In July 2020, with vaccines a distant dream and lockdowns the order of the day, two of the world’s most powerful cruise operators made a special announcement. As their joint press release explained, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line were teaming up to form a ‘Healthy Sail Panel’. Encompassing specialists from the highest peaks of medical life – including the ex-commissioner of the FDA and an executive vice president at Merck – the panel had hugely ambitious goals. 

The experts, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian proclaimed, were tasked with nothing less than “developing recommendations for cruise lines to advance their public health response to Covid-19, improve safety, and achieve readiness for the safe resumption of operations”. 

If anything, the Healthy Sail Panel has seeped into every crevice of the industry. At Princess Cruises, for instance, the operator instituted its ‘CruiseHealth’ programme. MSC, for its part, emphasises it was the first operator to “safely return to cruising,” adding that customer health and safety are “of utmost importance to us.” It goes without saying that these broad plans have been shadowed by rabbit warrens of detail, from HVAC ventilators to powerful disinfectants to touchless embarkation. Nor are these expenses cheap. Norwegian alone expects to spend an extra $100m on health and safety.

“It really is about the operators taking actions that are perceived by customers as minimising risk. For consumers, as long as they perceive the measures to work, they will regain confidence in cruising.”


The percentage of people eager for daily updates on Covid-19.

Dr Jennifer Holland


The percentage of people more reluctant to go on a cruise since the pandemic – 69% feel less positive about cruising in general.

Dr Jennifer Holland

Press officers are obviously keen to trumpet how these efforts will keep passengers secure. But then again journalists aren’t the ones they need to convince. Beyond the actual scientific efficacy of contactless ordering or extra isolation rooms, implicit in CruiseHealth and its cousins are attempts to reassure passengers themselves. They’re the ones who actually take cruises, after all, and they’re the ones who’ll ultimately keep company balance books in the black. Yet the link between health and safety operations and customer comfort is far from straightforward. The human brain is far too irrational for that. Instead, operators are having to reflect more subtly on what will make passengers feel safe – even if this isn’t what will actually keep them safe.

All at sea

For years before Covid-19, cruise operators prided themselves on their health and safety regimes. In part, this is thanks to a history of disease outbreaks, most recently norovirus in 2019, to take just one example. The gastrointestinal bug infected hundreds of passengers and dozens of staff aboard a Royal Caribbean ship off Miami, forcing the vessel to return to port. Plenty of other illnesses have proliferated on cruise ships too. That includes legionnaires disease, measles and swine flu. This last disease, in particular, prodded operators into action when it struck in 2009, with cruise bosses among the first tourism professionals to institute temperature checks and robust screening for passengers.

More than the illnesses themselves, however, cruise operators have arguably been so tough on swine flu and the rest because of how passengers perceive them. Consider the following: though it’s sometimes referred to as the ‘cruise ship disease’, your chance of catching norovirus on a cruise ship (one in 5,500) is actually far lower than for landlubbers (one in 15). Dr Jennifer Holland, an expert in risk perception at Suffolk Business School, has noticed similar confusion for other seaborne dangers. Though you’re only 0.0000006% likely to fall overboard from a cruise ship, in her research Holland has “heard several people tell me they worry about this”.

What could explain this dissonance between perceived and actual risk? For Holland, the answer might come from the fickleness of the human brain. As she explains, studies have found that people tend to give more weight to potentially negative outcomes. In short, a frightening disease like Covid- 19 is more likely to elicit what Holland describes as a stronger “perception of risk” – regardless of the actual dangers involved. More to the point, Holland continues, these fears can quickly snowball. If someone already has “unfavourable” attitudes towards a venture, they’ll “judge the risk as high and the benefits low.” It hardly helps that cruise travel already comes with a host of other hypothetical risks, from claustrophobia and agoraphobia to worries about the vessel itself.

Given their long tradition promoting health and safety, to say nothing of the vagaries of group psychology, you might imagine that operators would have rushed to reassure passengers the moment Covid-19 emerged. Actually, the opposite is true. The first few months of the pandemic were characterised by silence, with the Healthy Sail Panel only appearing several months into the crisis. Due to a number of serious Covid-19 outbreaks – around 50 ships saw cases, and 83 people died – operators invariably saw their reputations sink. “Cruises are viewed now by many as risky places,” says Holland, something certainly supported by the numbers. According to one recent poll, 67% of people are more reluctant to go on a cruise since the pandemic, while 69% claim they feel less positive about cruising in general.

Risk fakers

Schemes like the Healthy Sail Panel can be understood in this context: as attempts to placate worried punters as much as genuine medical interventions. If nothing else, this is reflected in the sorts of innovations that operators are promoting. Think about Princess’s CruiseHealth scheme. Some changes – for example installing HVAC ventilation systems that replace air in public spaces every few minutes – are vital weapons in the fight against airborne Covid-19. As a way of promoting physical distancing, ‘TrulyTouchless’ embarkation is useful too. Yet, like many other operators, Princess also focuses on environmental sanitation, proudly proclaiming that it uses disinfectant “proven to quickly kill coronaviruses”. 

“My research found many people don’t view themselves as ‘the type of person’ to go on a cruise.”

Dr Jennifer Holland, Suffolk Business School

One in 5,500

The odds of catching norovirus on a cruise ship, sometimes referred to as the ‘cruise ship disease’.


The irony, of course, is that as an airborne virus, the vast majority of cases spread through particles entering the nose and mouth. According to one expert at UC Berkeley, conversely, transmission via surfaces is extremely low. As environmental engineer Amy Pickering recently put it: “A lot of things have to fall into place for that transmission to happen.”

Back on the open water

To put it another way, while HVAC ventilation is genuinely useful, this focus on sterilisation is probably best understood as a ploy to reassure anxious cruisers. “It really is about the operators taking actions that are perceived by customers as minimising risk,” emphasises Holland. “For consumers, as long as they perceive the measures to work, they will regain confidence in cruising.”

Not that customers can be lured back through health measures alone. Risk is a multi-headed beast, Holland explains, adding that reassuring potential cruisers about their bank balances is just as important as giving them clean bills of health. Cruise lines are clearly starting to recognise this, allowing free cancellation if travel bans derail holidays, and offering flexibility around rescheduling. At the same time, they’ve boosted their communications, a crucial measure given the importance of clear messaging in a crisis. With some 63% of people eager for daily updates on Covid-19, operators like Norwegian have taken this principle to extremes, with their ‘Peace of Mind’ campaign even offering to call guests unsure of their next move.

All this work seems to have paid off, at least for experienced cruisers. As Holland reports, many veterans are keen to set sail again, even if they suffered through quarantine aboard a ship at the start of the pandemic. A more intractable problem, Holland continues, are those people who have never walked a gangplank.

Whether it’s because they haven’t experienced all the fun a trip can offer, or else feel uncomfortable adopting the cultural associations of being a cruiser, this group appears more susceptible to the negative press that’s developed since Covid began. To explain what she means, Holland recalls conversations she’s had with non-cruisers over the last several months, with one describing vessels as “giant incubators” and another as “‘petri-dishes”.

Cruise control

It would be wrong, however, to paint that the future of cruising in a negative light – that operators will eventually run out of passengers and have no one to replace them. In part, this is a question of timing. Stories about pandemic-scarred ships may be shocking, but they are unlikely to be around forever. After the Costa Concordia sank off Italy in January 2012, for instance, bookings for future cruises fell over the next few months.

But after 90 days, they returned to normal. There’s little reason to doubt the same will happen again, especially now that cruise operators are far better at reassuring customers, and especially if new variants don’t derail the industry once again.

More broadly, Holland wonders whether the manifold reasons that people choose not to go on a cruise will ultimately make health and safety matter less. “My research found many people don’t view themselves as ‘the type of person’ to go on a cruise,” she explains. “This could be because they feel they are not old enough, or don’t want to be seen to be needed to be looked after. They also might reject the group experience and don’t want to be forced into meeting people.” Together with those who are reluctant to book a cruise for environmental reasons, Holland suggests that, for many, Covid-19 is “irrelevant”. The dominant reason that the cruise industry is struggling to find its feet again is, then, perhaps more complex than it first might seem – either way, operators will need to reassure cruisers that they are in safe hands.