SINGAPORE: Cruise passenger traffic in Singapore has fallen by 52 per cent year-on-year since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak on Jan 23, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said as it pledged to give the industry more support.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has had a serious impact on the cruise industry, both in Singapore and globally,” STB’s director, cruise Annie Chang told CNA, stating that it has received 81 COVID-19 related cancelled ship calls since Jan 23.
From Jan 23 to Mar 9, the agency said Singapore handled a total of 65 cruise calls and 156,465 passengers.
Beyond the drop in passenger traffic, COVID-19 has roiled the global cruise industry as countries turn away cruises amid fears they were acting as floating Petri dishes for the coronavirus.
READ: Floating Petri dishes? Coronavirus puts cruise industry in the dock
The Diamond Princess cruise, carrying 3,700 passengers and crew, was quarantined at a Japanese port on Feb 4 after a guest, who didn’t have symptoms while on board, tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to Hong Kong.
More than 700 passengers and crew on the ship eventually tested positive for the virus, and at least seven have died. Japan and other countries have evacuated their citizens from the ship. Five Singaporean passengers stayed in Japan for 14 days before returning home.
On Mar 10, Singapore allowed the Costa Fortuna cruise to dock as part of a scheduled call after Thailand and Malaysia had turned it away.
At a multi-ministerial taskforce press conference, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said the cruise's passengers had already been in Singapore.
"They had arrived in Singapore, and then they embarked on a cruise from Singapore with the intention to come back to Singapore," he said.
"I don't think it would be right for us to reject the ship if it were to come back to Singapore ... so that's why we agreed to accept them."
As the number of imported cases swelled, Singapore authorities said on Mar 13 that the country would stop cruise visits with immediate effect.
INDUSTRY TAKES BEATING
With countries implementing travel and port restrictions to curb the outbreak, cruise operators around the world have been forced to cancel or change their itineraries.
Costa has said it would cancel all cruises worldwide until Apr 3 to protect the health and safety of guests and those in their destinations. Carnival's Princess Cruises, which runs the Diamond Princess, is doing the same until May 10.
READ: Costa Fortuna cancels next 2 cruises out of Singapore due to 'restrictive' COVID-19 measures by other ports
The US-based Royal Caribbean, one of the world’s largest cruise operators, has cancelled all cruises departing Singapore until May and recently announced it would suspend US cruises for 30 days.
The operator declined to reveal booking figures, telling CNA it was suspending cruises to ensure the “health and welfare of our guests and crew”.
“We are closely monitoring global developments regarding the coronavirus, and we are being proactive when it comes to protecting the health of our guests, crew and the communities where we sail,” it stated.
Royal Caribbean said it has also introduced more stringent boarding procedures, including temperature screenings, and added more “medical resources” on board.
“We are also in close communication with respective port authorities and are taking active measures to minimise any port disembarkation issues for our sailings in the region,” it added.
Carnival declined comment, stating that it currently does not have ships sailing from Singapore or the region. Genting Cruises, which runs the Star, Dream and Crystal cruise lines, did not respond to requests for comment.
Chan Brothers Travel, which books cruises from Singapore and abroad, said it expects business to drop by at least 30 per cent for the next three months, including the busy travel season in June.
Its marketing communications executive Victoria Chong said cruise holidays generally appeal to a wide range of people in Singapore, including young and multi-generational families with children, grandparents as well as retirees.
This is partially due to their “relaxed and convenient" nature coupled with "on-board accommodation and a diverse range of amenities and activities”, she said.
Still, a tourism expert told CNA the cruise industry's image has "taken somewhat of a hit” over the past few months, with “high-profile” cases of countries turning cruises away.
“Singapore’s decision to stop cruise calls will contribute to a loss in tourism arrival numbers and receipts,” senior manager at Nanyang Polytechnic’s (NYP) School of Business Management Shirley Tee said.
"This might also lead to a multiplier effect on F&B, retail, tourism attractions and more.”
HELP ON THE WAY
STB’s Ms Chang said the agency will offer "enhanced support" to industry players that have committed to partnerships under the Cruise Development Fund.
The fund supports companies like cruise operators, travel agents and trainers in activities designed to boost demand for cruises from Singapore.
Ms Chang said the agency is also working on relief measures to help terminal operators cope with Singapore’s port closure. Authorities had earlier announced a 15 per cent property tax rebate for international cruise terminals.
In the bigger picture, STB said a task force comprising tourism leaders from public and private sectors will identify opportunities arising from the COVID-19 crisis and implement measures to “instil confidence in Singapore’s tourism sector and co-create recovery plans”.
“STB will work closely with industry partners on recovery plans for the tourism sector, including cruise,” Ms Chang added.
"We are assessing if further support is required for the cruise industry, and will share details at a later date."
On the ground, Chan Brothers’ Ms Chong said the travel agency has decided it is “not the most opportune time” for cruise promotions, although it is ready to introduce concepts like themed cruises and all-in escorted cruise tours to woo back customers.
“We are closely monitoring the rapidly evolving situation to ensure we stay attuned to market sentiments,” she said.
“In light of the current and evolving impact of COVID-19, we are likely going to see cruise lines working harder to amp up their offering holistically, particularly in terms of product and service improvement, and pricing promotions, in a bid to attract travellers when the market is ready.”
While NYP’s Ms Tee said special promotions could help bring some travellers back, she stressed that the cruise industry must show it has taken proper hygiene and other precautionary measures to ensure passengers’ safety.
“The support and confidence that our guests have in us are valuable,” Royal Caribbean said, adding that it will continue to monitor infectious disease developments and comply with guidance from global public health authorities.
The operator also recently introduced a policy where guests can cancel cruises as late as two days before departure and use the credit for future cruises until 2021, with COVID-19 “adding uncertainty to travel plans around the world”.
“Trying to guess a month or more in advance where areas of concern about coronavirus might be challenging for medical experts, (more so for) a family preparing for vacation,” the operator’s chief executive Richard Fain said.
TURNING THE TIDE
With COVID-19 being declared a pandemic, Ms Tee said it is tough to predict how long before the cruise and larger tourism industry recover.
She pointed out that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, which had also hit tourism and infected some 8,000 people across 26 countries, did not reach the same pandemic status.
Nevertheless, Ms Chang said she expects Singapore’s “resilient” cruise sector to recover and pick up in the long run, attributing this to a strong growth potential for cruises in Asia.
The number of cruise passengers sailing in Southeast Asia is expected to grow at 4.6 per cent to 6.4 per cent per year to hit an estimated 4.5 million passengers by 2035, she said.
“Singapore remains well-poised to capture the growing demand, due to our geographical location and good infrastructure,” she added.
Ms Chang said Singapore’s cruise industry is also in a good position to recover due to many years of good growth, pointing to how passenger traffic had from 2015 to 2019 grown at a compounded annual rate of 15.6 per cent.
Ms Tee said the industry represented a "nascent star" in the tourism sector, contributing 1.87 million passengers from 401 port calls in 2018, a 35 per cent jump from the year before.
She largely attributed the spike to the year-round deployments of cruises from Royal Caribbean and Genting.
While STB said passenger traffic dropped in 2019 largely due to the grounding of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for refurbishment, it highlighted that foreign cruise passenger traffic still grew as travellers from countries like India, Germany and the US continued to visit.
“We are in close touch with our partners during this challenging time and will continue to work with cruise lines and our industry stakeholders to support them,” Ms Chang added.