cruises

How will the pandemic leave its mark on travel?

Dreaming about travel? Us too. But how will our journeys be changed by the pandemic?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News.)

Sanitizing stations, “stand here, not there” floor stickers, and cotton swabs up the nose were not part of the travel experience before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as travelers edge their way back into airports and hotels and onto airplanes, cruise ships, and ski slopes, they will be dealing will all that – and more.

But for how long? We asked some industry experts to tell us which new travel trends, technologies, and protocols they think will stick around.

Who will travel and what will they expect?

“Businesses are connecting with their customers virtually and leisure travelers are discovering the joys of staying local,” says Chekitan Dev, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in the SC Johnson College of Business. “Many business travelers will lower their number of trips, and leisure travelers will shift from ‘hyper-global’ to ‘hyper-local’ travel for the foreseeable future.”

For well into 2021 travelers will be expected or required to wear masks and observe physical distancing. And airlines, airports, hotels, and cruise lines will be expected to continue making health, safety, and cleanliness a priority.

“People will look at a dirty rental car or bus or airport or airline cabin or hotel room and wonder, ‘Uh oh, am I putting myself at risk?’ says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Travelers will continue to hold travel brands’ feet to the fire to keep their facilities clean.”

Entertainment

Once we move past this pandemic “we’re going to have amnesia about some of this and likely go back doing many of the same things we used to do before,” says Devin Liddell, futures and design strategist with Seattle-based Teague global design consultancy.

Theme parks, museums, and other attractions will reopen, and Liddell says the best operators will retain systems put in place to orchestrate the flow of people. For example, “ski resorts that require reservations will likely create a better experience for everyone on the lift lines,” he says.

Hotels

Hotels will likely maintain flexible cancellation policies and keep in place the intensive protocols for cleaning guest rooms and public spaces.

But instead of housekeeping only upon request or not at all during a stay, “elective housekeeping will be more about providing guests with an easy ‘opt-out’ of housekeeping services,” says Bjorn Hanson, adjunct Professor at New York University’s Tisch Center of Hospitality. 

Cruising

Most major cruise lines are maintaining – and extending – the voluntary suspensions of sailings until sometime in 2021.

When sailings resume there will be changes onboard.

“The buffet will move away from the more traditional self-serve approach toward a more crew-served style – something that lines have already said will likely be a more permanent change,” said Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic. And “changes to muster drills could also stick around beyond the pandemic. Rather than mass events that put all passengers in small spaces at once, we’ll continue to see this more self-driven.”

Airports

At airports, “the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of countless new technologies and protocols to keep people healthy and safe and streamline the entire air travel experience,” says Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America.

“Many of these changes will outlast COVID-19,” he adds.

Those technologies and protocols include sanitizing robots, restrooms that alert maintenance crews when cleaning is needed, contactless check-in, bag check and credential authentication, and the increased ability to order and pay for food or duty-free items from a mobile device and receive a contactless delivery anywhere inside the airport.

The current pandemic will change future airports as well.

“We plan to implement many public health procedures into the design of our new terminal building,” scheduled to open in 2023 said Christina Cassotis, CEO at Pittsburgh International Airport, “It will be the first post-pandemic terminal to open in the country that will be designed with these issues in mind.”

Materials in airports are going to change, too, says Luis Vidal, president and founding partner at Luis Vidal + Architects. “The use of new photocatalytic devices based on antibacterial, antiviral, and ‘autocleaning’ material, such as titanium dioxide, silver or copper, in high-use areas will become the norm.”

Airlines

(PRNewsfoto/United Airlines)

Airlines will maintain stringent cleaning and sanitizing protocols. Generous rebooking and cancelation policies may stretch out for a while. But most airlines will soon stop blocking middle seats.

Coming back soon: the full range of in-flight services, especially at the front of the plane.

“The traveling public is not happy with the bare bones on-board experience right now,” says Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research. “They understand the need for limits, but people are saying they won’t accept paying for a premium experience and getting something that is subpar.”

Vaccines, Travel Corridors, and insurance 

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, it may become a ‘must-have’ for travelers.

The new normal for global travel may also include digital health passports displaying a traveler’s vaccine or negative test status and, by spring, travel corridors (also known as travel bubbles) that allow travel between countries with low COVID-19 infection rates, says Fiona Ashley, VP Product & Solution Marketing SAP Concur.

While there are some great fare deals being offered right now, as demand returns, so will higher prices.  And going forward, travelers will likely need to factor in the added costs of COVID-19 tests and travel insurance.

“Travel insurance may become a non-negotiable as destinations continue to require medical insurance, and travel suppliers tighten their refund policies,” said Megan Moncrief Chief Marketing Officer of travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth

“The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of the global travel industry. I think travelers will be more cautious about investing in expensive trips without insurance.”

What now? A new week of coronavirus travel alerts

News related to the spread of coronavirus and its impact on travel seems to be coming faster than we can keep up with it.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department issued a notice urging U.S. citizens not to travel by cruise ship.  

The CDC is also discouraging older adults and anyone with underlying health issues from taking long plane trips and spending time in crowded places.

Airports would count as crowded places. Although with so many flights canceled and so many travelers staying home, airports are far less crowded than usual.

But for those who are traveling, airports and airlines are continuing to scrub facilities and share information about what they’re doing to keep passengers safe.

Here are just a few messages from the past few days.

World’s first hybrid electric-powered cruise ship arrives in North America

When it comes to the environment and sustainability, cruise ships and many cruise ship operators get failing grades when it comes to controlling carbon emissions, recycling and treating water, waste and sewage.

But thanks to new technology and the scrutiny of passengers, government agencies and environmental groups, the tide is beginning to turn in favor of the earth.

Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten is on the leading edge of that effort with the world’s first hybrid electric-powered expedition ship, which recently made history as the first ship of its kind to traverse the Northwest Passage.

The 530-passenger MS Roald Amundsen is named for the Norwegian explorer who was the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage by boat and the first person to cross Antarctica and reach the South Pole.

Hurtigruten’s sustainability policies include a ban on single-use plastics and the goal of being totally emission-free within 20 years. The Roald Amundsen moves the company towards that goal by featuring a hybrid operating system that uses large banks of batteries to supplement the power of the main engines, which run on low sulfur marine gas oil.

“Excess, unneeded energy from the engines is stored in the batteries and when the engine needs extra energy, we draw it back from the batteries and feed it into the engines,” Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam told NBC.

That reduces fuel usage, allows the engines to operate at their optimum levels and lowers CO2 emissions by 20 percent.  

The ship also has the option to run on battery power alone for limited periods, during which time it uses no fuel and creates zero emissions.           

Charging the batteries from the ship’s excess energy is essential, said Skjeldam, because there are currently no power charging stations for ships to plug into in port.

The company’s next hybrid ships will be different, he says.

Those ships will have plug-in capability and be able to recharge at power stations Skjeldam expects to be set up along the Norwegian coast and elsewhere.

The world’s first hybrid-powered cruise ship set sail from Norway in July and is now in Vancouver, B.C. preparing for a season of expedition cruises in Antarctica. Hurtigruten will debut a second hybrid-powered ship, the MS Fridtjof Nansen, in 2020. A third, yet unnamed hybrid-powered ship will be delivered in 2021.

Hurtigruten’s next generation of hybrid ships, along with a half-dozen of its retrofitted existing ships, will run on a mixture of battery power, liquified natural gas (LNG) and biogas made from organic waste, such as dead fish.

“Bio-gas is like a Kinder Egg of fuel; it is like those chocolate eggs with treats inside,” said Skjeldam. “Passengers on our ships will eat fish. The waste from that fish and from the fish farming industry will go into a production plant that generates gas for our ships and creates fertilizer for the agriculture industry.”

Skjeldam says that, for now, Hurtigruten’s hybrid ships and its commitment to far-reaching sustainability practices is an expensive proposition.

“We expect the technology to be cheaper in the future. But we know passengers don’t want to visit beautiful, pristine places on an operator that is not taking the nature they sail to seriously. Some cruise lines say they’re green, but passengers can tell the difference.”

Other cruise lines do their part – or not

The world’s largest cruise company, U.S.-based cruise ship operator Carnival Corp., was in court this week to address charges that it continues to violate environmental laws by discharging plastics, food, or “gray water” into protected areas.

“Compliance, environmental protection, safety — it’s the first thing,” Arnold Donald told the court. “Without it, we don’t have a business.”

On the positive side, though, Norwegian Cruise Lines Partners recently announced that it is on target to reach its goal of replacing all single-use plastic bottles across its fleet by Jan. 1, 2020.

Lindblad Expeditions announced its intention to become a carbon-neutral company starting this year by making investments to offset 100 percent of its emissions.

And the global cruise industry is working as a group to meet a goal the Cruise Lines International Association announced in 2018 of reducing the rate of carbon emissions across the industry fleet by 40 percent by 2030.

(My story about the world’s first hybrid electric-powered cruise ship first appeared on NBC.com)

Cruising with astronauts in Italy

I’m incredibly fortunate – and very starstruck – to be sailing this week on Viking’s fifth and newest ocean ship, the Viking Orion, during its maiden voyage with her ceremonial godmother, American chemist, emergency room physician and retired NASA astronaut Dr. Anna Fisher, who brought along dozens of special guests, scientists, astronomers and more than a dozen of her fellow former and current astronauts.

The 930-guest, 47,800-ton Viking Orion is named after the Orion constellation and in honor of Dr. Fisher’s work on NASA’s Orion exploration vehicle project.

I’m prowling the decks with a print-out of the photos of the astronauts and other space experts hoping to meet them all and ask them questions about everything from travel tips learned from space travel to memories of their first flights. (Getting them to sign my press release would be awkward, right?)

Their answers will appear here and in various assigned stories I’ll share links to later, but in the meantime, here are some photos and tidbits from the spectacular naming ceremony that took place in Livorno, Italy that included musical performances, tributes to Nordic mythology, a flying ‘spaceman’ who traveled over the crowd and around the ship by jetpack and fireworks.

 

 

In Livorno, the ship was docked beside the city’s historic Medici-built Fortezza Vecchia (Old Fortress) and a special interactive exhibit was set up inside to tell the stories of exploration technology throughout history – from the Vikings’ solar compass to Galileo’s gravitational and projectile motion experiments.

Among the special features on this ship is a  26-seat planetarium-like theater called the Explorers’ Dome – showing special panoramic films about exploration, such as “Journey to Space” and “Life Under the Arctic Sky” in a fully immersive environment.

Viking Orion continues her maiden season sailing itineraries in the Western and Eastern Mediterranean this summer before heading east to sail Viking’s newest itineraries in Asia, Australia and Alaska.

Stay tuned for more.

North to Alaska? The rush is on.

ALASKA LAKE HOOD SEAPLANE BASE

It’s not Klondike-era gold nuggets they’re after, but the gold that comes from mining tourism.

Airlines, cruise companies and chains such as Cabela’s and the Hard Rock Cafe are heading north to Alaska hoping to cash in on a rising tide of visitors to the Land of the Midnight Sun.

After three consecutive years of growth, Alaska’s visitor count reached an all-time high of nearly 2 million guests between May 1, 2013, and April 30, 2014, according to the Alaska Division of Economic Development.

Those 1,961,700 visitors beat the 2007-20008 record by 5,000 people.

“For many national brands such as Hard Rock, Alaska felt too far away to be relevant to expanding a national presence and many thought it would be too difficult to run a successful branch in the state,” said Calum MacPherson, area vice president of operations at Hard Rock International, “but we’ve seen a shift in recent years.”

Hard Rock now sees Anchorage as a “thriving, up-and-coming city that is uniquely positioned with a growing and flourishing cruise business” he said. He also noted that the local population was listed by the Census Bureau as having the nation’s second-highest median income in 2011.

After a soft opening early this summer, the Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage will have a grand opening Sept. 19 at its downtown Anchorage location at Fourth Avenue and E Street, which is where the long-distance Iditarod sled dog race begins each year.

Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage_courtesy Hard Rock International

Earlier this year, Cabela’s opened a 100,000-square-foot store in Anchorage selling hunting, fishing and outdoor gear with wildlife displays, an aquarium, indoor archery range, a mountain replica, deli, fudge shop and other tourist-friendly attractions on-site. Bass Pro Shops, with a wetlands nature center, stuffed animals, an aquarium and other tourist-friendly features, opened an outpost in July.

The new tourism record for Alaska was boosted by increases in the number of cruise visitors, greater air service, growth in winter travel and an aggressive state-led tourism marketing campaign, said Joe Jacobson, director of the state’s Division of Economic Development.

Close to a million visitors toured Alaska by cruise ship last year, lured by great scenery, not to mention a reduction in the state’s passenger head tax from $46 to $34.50.

“After that, many ships returned to Alaska and new ships entered the market,” Jacobson said. Holland America added departures that brought 6 percent more guests in 2013 over 2012, Celebrity Cruises sent one of its new Solstice Class ships to Alaska for the first time and new ships entered the market, he said.

Increased air service helped Alaska boost tourism numbers as well. Virgin America and Icelandair entered the market with service to Anchorage, and several other carriers (JetBlue, United and Delta,) increased the number of their Alaskan flights.

One number that isn’t rising is the age of the average visitor.

The most recent Visitor Statistics Program report that looked at demographics (2011-2012) found that the average age decreased slightly, from 51.6 to 50.7, between 2006 and 2011.

“The glaciers took my breath away,” said Renee Brotman, a leadership coach and organizational consultant from Goodyear, Arizona, who recently visited Alaska on a cruise and is already planning a return trip. “Juneau and Ketchikan are such charming small towns. You can stand in the middle of the street and look up and see glorious mountains all around you.”

Looking ahead, Alaska’s Division of Economic Development doesn’t do a formal tourism forecast. “But because changes in cruise ship deployment have a significant impact on the Alaska visitor market—51 percent of year-round visitors and 59 percent of the summer market—cruise industry schedules for Alaska provide a good indicator of what to expect,” said Caryl McConkie, the agency’s development specialist.

Cruise Lines International Association Alaska estimated that the state will see 972,000 cruise visitors during 2014, compared with 999,600 during 2013, due in part to the redeployment of two Princess ships to Asia.

“Strong early bookings for 2015 indicate that we may make up for some of the loss of passengers in 2014,” McConkie said, “Princess is replacing the Island Princess with the larger Ruby Princess in 2015, increasing lower berth capacity by just over 1,000 passengers per voyage.”

Climate change might help the 2016 cruise season warm up as well.

Since the 1990s, expedition-style cruise companies such as Polar Cruises, have offered sailings on smaller ships (with up to 199 passengers) that leave traditionally plied Alaska waters to explore Iceland, Greenland and sections of the Northwest Passage, which connects the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.

In 2016, Crystal Cruises plans to be the first luxury line to navigate the Northwest Passage route.

During a cruise from Aug. 16 to Sept. 17, 2016, the 68,000-ton Crystal Serenity, which carries 1,070 passengers, will travel from Anchorage/Seward to New York City, through Arctic waterways historically not navigable by large ships.

On its website, Crystal explains that a cruise is now possible because the “amount of ice in the Northwest Passage has declined considerably over the years, especially at the end of the summer in the southern reaches of the Passage,” creating a window of time when its 13-deck vessel will have minimal risk of running into “ice concentrations.”

Prices for the voyage start at $19,975 per person.

(My story about tourism in Alaska first appeared on CNBC Road Warrior).