Cruise Ships
Cruise ship operators have no clear idea when they can once again pull up anchor and get guests to swarming over the decks. It's been one painful year for the industry. Image Credit: Agency

Ancona, Italy: Normally, when a new ship wraps construction at a shipyard, it's cause for a party, with executives in sharp suits and free-flowing champagne.

But when the sparkling 596-passenger ultra-luxury ship Silver Moon joined Royal Caribbean Group's elite Silversea Cruises brand in late October - the culmination of a $380 million, 20-month project - there was little pomp and circumstance. No media were on hand at the Italian shipyard to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over exquisite design features like bespoke Lalique panels in the French restaurant or handcrafted Savoir beds in the top suites.

This time, even Royal Caribbean's top brass bowed out on the celebration, teleconferencing in from Miami. And the ship's handover, in Ancona, Italy, came with a cringe. After all, Silver Moon has nowhere to go.

With border restrictions and a second wave of the pandemic freezing all kinds of travel, she may have to wait at least until spring to make her maiden voyage - and start turning any kind of profit.

"It's very painful in many ways," says Jason Liberty, Royal Caribbean Group's executive vice-president and CFO. "All this energy - whether it's design, creating unique activities and venues - obviously you're investing money as well, and you take delivery of the ship and you can't do what you do best, delivering the best vacations in the world."


The cost of 10 brand new cruise ships that completed construction after the pandemic struck

All decked to go

Liberty isn't alone in his frustration. At least 10 ships - ranging in cost from $75 million to near $1 billion - have wrapped construction amid the pandemic, representing an industry investment of more than $3.84 billion. Another three ships debuted at the beginning of the year.

Most are stuck in holding pattern until the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its counterparts around the world greenlight a return to cruising.

Cruise Ships
Until guests are allowed back in, all that operators can do is keep the vessel and all facilities in a top notch state. Image Credit: Agency

A year to forget

At this point last year, 2020 had been predicted in the cruise world as the beginning of a boom decade for ship building. According to trade publication Cruise Industry News, the year started with 117 cruise ships on order by 2027, a new record in the history of cruising.

After all, the industry's fast-growing popularity - 32 million projected cruisers in 2020, up from 30 million in 2019 -made new tonnage feel like a fool-proof bet. Now it just feels like a sunk cost, adding to billions of dollars in quarterly losses that some companies were already experiencing.

Newcomers get the brunt

Entirely new brands, such as Virgin Voyages and the luxe Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, may be among the hardest hit. They invested in multiple ships with no previous revenues to defray costs, only to have their first planned year of operation wiped out entirely.

Worse, they cater to a new-to-cruise market, which may be especially skeptical in the post-pandemic world. (Both of their debuts have moved to 2021.) Also debuting next year is new luxury expedition brand Atlas Ocean Voyages - which has added complimentary COVID-19 health insurance to its all-inclusive fares.

Of the 13 ships that have wrapped construction in 2020, few have carried guests. In addition to Silver Moon, they include the French-built 2,918-passenger Celebrity Apex - whose high-tech features such as an off-the-ship ‘Magic Carpet’ platform drove the cost up to nearly $1 billion - and the 100-passenger Silver Origin, which will sail the Galapagos with butler-serviced suites.

Feature overload

Many of these debuts should have been media juggernauts for the ships' parent companies, none more so than Windstar Cruises' first "stretched" ship, set to debut later this month after being cut in half and getting stitched back together with an extra 84-feet in its midsection. The major transformation of the 312-passenger Star Breeze - which adds 50 suites to each deck - has been anticipated for two years, but now it will get shown off quickly via video feed and remain docked, indefinitely, at its shipyard in Sicily.

"Who would have thought a year ago that you would bring out a ship and not immediately put it into operations?" says Christopher Prelog, president of Windstar Cruises. Originally set to sail on June 29 before a delivery delay, Star Breeze will now be held in place until the end of March, costing Windstar roughly a million dollars a week.

Keep 'em shining

On the plus side, Prelog says that virtual handovers avoid the last-minute stress of scrambling to get a ship ready for guests. "The focus now is to maintain it so that when the guests do come on board it still has that sparkly and newness factor to it."

Then there are construction delays, which are usually bad news. They've been common this year because of temporary shipyard shutdowns - but these days that's good news, given that executives rarely sign the biggest checks until the job is done.

Some vessels were delayed up to 10 months, with more than two dozen now slated to debut in 2021. That should help minimize drain until sailings resume, which may not happen until well into next year, depending on border re-openings and whether the industry can prove safe operations before a vaccine is widely rolled out.

Plus, brands will be armed with plenty of buzz whenever it's safe to set sail again. New ships like Carnival's forthcoming 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras, outfitted with the first rollercoaster at sea, tend to draw loyalists who want to be the first onboard, as well as new-to-cruise travelers looking to try the latest and greatest.

Will all this new-ship buzz help the industry recover from last winter's images of hazmat-suited health officials investigating shipboard COVID-19 outbreaks? Silversea's chief marketing officer Barbara Muckermann says yes, and she'll have an unprecedented three ships to showcase next year.

"New ships provide a lot of marketing excitement, and I think that's needed," adds Liberty.

Risk reload

Of course, that's only true if he and his peers can persuade the market that cruising is safe - a looming question mark, given that at least three small-ship companies have already experienced COVID-19 outbreaks aboard their vessels since resuming sailing this summer, even in the face of stringent precautions such as operating in a so-called "bubble" where all guests quarantine and get PCR tested before boarding.

Glitz and glamour is great says Windstar's Prelog, but "safe to cruise has to be the main message".