While industry watchers and leisure travellers are no doubt excited about the Virgin Group’s foray into a fresh business, some sceptics say that – with the coronavirus outbreak forcing passenger boats to be quarantined – the timing may not be ideal for venturing into the blue ocean.
“Obviously what happened in Japan was horrendously unfortunate,” Branson told Reuters News Agency. “[But] I think the longer-term impact will be negligible. I think the fact that we’re going out of America means that I don’t think we’ll suffer. People are booking as much as they’ve ever booked right now.”
The Florida-based Virgin Voyages’s first ship will serve adults only and is set to disembark in March on a week-long Caribbean adventure to the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Mexico.
“The coronavirus issue could not have come at a worse time to start a cruise line,” said Christopher Muller, a travel industry expert and professor at Boston University. “The question is whether this is temporary, or a more long-term setback.”
“The history of the cruise business is boom-and-bust,” Muller told Al Jazeera. “I’m not trying to be a critic or downer,” he added, “but [Virgin] would be better off saying, ‘Let’s go out of Barcelona and wait until September,’ so this issue can quietly go away.”
However, Muller also said the unique characteristics of Branson’s allure might mitigate the situation, as Virgin is known for being “a fun provider of experience-based transportation”.
Cruise with Ben & David, a YouTube duo based in the UK, has described Virgin’s new birth as “amazing, glamorous, exciting – bringing something brand new to the board”.
They also said the lifestyle company is trying a unique strategy that “hasn’t been seen with other cruise lines before [to] mix up and shake up the whole cruise industry”.
But Muller believes that the industry will suffer until after the coronavirus situation peaks, stabilises, and finally eases, perhaps six months down the road.
“The problem is that the cruise industry suffers from a specific kind of epidemiology: people don’t like the concept of being trapped in close quarters with a lot of other people,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a zombie prison and not allowed off the boat.”
With all eyes on the first two fatalities from the Diamond Princess cruise liner marooned in Japan, experts question Virgin’s launch – even in the Western hemisphere.
With 634 confirmed cases from the quarantined ship, the deaths come as Oxford Economics, a UK-based forecaster, warned that if it develops from an epidemic into a pandemic, coronavirus could result in $1 trillion of global losses.
Muller said the primary effect would be in the Asian market, but also worldwide – potentially forcing companies to offer big discounts.
“Keeping everybody on the ship in close quarters could not have been worse from a public relations or public health standpoint,” Muller said, referring to the policies applied to stranded ships in Japan and Cambodia.
Yet Virgin Voyages hopes that marketing its product towards youthful, fun-loving clientele can help overcome the sector’s current doldrums – with sales down significantly.
Stewart Chiron, also known as The Cruise Guy, said: “[Virgin] have very different philosophies, especially with onboard activities, shipboard designs, entertainment.”
“There are tremendous opportunities as the cruise industry continues to become more mainstream,” he told Al Jazeera.
Chiron said eating will be different from on other cruise lines. While food is included in the price, there are no buffets. “Sailings are priced more expensively than other lines, but are being packaged as inclusive – with dining, drinks, internet, etc,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that coronavirus is in the news, but Virgin is fortunate to be bringing their first cruise ship to Miami – which happens to be the ‘Cruise Capital of the World!'” said Chiron. “More US-based passengers will be looking for different travel opportunities closer to home.”
Almost half of all global passengers come from North America but Asia is catching up to Western Europe in second place. The Caribbean is the most popular destination, with the Mediterranean a distant second.
Virgin has hired staff from companies like JetBlue and Uber, looking for out-of-the-box expertise. Moreover, its crew are paid a salary that is adjusted so as not to require any gratuities.
The cruise line, which is majority-owned by Bain Capital, is expected to roll out the rest of its fleet over the next few years, with all of the 2,700-person vessels built by Fincantieri in Italy.
Virgin is promoting the gender diversity of its crew, with more female staff and flexible rules that allow employees to express themselves.
Tom McAlpin, CEO of Virgin Voyages, uses the term Rebellious Luxe to describe the company’s approach: nice, hip amenities but without any stuffiness or rigidity.
Meanwhile, trade association CLIA says that Generation X and Millennials both have increasingly positive attitudes about cruising.
Cruise lines have responded to a change in passenger demographics with more singles activities, studio cabins and dating lounges. Some companies are also offering quicker three-to-five day trips geared towards younger travellers.
Virgin’s expedition into the $150bn cruise sector comes as the industry attracts a record number of guests, with 32 million expected to sail in 2020. Cruise companies also employ more than 1.17 million full-time-equivalent people.
Kelly Craighead, CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), said in the annual industry outlook report that “demand for cruising has reached new heights”.
But she also said CLIA is “accelerating our efforts to be a leader in responsible tourism”, and this is another niche that Virgin looks to fill.
Craighead pointed to best practices for protecting the wellbeing of destinations and communities affected by cruise passengers.
A big part of that is environmental sustainability, and Craighead said CLIA member companies have committed $22bn to new, energy-efficient ships and technologies to reduce carbon emissions with 40 percent by 2030 from the 2008 baseline.
Although cruise ships only comprise 1 percent of the global maritime sector, they also benefit from transitioning to liquified natural gas, better exhaust cleaning systems, advanced wastewater treatment, and shore-side power hookups.
Promising that more customers does not mean more pollution, Virgin said it is taking “immediate action to address climate change“. With new state-of-the-art ships and carbon offsets, the company is billing itself as “the first cruise line to become carbon-neutral for its direct emissions footprint”.
Virgin has also banned single-use plastics and pledged to “support the necessary research and development to advance carbon-free fuels and to scale commercially viable solutions”.
“The ocean is our home, and we are on a mission to protect it,” McAlpin, the CEO, said last week, with Scarlet Lady just one of 19 new cruise ships debuting in 2020.
“We are committed to pioneering new technologies onboard,” said the company in a statement, referencing “zero-carbon fuels” and Climeon technology that harnesses waste heat from a ship’s engines for electricity.
But with a medical crisis on their hands, Virgin may have difficulty convincing young and eco-conscious spring-breakers to come on board for a healthy dose of “vitamin sea”.