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Greenville Business Magazine

With CDC Warning Dropped, Charleston Cruise Industry Sets Sail Toward Recovery

Jun 01, 2022 03:25PM ● By Stan Foxworthy

On Jan. 13, when the Carnival Sunshine accepted its first passengers in nearly two years from Port of Charleston, assembled crew members applauded and banged mini-tambourines to greet guests as they stepped on board. For the Charleston-based cruise ship, it was the beginning of a sailing to the Bahamas. For the city’s cruise industry, it was the start of a journey back toward normal — for a few more years, at least.

The cruise industry worldwide was thrust into chaos at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when outbreaks aboard cruise ships often left passengers stranded for days or even weeks. In March of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control issued a “no sail” order for cruise ships due to the risks of Covid-19 transmission. 

The order halted what to that point had been an exceptional start to the year for cruises at Port of Charleston, which between January and March of 2020 welcomed 64,403 passengers — over 15,000 more than during that same span in 2019, according to the S.C. Ports Authority.

Charleston’s robust early 2020 passenger numbers were consistent with what much of the industry was experiencing at that time, according to Andrew Coggins, a business professor and cruise analyst at Pace University in New York. “They were looking at a banner year, or a really good year,” he said. “And then the bottom fell out.”

Since then, cruise ships in Charleston and elsewhere have been forced to navigate a number of obstacles as they attempt to ramp operations back up — not just the “no sail” order that was gradually phased out in late 2021 and early 2022, but also consumer hesitancy, initial capacity limits, and a CDC advisory warning Americans against going on cruises. The CDC dropped that advisory on March 31, pivoting toward travelers making “their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship,” the agency announced in a statement.

But in late May, vacationers looking to cruise out of Charleston were dealt another setback, this one initiated by S.C. Ports itself. 

The agency declined to renew a contract with Carnival that runs through 2024, after which the Sunshine will leave the Lowcountry permanently, and Charleston will host only occasional cruise ships as S.C. Ports opens much of its cruise pier to private redevelopment.

The decision, first reported by The Post and Courier of Charleston, “will provide more space for the redevelopment of Union Pier Terminal, unlocking a transformational opportunity within the city of Charleston,” S.C. Ports said in a statement. “South Carolina Ports will continue welcoming port-of-calls in Charleston and adhering to the voluntary cruise management plan.”

A surge of pent-up demand

For 2022, at least, the potential for a big cruise year certainly exists in Charleston — the port’s master cruise ship schedule lists 104 total calls, the vast majority of them by the Carnival Sunshine, which sails from Charleston to the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

In 2019, Charleston received 93 calls carrying 262,580 total passengers, according to S.C. Ports. Through March 31 of 2022, the port had welcomed 24 ships and 43,598 passengers — that latter figure not far off the 49,362 passengers Charleston saw over the first three months of 2019, the last full year of cruising before Covid put the industry on pause.

The removal of that CDC advisory is likely to boost passenger counts at ports across the country, said Jeff Zotara, chief marketing officer at Arrivia, which provides booking and reward services within the travel industry. “I think the CDC guidance and the relief of some of those restrictions definitely has helped propel more cruisers who are potentially on the fence and just waiting to make that decision,” he said. “It’s helping to push them a bit further along in the process.”

The industry as a whole is “in recovery,” Coggins said. “From everything I’ve seen, it’s not exactly back where it was pre-Covid, or going into 2020. But there is a lot of pent-up demand, especially in the U.S., because people couldn’t take cruises during the first year of Covid. And so that is starting to come back.”

That pent-up demand is being experienced firsthand by reservation agents. In another hopeful sign for the Charleston cruise industry, Carnival announced that the period between March 28 and April 3 was the busiest booking week in the company’s history, exceeding the previous seven-day record by double digits. 

It was a similar story for Royal Caribbean, whose ship Enchantment of the Seas is scheduled to make 14 calls on Charleston in 2022: the week between March 26 and April 1 was the company’s highest-volume booking week ever, and included a single-day record for reservations.

“What we’re seeing, especially in the month of April, is that we’re far exceeding 2019 levels as far as demand for cruises,” Zotara said. “We represent about 400 brands across the industry, and nearly every one of them is above their 2019 level. So the research even before the CDC’s announcement was showing that people are indeed ready and excited to book future cruises.”

Arrivia between Nov. 3 and Jan. 10 surveyed 1,500 Americans about their attitudes toward cruising, and reported that 80 percent of respondents were planning or considering booking a cruise sometime in the next two years. Of those surveyed, 49 percent listed the Caribbean as their intended destination, and 17 percent listed the Bahamas.

The Carnival Sunshine’s routes from Charleston include stops in the Bahamas, Saint Maarten, Puerto Rico, and the Turks and Caicos.

“The Caribbean has been a favorite cruise destination for more than 50 years,” Zotara said. “First and foremost, it's easily accessible for most Americans and Canadians. And especially with a worldwide pandemic still in place, they're looking for a closer-to-home type of destination to travel from. And getting to Florida or Charleston is fairly easy for most people, so going to the Caribbean is nearer to their home base.”

Casual cruisers versus diehards

Early January brought an unwelcome reminder to the worldwide cruise industry when a European ship carrying over 2,800 passengers was forced to sit at a dock in Portugal for five days due to an onboard coronavirus outbreak. As of late April, the CDC’s cruise ship dashboard listed 57 vessels in the “orange” category, signifying that the reported number of Covid cases has met the threshold for CDC investigation. Carnival Sunshine, which according to the CDC is a “highly vaccinated” ship — meaning 95 percent of passengers are fully vaccinated — is in the “yellow” category, in which Covid cases are below the threshold for investigation.

Since cruise operations restarted in Charleston in late December 2021, S.C. Ports has worked with cruise operators and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to align with all CDC requirements and cruise line protocols, a spokesperson said. Although Carnival dropped its mask requirement on March 1, the cruise line continues to mandate vaccinations (including boosters, if applicable) with the exception of children under 5, and teens and adults with a medical condition who can provide written confirmation from their medical provider that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

The majority of those queried in the Arrivia survey wanted some degree of Covid safety measures implemented aboard their ship. The survey also found that safety concerns had prevented 33 percent of consumers from booking a cruise in the past 12 months — with those worries likely comprising the dividing line between casual cruisers willing to wait for the virus to ebb, and diehards champing at the bit to get back on a boat. It’s that former group that now seems to be returning to the industry with the CDC’s advisory no longer in place.

“Those who wanted to cruise but were hesitant because they thought it was dangerous from a Covid perspective, the dropping of the CDC warning gives them more confidence,” Coggins said. “The cruise industry, once it started operating again, took a lot of measures to mitigate spread on board ships. They required testing, they required vaccines, they improved their ventilation systems, they changed procedures to minimize touch, especially in food service. Before where passengers could go up to the buffet line on their own, now their plate is either delivered to the table or given to the passenger by a crew member at the end of the food line.”

Coggins expects some of those protocols, especially enhanced ventilation systems, to remain intact even once Covid moves into an endemic state. 

“We don't know when the next pandemic is going to come along,” he added. “And the last thing the cruise industry wants is another pandemic that shuts the industry down.”

Charleston a strong drive market

The red, white, and blue fantail of the Carnival Sunshine has again become a familiar sight at Port of Charleston, where the vessel returns every few days. The Enchantment of the Seas is scheduled to visit eight times in the spring, and six times in the fall. 

The Ocean Voyager and Ocean Navigator of the American Queen line, the Seven Seas Navigator of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, the Summit of Celebrity Cruises, the Endeavor of Crystal Cruises, the Quest of Seabourn Cruise Line and the Mein Schiff 1 of TUI Cruises are all slated to call on Charleston in 2022, according to S.C. Ports.

That level of vessel traffic certainly makes things feel back to normal at Charleston’s cruise terminal. As far as passenger counts go, Coggins estimates that it might be 2023 before the industry once again reaches the booming levels at which it was operating in the first few months of 2020. The current surge of pent-up demand, though, is offering the industry a needed lift — especially since it’s being felt across the country, no matter the port.

“What we’re seeing is, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Charleston, or Port Canaveral, or Miami, or Seattle. We’re seeing levels much higher than 2019,” Zotara said. “The biggest challenge in our industry right now is not convincing people to cruise, it's finding people to book those cruises for them. We continue to add hundreds and hundreds of cruise agents, and we cannot find cruise agents fast enough to keep up with demand.”

Charleston, Coggins said, maintains a strong drive market, with lots of potential cruise customers within a few hours’ travel time of the Holy City. But when the Carnival Sunshine departs in 2024, much of the city’s cruise industry will go with it. S.C. Ports’ 2022 cruise calendar shows just 31 ports of call outside of the Sunshine — a glimpse at what Charleston’s cruise industry may look like beginning in 2025. 

“Since 2010, Carnival has been a great business partner and worked alongside our maritime community to benefit our overall maritime commerce mission,” S.C. Ports said in a statement. “As we look to the future, S.C. Ports will continue to evaluate the market and looks forward to continued partnerships and opportunities.”