Cruises selling out more than a year in advance

OVATION OF THE SEAS cruise ship anchored in Manila Bay — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

AFTER a year of isolation and lockdowns, four months on a ship is looking pretty good to cruise super fans.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic was raging in July when Viking Ocean Cruises opened reservation books for a 136-day world cruise itinerary. The Christmas 2021 departure sold out in weeks. In December, in the midst of a second wave, the company opened a second cruise for the same period. It, too, quickly sold out.

The company had no trouble filling two of its nearly identical 930-passenger ships, Viking Star and Viking Neptune, even though the borders of many of the two dozen countries the plan to visit remain largely closed to international visitors. The only cabins that went unsold, in fact, were those blocked off for potential quarantine needs. Now the line is scrambling to put together an additional around-the-world itinerary starting in 2023.

“We are looking to open the next opportunity as quickly as we can,” says Richard Marnell, executive vice president of marketing for Viking. “Watch this space!”

In spite of the dire straits of the cruise industry over the past year — or possibly, because of them — the hottest tickets on many cruise lines are pricey, multimonth world tours planned to take place a year or more out.

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These bookings, which can cost from about $50,000 per couple in standard rooms to hundreds of thousands of dollars in top-tier suites, represent a rare glimmer of hope for an industry that’s taken more than $30 billion in losses and continues to be saddled with uncertainty. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently considers cruises a “very high level” of COVID-19 risk and recommends that travelers avoid them worldwide; to date, most lines have canceled sailings until June, and even that timeline seems optimistic.

Viking isn’t the only line with big plans for the fairly distant future. On Jan. 27, Oceania Cruises opened sales to the public for its 2023 “Around the World in 180 Days” cruise, which will hit five continents, including Antarctica. The upscale line sold out a 684-passenger ship in one day.

Ultraluxury line Seabourn, for its part, has sold out all top-level suites on two world sailings on the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn, with couples paying up to a half-million dollars for five-month cruises starting in 2022 and 2023. There’s so much demand, the company recently opened waitlists.

WHY NOW?
Many factors are driving this trend, from cabin fever to favorable deals and the promise of vaccinations for cruising’s famously older core demographic.

World cruises don’t necessarily circle the globe, their name notwithstanding. But cruisers who have been stuck at home since March 2020 are apparently bullish on seeing as much of the world as possible in one fell swoop — including such hard-to-reach destinations as Easter Island, Bora Bora, or the Seychelles. Take Silversea’s latest itinerary: When it sets sail in 2022, the first-ever “expedition world cruise” will spend 167 days journeying from Ushuaia, Argentina to Tromso, Norway — nearly pole to pole.

Pent-up demand and “reprioritization of life goals” are at play here, says Matthew D. Upchurch, chairman and chief executive officer of Virtuoso, a luxury travel adviser network. In addition to world cruises, which typically take place over the winter into the spring, he says longer sailings of several weeks or months are attracting more interest than before the pandemic.

“There’s a longing for the missed opportunities over the past year, and a strong desire to take advantage of seeing the world while they can,” Mr. Upchurch says. “By taking something away, you highlight the true value and appreciation for it.”

Other value propositions may also be at play. For cruisers who had to cancel one or several voyages in 2020, these once-in-a-lifetime itineraries are emerging as a good way to cash in on credits they have. Through the last 12 months, cruise lines have encouraged travelers not to seek refunds by offering 10% to 25% added value in the form of “bonus credits,” which on some lines need to be redeemed by April 2022.

Cruise lines are also ramping up the VIP freebies they offer long-term guests, such as free dry cleaning, Wi-Fi, and visa services. To help lock in ship occupancies for an extended period and guarantee income on their bright-red balance sheets, they are adding lavish pre-departure parties, business class airfare, and thousands of dollars in onboard spending credits.

Among folks raring to get back to sea are Linda Weissman and her husband Marty, a retired orthopedic surgeon. The pair has escaped the cold temperatures in Michigan and “wintered” on Cunard world cruises 14 times — always staying in a top Queen’s Grill suite and spending millions of dollars in the process. They plan to do further four-month world outing on Queen Mary 2 in 2022.

“I miss the people, the service, being waited on and taken care of like royalty 24/7,” Linda says. “It’s like, ‘Do you want escargot tonight?'”

After the pandemic, passengers will have to grapple with some serious concerns, including the frequency of outbreaks on ships that had promised buttoned-up Covid protocols last summer and fall. Despite those headlines, Viking’s Mr. Marnell says world cruisers will benefit from a safe, “constant environment” in which travelers can feel comfortable hanging out for a long period of time. Like other lines, his company’s ships have been outfitted with labs for frequent PCR testing and new air purification systems, among other measures.

The safety of shore visits, however, remains a looming question mark — particularly in countries where vaccinations have not yet begun to roll out in any substantial way. While cruise companies are generally working on plans to ensure safety at these ports of call, the fast-changing nature of travel recommendations and long lead times before itineraries can resume mean that those details have not yet been broadly released.

FAR FROM GUARANTEED
For cruise companies to carry off these plans, many things will need to break their way. The Viking cruise in December 2021 is set to sail to 56 ports in 27 countries, including spots in Central America, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean — with fares from $53,000 to $166,000 per person.

The company, like others offering world cruises, will have to navigate the complexity of constantly changing entry requirements and quarantine rules in a world that may not reach herd immunity for years.

The unknowns surrounding government regulations will make it difficult for cruise lines to plan itineraries, says Virtuoso’s Mr. Upchurch. “Having to change course once a voyage is underway is not practical. It’s costly, and it does nothing for restoring consumer confidence,” he says.

Cruise lines are hoping that by the time these distant itineraries set sail, Covid won’t be an issue; should border closures persist for longer than expected, these itineraries may need to be postponed, just like the rest of the cruise calendar.

What nobody wants is a repeat of last winter. As Covid-19 spread, world cruises had to be scrapped midway through, with passengers sent home on hastily arranged flights or stranded on ships. One result, though, is that travelers have come to understand that “nothing is guaranteed,” Mr. Upchurch says.

That goes for the Weissmans of Michigan. They had to pack their 10 bags (eight for Linda) and fly home from Perth when their world cruise on the Queen Mary 2 was cut short last March. They’re hoping for the best in 2022.

“Every day on Facebook it pops up where we were on this day [last year],” Linda says. “Today, it popped up we were in Bali, drinking Bloody Marys. I mean, come on.” — Bloomberg

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