During the last weekend of January, I went on a weekend cruise to Nassau. The final day of the trip was spent at a place called Perfect Day at Coco Cay, where we did flamingo beer bongs with strangers until they made us get back on the ship. In retrospect, that day of cheap drinks and carefree sunshine was indeed perfection. There was no work to do and no interviews to conduct, and when you write about going on vacation for a living that kind of day away from responsibility is amazingly rare.
Three months later, it feels like it happened in a parallel universe.
That exact world — the one where you could walk up to a group of complete strangers and all share a pink plastic beer funnel — may now live in a dimension where your friends also meet you at the airport gate. But every day we’re stuck inside I think back to that day as a symbol of what once was, and what I hope waits once this is all over. The flabongo at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
Those wasted private island days are a quintessential part of cruising, and though I’m not a super-cruiser, I do enjoy cruises for what they are: carefree vacations where you don’t have to think too much. They’re not always the most meaningful or enriching travels, but they are relaxing and fun, which is exactly what I think most of us will need once we’ve put social distancing in our collective rear-view mirrors.
Risks on cruise ships are not so different than risks in cities.
I know cruising will have risks, with concerns about the close quarters and petri-dish nature of the ships ubiquitous in travel stories over the past few months. But I have the same concerns in my condo tower, where hundreds of people live in a human chicken coop with central air and floor-to-ceiling windows. The pool, bar, gym, and convenience store will likely have the same crowds as a cruise ship once they open back up, which means staying home is relatively just as risky as cruising.
My densely populated neighborhood will welcome thousands of people to our shopping malls, movie theaters, bars, and restaurants. There, literally tens of thousands of people will be spreading their germs, far more than the few thousand you’d find on a cruise ship.
And none of those places will be cleaning with the voracity of a cruise ship after the coronavirus. Much like after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle and slaughterhouses became the cleanest places on the planet, so will cruise ships be obnoxiously vigilant about sanitation.
Even now, it’s not uncommon for a person with a bottle of disinfectant to follow you into a cruise ship elevator to wipe down the buttons and railings after you touch them. I have not once, in eight years, seen someone disinfecting the elevator buttons in my building. Or anywhere, other than a cruise ship.
One friend — who admittedly works for a cruise line — said cruise ship buffets are the only ones she’ll eat at because passengers are literally forced to wash their hands before they go in. There’s no washy-washy guy at the entrance to Sizzler.
And it’s not like these practices aren’t going to be more lax when cruises start running again. Quite the contrary, you may find yourself aggravated with the militaristic level of sanitation happening on board. Fear of class action lawsuits is one hell of a motivator.
Not all cruise lines are the same, and cruisers know it.
I’m also not a cruise industry apologist, but I do understand that not every cruise line is the same; some may employ questionable sanitation practices, others do not. Some are chronic violators of environmental protection laws; others create marine preserves around their private islands. So to lump them all together under the grand banner of “cruising” would be kind of like saying you’re not going to any more restaurants after you got some bad shellfish at a sketchy hole in the wall.
People who cruise understand this, and that is why we’re not deterred by the coronavirus. Stick to the cruise lines who’ve proven themselves to put safety over profits, and it’s unlikely you’ll have an issue. So we’re not afraid to book again.
The cruise booking site CruiseComplete reported to the Los Angeles Times earlier this month that bookings for 2021 were up 40 percent over those in 2019. Only 11 percent of those were people rebooking cruises canceled this year.
An oft-cited study from UBS showed a more modest 9 percent increase versus the same period last year. And Cruise Critic reported 75 percent of passengers planned to cruise as much or more than they had before. Granted, this is a poll of existing cruise passengers, who may be more inclined to cruise. But it doesn’t speak to a mass exodus from cruising that some had expected.
For now, I bike past the empty cruise ships lining the Port of Miami, with their abandoned pool decks and silent waterslides, and see a whole world of fun just waiting to be unleashed. They’re shiny toys on the shelf we can play with again once we’re out of timeout, and represent a world of carefree leisure that I can’t wait to get back to. Risks abound on board, as they will everywhere, but this sometimes-scapegoated industry will be more inclined to protect customers than most. And if I’m going to take a risk, it’s going to be for a fleeting few days of perfection.