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The Cruise Industry Stages a Comeback

Several coronavirus cases have been identified on cruise ships since U.S. operations restarted in June, testing the cruise lines’ new Covid-19 protocols, which include isolating, contact tracing and testing passengers to prevent the virus from spreading. Most ships were able to complete their itineraries without issues, but American Cruise Lines, a small ship company, cut short an Alaska sailing earlier this month after three people tested positive for the virus.

The industry’s turnaround is far from guaranteed. The highly contagious Delta variant, which is causing surges of the virus around the world, could stymie the industry’s recovery, especially if large outbreaks occur on board. But analysts are generally optimistic about its prospects and the potential for passenger numbers to recover to prepandemic levels, perhaps as soon as next year. That optimism is fueled by what may be the industry’s best asset: an unshakably loyal customer base.

Even during the pandemic, huge numbers of people who had booked opted against taking refunds, instead converting payments already made into credit for future travel, which the companies often offered at a higher value as an incentive. Last fall, Carnival reported that about 45 percent of customers with canceled trips had opted for credit instead of cash back. About half of customers in a similar position with Royal Caribbean Cruises did the same by the end of last year, the company said at the time.

“The demand is there,” said Jaime Katz, an analyst with Morningstar. “You know that there have been 15 months of people who have had cruises booked that have been canceled.”

By April 2020, the industry was in crisis. Cruises were halted around the world after the alarming outbreaks on ships, leading to sailing bans from the C.D.C. and other global authorities.

While they employ many Americans, the major cruise companies are all incorporated abroad and were ultimately left out of the $2 trillion federal stimulus known as the CARES Act, with lawmakers chafing at the prospect of bailing out foreign corporations largely exempt from income taxes. Environmentalists lobbied against the aid, citing the industry’s poor track record on climate issues. And criticism over how the companies handled early virus outbreaks on board ships sapped any remaining political will to help. Huge losses mounted as questions swirled about whether cruise lines could avoid bankruptcy.

“All our conversations here were, ‘At this cash burn rate for each of these companies, how long can they survive?’” said Pete Trombetta, an analyst focused on lodging and cruises at Moody’s.

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