lines a series of questions to help you understand how these travel experiences (with no reported coronavirus cases) differ greatly and remain a safe option. Here are some of the questions and responses to show you what the future of small-ship and expedition cruising will look like and the changes they anticipate will have to come to safely get underway in this new age.
What would be your criteria for feeling it is safe to sail again?
UnCruise Adventures said: "Our team routinely reviews our operational safety and has taken enhanced measures for the implementation of pre-embarkation and onboard protocols. UnCruise Adventures CEO Dan Blanchard had pressed for the implementation of testing at home airports, and prior to check-in at any overnight destination. These conversations continue to happen with Alaska and Washington state delegates along with national representatives.
"What a destination's restrictions involve along with precautions taken by airlines and the local embarkation communities are also key to resuming our operations. We understand that going forward a new set of safety parameters will be needed and that travel, in general, will be brought back progressively."
The Boat Company's Hunter McIntosh said: "We'll rely on 'temperature' of our clients. If our clients are too scared to fly the long haul to Alaska, or fear for their health and do not want to get on planes, etc., they won't travel."
Blount Small Ship Adventures' Peter Palumbo said: "We would like to see an availability of rapid testing kits to our industry first and foremost. This will allow us to screen all guests prior to sailing.
"Hopefully, best-case scenario, there would be a vaccine available and/or some sort of effective treatment for those who become infected.
"We also plan on increasing our already abundant supply of hand-sanitizing stations to include units at the base of all gangways and increased units in all common areas. We plan to conduct onboard temperature checks as well as health questionnaires pre- and post-cruise. We are coordinating with companies that provide hospital-grade disinfectant applicators, allowing our crews to constantly clean the vessel of any potential hazards.
"We will also provide the guests with safety material discussing best practices, including how to social distance while sailing with us. We will also need to see a strong supply chain for all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), ensuring that we can keep our crews safe.
American Queen Steamboat Company's John Waggoner said: "The health and safety of our guests, crew and partners is our number one priority. We are taking the necessary steps to ensure we follow the recommended guidelines so that our guests and travel agent partners can cruise and sell with confidence.
"We have increased previously implemented sanitation and health protocols as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other government agencies to ensure the future health and safety of our guests and crew members. We will be unveiling our newly enhanced sanitation and health protocols once those details are confirmed and will be following industry and community guidelines on health screening and employee testing protocols.
Do smaller ships have a lot more control over the onboard environment for health screenings of passengers and for keeping the vessels cleaned?
UnCruise Adventures: "We sail in the wilderness with limited exposure to outsiders during the voyage itself. Smaller spaces and fewer guests with a correspondingly high percentage of U.S. crew translates into a much more predictable and stable environment.
"Our small-boat adventure company has always had a focus on sanitation and safety, and this is an opportunity to provide more resources for our guests. Our nimble operations also allow for us to provide social distancing . . . The ability to have small groups and real connections with nature has always been a big appeal for our guests."
Blount Small Ship Adventures: "Given the fact that we are a small ship, it allows us to get more highly focused on the health and safety of our passengers and crew. Prior to shutting down, we were able to implement a multiple question screening program verify recent contacts and travel history.
"We will continue to develop this program, in addition to pre-boarding rapid tests and post-cruise health screenings. Our ships only hold up to 84 passengers. Given that relatively small number, it helps us to better control a possible outbreak on board.
"Ships of our size and shape travel relatively close to shore . . . and in most cases can get a passenger professional emergency medical care in a matter of hours or less."
AQSC: "U.S. river cruise vessels are relatively small, and guests always have quick access to regional U.S. health care systems. AQSC's biggest distinction is our domestic routes and rapid access to shore-side health care if needed.
"Any guest that requires treatment will be sent ashore within hours if not minutes and will never have to be concerned with receiving medical treatment at sea. Many of the policies and guidelines being developed and implemented by the CDC and Coast Guard are designed to address contingencies involving foreign ships carrying thousands of guests on the high seas, all subject to the local authorities when trying to transport guests ashore.
"The smaller size of our vessels gives us the ability to routinely monitor guests and crew members for any health concerns and then quickly react by safely and efficiently getting these individuals to the top regional health care facilities for medical evaluation and treatment if necessary."
How can you help passengers understand that your ships are not dangerous environments?
UnCruise Adventures: "Our vessels stay in the wilderness, which eliminates exposure to large crowds, shoppers or anyone outside the small group of 22 to 86 guests. We operate in a contained environment aboard and with a dedicated American crew completing high-frequency sanitation rounds.
"Variables of being in large gathering places are eliminated with the contained environment onboard. We are utilizing real-world applications of social-spacing and are reviewing opportunities for approved testing. A voyage aboard one of our vessels is a very different experience than the traditional idea of cruising."
Blount Small Ship Adventures: "We want our passengers to know that we are prepared to provide them with individualized care. With fewer guests than the large ships, we can still provide our passengers with the fun and joy of traveling, with needed social distancing to keep safe."
AQSC: "In order to regain trust in American tourism companies, including cruise lines, we (the coalition) believe that comprehensive COVID-19 testing and screening programs are necessary and that it is appropriate for the costs of such testing to be provided through federal grants.
"This testing will not only give guests confidence to travel again but also aid the government in tracking the virus. We believe that COVID-19 testing should occur prior to traveling by air or ship and before any other multi-day accommodation.
"In addition, through our enhanced operations, from greater flexibility with bookings and cancellations to increased sanitation procedures and pre-screening, screening and distancing protocols, as well as our accessibility to transport guests to U.S. healthcare facilities daily, it is our hope that these measures will provide our guests and team with greater peace of mind."
UnCruise Adventures: "We will continue to spotlight what we do best, providing a highly experiential voyage for every passenger. But moving forward travelers should expect to be more flexible and be responsive to additional health and safety measures.
"The ability to have guests and crew provide testing results prior to embarkation is preferable, and we will sail with sufficient PPE gear to accommodate all guests and crewmembers. Incorporating new or enhanced safety protocols such as pre-trip health questionnaires, continuous observations of behaviors during travel and open communication are key to the new precautions. The travel landscape will look different in the future, and when we are ready to sail again, we have confidence in our ability to provide a safe environment with as little disruption to our adventure itineraries as possible."
Blount Small Ship Adventures: "The biggest difference will be the introduction of the screening and testing process for boarding our vessels. The implementation of social distancing on board our vessels will also be a noticeable change.
"There will also be measures implemented by our partners in the ports we visit that may be different from what our guests have previously seen. Our hope is that these necessary changes will not be permanent and that we would be able to lessen these measures once a vaccine is readily available. Even with these measures, we hope our guests will still feel like they are cruising on a friend's boat, experiencing all the wonderful ports we visit throughout the country."
Anything else you would like to add or tell cruisers who are anxious to get back on your ships and travel with you?
UnCruise Adventures: "The ability for small- to medium-size cruise companies to continue to create their own definition of the adventure industry will be key to their vitality and growth going forward. We understand that returning to normal will not be like flipping a switch, it will be a new landscape of requirements and expectations. We are coming up on our 25th anniversary in 2021 and are eager to celebrate that with our loyal guests and future travelers."
Blount Small Ship Adventures: "I think in time, things will settle down, but there definitely will be a 'new normal' regarding how we operate, manage, and execute our business. We will continue to work with CDC as we participate in their Vessel Sanitation Program and as a member of the Passenger Vessel Association who takes a proactive approach to addressing and helping the mitigation of issues like these in our industry.
"We are continuing to develop products that will inspire our guests to want more. We are working with our port partners to provide our guests with safe and unique shore excursions, allowing our guests to still experience all the wonderful places we visit. We want our passengers to know that Blount Small Ship Adventures is doing everything we can to safely go where the big ships cannot."
Thanks for giving this a read. I know you all are eager to travel again. I am, too, especially on a great small-ship adventure. Stay safe and stay positive.