San Diego cruise business takes huge hit as lines cancel voyages late into the year due to COVID

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

A jogger passes in front of the Holland America ship, MS Eurodam, docked at the B Street Pier in March of this year, after its passengers disembarked. - Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

SAN DIEGO — San Diego’s once bustling cruise industry is facing a huge economic hit as major lines, from Disney to Holland America, are canceling scheduled voyages well into the remainder of the year because of the still serious threat of COVID-19.

At a time when the city would normally be preparing to launch next month its fall-to-spring cruise season, the Centers for Disease Control has now extended its no-sail order through Sept. 30, while individual cruise lines have decided to take even more aggressive steps, with some deciding to nix planned sailings into mid-December.

In all, San Diego is losing 49 cruise calls accounting for 174,000 passengers, according to the Port of San Diego. In terms of passengers, that represents a nearly 40% drop in what the port had been expecting for the upcoming season. In the last couple of weeks, the numbers have been changing almost daily as cruise companies rethink their readiness to sail amid a still raging pandemic.

Before the arrival of the novel coronavirus, there were some 137 scheduled cruise calls locally and an expected passenger count of 450,00 between September and May of next year — the highest in a decade after San Diego began rebuilding its badling slumping cruise industry post-recession.

In normal times, the arrival and departure of cruise ships from the piers on San Diego bay are a boon to local tourism, with passengers staying overnight in hotels and frequenting local restaurants, shops and attractions. With the cancellation of nearly 50 cruise calls, the estimated hit to San Diego’s economy is $79 million, port officials say. That’s on top of the more than $50 million economic blow the county suffered earlier this year when cruises were canceled toward the tail end of the 2019-20 cruise season that ended in May.

“The cruise lines would all still like to be cruising as soon as possible but that’s still to be determined,” said the port’s Adam Deaton, who works directly with the cruise lines. “I’ve talked to our three main customers, and they don’t want to rush it. They’re hoping the COVID numbers will come down but with the current spike, it may be hard to talk about that now. We learn something new every week with this virus so it’s hard to say whether it’s too soon or not.”

Of the 49 canceled cruises, 12 are on Disney chips and 17 on Holland America vessels, which operate the largest number of sailings out of San Diego. Many of those cruises were destined for the Mexican Riviera, but there were also planned sailings to the Panama Canal and Hawaii.

While the major trade group that represents oceangoing cruise lines recently decided to voluntarily suspend sailings in U.S. waters through Oct. 31 — a month later than the CDC no-sail order — Holland America announced this week it was canceling all cruises through Dec. 15.

“Our return to cruising will be determined by many factors, of course,” said Holland America President Gus Antorcha in an emailed statement. “As soon as society is ready and cruising resumes with all approvals, we anticipate to begin sailing as soon as possible in important key markets such as San Diego, where we historically have a strong presence for cruises to Mexico.”

Princess Cruises also paused its schedule through Dec. 15, and Disney Cruise Line has canceled Mexico sailings on the Disney Wonder through Nov. 20.

Meanwhile, the CDC is soliciting input from cruise lines on a host of public safety issues related to the resumption of cruising, from COVID testing of passengers and crew to instances where seaport closures may prevent the docking of cruise ships. The cruise lines themselves have so far been fairly silent on the specifics of how they will restart their operations and what capacity limits they might impose.

In it most recent order barring the resumption of ocean cruising through the end of September, the CDC noted that “current scientific evidence suggests that cruise ships pose a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than other settings.” Among the likely contributing factors to the onboard spread of the disease, it said, are “crew living and working in close quarters in a partially enclosed environment where social distancing may prove challenging even with a limited number of people onboard.”

Like the cruise lines, the Port of San Diego will also have to take a look at changing protocols at its terminals once cruising is allowed to resume. Deaton said such issues as social distancing, mask-wearing, plexiglass barriers and temperature checks are among the many precautions that will be evaluated going forward.

“We will work with our local partners, the CDC, county health,” he said. We want everyone’s buy-in so we end up with the best measures possible.”

In the meantime, San Diego still has an occasional reminder of its shattered cruise ship business. Two Celebrity ships — the Millennium and the Eclipse — are docked in the outer anchorage area off the coast of Coronado, with a skeleton crew on board. By early June, the cruise line was able to return to their homes the hundreds of crew remembers still on board after the sudden mid-March shutdown of ocean cruising.

Every 15 to 20 days, the two ships will return to the B Street Pier for supplies and fuel, Deaton said.

“They’re in a holding pattern until cruising starts up again,” he said. “They were thinking of going to Mexico but San Diego offered them the more efficient service they were looking for in terms of resupplying their vessels.”

———

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune