This past week I sat with three journalists and a public relations executive at a table in an open-air restaurant on Aruba's beautiful Eagle Beach. It was the sort of casually enjoyable afternoon pleasantly familiar to me as a travel writer prior to the pandemic, but now it felt wonderfully novel.
As is our habit, we discussed issues related to leisure travel and, of course, the pandemic. Around this point, one in our group described cruise ships as "floating petri dishes."
I suppose I took exception. "No, they're not," I said (maybe a bit dismissively). But honestly, several travel colleagues have expressed such thoughts over the years.
I've also noticed that based on my own informal mental survey, around 95 percent of my travel-writing friends with this particular perception of the cruise ship environment have never actually been on board a cruise ship, certainly not a modern mega-ship.
First, let's get a few things straight. I'm a former cruise industry trade media reporter. Also, from 2003 to 2006, I jumped ship (in a manner of speaking), to serve as public relations director for the cruise industry's trade association. I've also been on more than 100 cruises (far fewer than some more tenured cruise-writer colleagues).
So I'm not exactly unbiased. I admit that. I also happen to enjoy cruises. That said, I've been a travel journalist for more (many more) than 20 years, and in that role, I've stayed in hundreds of hotel and resort rooms around the world, in every category. And in one respect at least there is no comparison: there is no cleaner travel environment than a modern cruise ship.
Even prior to the outbreak, cruise ship interior spaces were cleaned constantly. It is virtually impossible to walk around a contemporary cruise ship interior without encountering someone cleaning something, whether it's a stateroom, a hallway side rail, an elevator wall, the glass outside a brightly lit retail shop or a stairway carpet. A modern cruise ship interior has a new-car smell and look.
Even after stateroom cleaning frequencies and patterns were altered due to the pandemic (due to new protocols), guests could expect their cruise staterooms to be cleaned thoroughly at least twice daily (more frequently on luxury cruise ships).
I can't think of one major international hotel I've stayed in that exceeds that standard, but I can recall several that sadly failed to approach it.
Yet what puzzles me are the attitudes still attached to seagoing vacations. Why should a contemporary cruise ship, which has every appearance of cleanliness and yes, spaciousness, be compared with a "petri dish," which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as a "small shallow dish of thin glass or plastic with a loose cover used especially for cultures in bacteriology?"
Okay, I get it. My colleague used current code to say cruise ships are confining and germ-filled. I guess.
When I worked at CLIA, I learned the cruise industry had already established a term for some Americans' reluctance to ever, ever take a cruise vacation. They called them "barriers to trial." One of the most frequently mentioned (right up there with seasickness and the notion that cruises were for old people) was "confinement."
In short, people felt interior cruise spaces were confining and somehow atmospherically restraining. Keep in mind, when the CLIA surveys that uncovered this data were undertaken, none of the respondents had yet set foot aboard a cruise ship, much less left the dock for a voyage.
Anyway, I guess that's the point I think my colleague was making: cruise ships are closed-in environments rampant with COVID infestation (they're not). I'd be remiss if I failed to point out that this journalist, a talented and accomplished media professional, has also never been aboard a cruise ship.
So I couldn't help but feel a bit exasperated, despite the stress-free Aruba environment. It's been nearly two decades since I was a CLIA public relations official and honestly, after H1N1 and other environmental occurrences I won't go into here, I thought we'd settled all that. Clearly, we failed as communicators.
One thing I will say is that cruise ships aren't endemically prone to (or necessarily immune from) the natural phenomena that impact every other part of our world.
One thing we have learned during this unprecedented global pandemic is that on cruise ships, as in all spaces where people gather, the important factors are being vaccinated (I am) and following established health and safety protocols.
But to be sure, the level of cleanliness and yes, spaciousness aboard modern cruise ships exceed that of nearly all other travel environments, including the airplane I flew home aboard yesterday and the airport at which I waited for the flight.
So after some thought, I've decided I'll simply not address the inaccuracies tied to these "petri dish" comments (although I just did). Suffice it to say that prior to the pandemic, the cruise industry continued a pattern of strong annual passenger growth. Clearly not all vacationers view cruise ships as akin to petri dishes.
In March I spoke with Reuben Rodriguez of MSC Cruises, which will homeport 4,500-passenger MSC Meraviglia at New York's Brooklyn Cruise Terminal beginning in April of 2023. The mega ship will offer year-round itineraries visiting the Caribbean, Bermuda, New England and Canada.
"What other form of travel can you enter an environment where everyone is vaccinated, all of the workers are vaccinated, and there are testing and quarantine facilities?" Rodriguez asked me.
It's a good question.
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