The cancellations rolled in like waves, hitting one after another. Lois Turpin and her boyfriend had booked a number of Carnival cruises in 2020, as usual. One disembarked in March, right around his birthday. Another was set to depart in May, her birth month. But as the coronavirus pandemic continued to roil the cruise industry, both voyages were scrapped.
For Turpin, the news was crushing. She said cruising is at the heart of her relationship with her boyfriend, a long haul truck driver. She works days and he works nights, but they still take every opportunity to disembark together out of Cape Canaveral or Fort Lauderdale, enticed by Carnival's affordable options and the discounted cruise rates for Florida residents.
Turpin said that she understands why cruising operations have been suspended because of the coronavirus. But the months spent away from the sea have proved to be "sad" for her.
"Not cruising has affected us," Turpin said. "We don't get to eat dinner together unless we're on the cruise, most times. I know the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket with every industry, but that was our thing. That's what we love to do."
So far, 2020 has proven to be somewhat of a lost year for both the cruise industry and the cruise enthusiasts like Turpin, a fiercely loyal group of travelers who prefer to devote their vacation days and retirement years to sailing the seas.
On the industry side, the trio of publicly-traded cruise giants — Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian — have all taken a hit during the coronavirus. All three companies have reported in recent financial filings that booking patterns may trend negative even after coronavirus restrictions lift.
"It takes a few years to get to that same demand level with respect to how people feel about your brand," Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz told Business Insider's Meghan Morris in March.
Meanwhile, the pandemic shuttered ports and left passengers around the world stranded at sea, with guests and crew dying after COVID-19 ripped through ships like the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess, and the Zaandam.
Before the coronavirus hit, the Cruise Lines International Association released a report predicting that the global cruise industry would attract a record 32 million passengers in 2020, up 2 million from 2019. The 2020 report found that 82% of cruisers were "likely to book a cruise as their next vacation."
But instead of watching the sunset on deck or adventuring around ports across the globe, many of those millions of prospective cruise passengers have been bombarded with cancellation emails and headlines about dire conditions for crew and passengers stuck onboard "plague ships."
Still, a CLIA spokesperson expressed optimism in a statement to Business Insider, calling cruisers "a resilient community."
"People love to cruise, and we have seen this time and again throughout the history of this industry," a spokesperson for CLIA told Business Insider "Cruising offers one of the absolute best ways to experience the world."
And sure enough, despite the pandemic, there are still cruise enthusiasts who would run up the gangway right now, if they could. Business Insider spoke to 18 frequent cruisers about what cruising means to them, their thoughts about safety and sanitary conditions onboard cruise ships, and why they can't wait to get back to sea.
"A lot of people we speak to are really chomping at the bit to return to cruising," John Shapiro told Business Insider.
He and his wife Melany have both been frequent Carnival cruisers for 18 years. Since becoming empty-nesters, they said they have strived to embark on around four cruises a year. The Shapiros had a summer Celebrity cruise around Europe canceled as a result of the coronavirus, and they say they're not alone. With most cruises suspended since March, 2020 has proved to be a hard year for cruisers.
"Every regular cruiser has had at least one cruise canceled," Shapiro told Business Insider. "We have actually promised ourselves that we're going to book extra cruises to make up for it."
Mark and Marilyn Lyons are another cruising couple who seem to fit right into the CLIA's findings. They have gone on 24 cruises since 2011, mostly with Disney Cruises. Speaking with Business Insider about why they prefer to cruise, Marilyn described the voyages as an opportunity to visit a "mobile resort." Mark said that frequent cruise travel is his family's equivalent of renting or purchasing a cabin in the woods or a lakeside cottage.
"You spend your whole weekend cleaning and taking care of it, painting and repairing the screens and this and that and getting the bugs out," he said. "We spend our money that we would spend on rent or upkeep on cruises."
Frequent cruiser Jasia Rivers said that her four-year-old daughter's love of all things Disney keeps her continuing to book trips with Disney Cruises. She said "the hardest part" of having her March voyage canceled because of coronavirus was explaining to her daughter that they would have to wait a few months to see the princesses.
"The staff bows and curtsies and calls her madame and they cut her food up for her, make sure she has her favorite dessert without asking," Rivers said. "They just tend to go above and beyond just average service."
Other frequent cruisers cite the opportunity to meet and socialize with other people — both crew members and fellow passengers — on board as a major advantage over other more solitary forms of vacationing. Like Rivers, Disney cruiser Adria Dunker praised the "unbelievably nice" Disney crew members.
"We've connected with certain crew members and we actually go back on those ships just to see those people," Dunker said. She said she has gone on around 16 cruises since 2017.
For other cruisers, the opportunity to meet fellow passengers is a key draw. Claudia Enloe and her family have been going on Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruises for almost a decade.
"You meet so many different people that enjoy cruising also and so it's kind of neat to have that connection," Enloe said. "Some people end up cruising again together."
She also said that the cruises, and the dedicated service of the crew members, offers passengers a chance to really unwind.
"As a mom, the reason I like it is it's a real vacation for me. I don't have to cook, I don't have to clean, you know. Sometimes you go on vacation — even if you go to an Airbnb or something like that — and you're still having to cook and clean."
Jeff Kerber, founder of travel advisement firm Warp One Travel and an avid cruiser himself, has been going on Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruises for 20 years. He estimates that cruises make up about 30% of Warp One Travel's business, with the other 70% focusing on non-cruise vacations and business travel. Kerber said that many of his cruise clients appreciate the ease with which cruise travel allows them to see the world.
"Dollar for dollar, I think a cruise is the best vacation out there," Kerber said. "If you're going out there for a family vacation and you want to have to do while you're going from destination to destination, a cruise is the way to do it. You can hit three countries in a week."
Cruiser Amy Vannest-Fowler, who also frequently sails with Disney, said that the "hands down" best part of cruising is having the chance to travel the world.
"I don't have to go to Europe, and get in the car or get on a train to go to another country," she said. "I can just take a ship around to all these different places. It's also one of the most relaxing vacations. Everything is taken care of. You're completely pampered."
For other cruisers, it's more about the placid but fun environment on deck. Nancy Hoffman, who often cruises on Carnival and just recently had a July voyage canceled, said that cruises offer passengers a chance to experience "a whole different world."
"You get on and you just unplug and you literally lose concept of time in a positive way," she said.
Cruisers say they have encountered the perception that cruises are floating vectors of disease, thanks to highly publicized ship-wide bouts of norovirus and more recent coronavirus outbreaks. But the cruise passengers who spoke to Business Insider disputed this characterization, citing what they describe as cruise line's stringent sanitary measures.
Dunker said that she often travels with Clorox wipes, to sanitize hard-to-reach corners of hotel rooms. She said that on the Disney ships she's traveled, she rarely finds any "missed spots" in her stateroom.
"I've never felt nervous about germs or sickness," Dunker said. "I know people say, 'Oh, they're floating Petri dishes. I don't feel that. I don't feel that at all with Disney."
When Dunker and her family embarked on a March cruise, just before the World Health Organization recognized the coronavirus as a pandemic, she noticed Disney crew scrubbing down banisters, elevator buttons, and floors with cleaning solution.
"Some places smelled like people were getting vaccinated because the smell was so strong of rubbing alcohol," Marilyn Lyons told Business Insider, referring to the March Disney cruise she and her husband took.
Cruiser Tonya Harris is also a self-described "germaphobe" who brings along her own cleaning products. Speaking of her experience on Carnival ships, Harris said that, while not all passengers are "considerate," the crew does "the best they can for the number of passengers on the ship. They work super hard."
Hoffman said that there is a misconception that passengers are "on top of each other" while onboard, noting that the cruise ships are vast with plenty of room.
And for some avid cruisers, cruise ships are viewed as perhaps safer than most other public spaces during a pandemic.
"I actually think that you're going to be better off going to a cruise ship right now than going to a grocery store," Mark Lyons said.
Petra Keough has frequented Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises for 12 years. On one recent, her parents and her husband fell ill, although they all recovered. She said that cases of illness — COVID-19 or otherwise — on ships are "a drop in the bucket when you consider the number of passengers on cruise ships around the world."
That being said, Keough said she understood why at-risk cruisers might be inclined to hold off on scheduling another trip before a vaccine is developed.
"If I had any of the comorbidities that I needed to be concerned about I would probably say I'm going to go ahead and wait because I don't want to die," she said. "I don't want to be in a freezer on the ship."
Cindy Moeller is another frequent cruiser who said she understood why frequent passengers with immuno-compromised relatives are more cautious at the moment. Moeller's travel agency Moments of Magic helps passengers book trips with Disney Cruises, and she also runs the Disney Cruise Group — Disney Cruise Line Fanatics Facebook group. She said the cruiser in her "would jump on a ship tomorrow," eager to set sail and meet up with some of the Disney crew her family has gotten to know over the past 13 years of cruising.
But Moeller also has a child who survived a lightning strike several years ago, and she is protective of his health. She said that she is confident that the cruise lines will only readmit passengers when they are truly ready to provide a safe experience for those onboard.
"Especially now that they've been closed for so long, if they don't feel that they're ready, they're not going to open," she said. "I have a level of trust with them that they're going to do everything they can to prevent it from happening. and that's not to say it's not going to happen. It can happen anywhere."
Some cruisers told Business Insider that they were aware of a backlash against cruising in certain corners, saying that they felt issues were often overblown in the press or fueled by non-cruisers' misconceptions.
Dawn Lombardy Stoecker is an administrator of the "Disney Cruising Group — Disney Cruise Line Fanatics" Facebook group. She said she views cruising as a "different kind of vacation" that has attracted "a little bit of fanaticism both ways." Keough described certain cruise Facebook groups as almost "cult-like" at times. And for all those whose lives revolve around setting sail, there are others adamantly opposed to — or just baffled by — cruising.
And cruisers say that the coronavirus pandemic has given more fuel to critics, who can now point to instances of passengers and crew getting sick and even dying as a result of onboard infections.
"I'm just afraid that these cruise ships are getting such a bad rap on this situation," frequent Carnival cruiser Howard Hobbs told Business Insider, speaking about the coronavirus. He added that he did not see how outbreaks of the virus on ships like the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess, and the Zaandam "would have been the cruise line's fault."
Hoffman said that she has felt that cruising has become a polarizing "hot button topic" akin to politics.
"I don't even want to bring it up anymore," Hoffman said. "When I hear people start talking negatively, I'm like, 'I'm not even going to mention the fact that I'm going on a cruise.'"
She said that in her experience, many individuals who are skeptical of cruises end up enjoying the experience once they give it a chance. Hoffman said that her husband "didn't understand" the appeal of cruising but was sold after his first voyage.
"Some people are like, 'Why would you ever get on a cruise ship right now?" Moeller said. "And then there's the other people that say, I can't wait to get on a cruise ship if they let me."
The cruisers that spoke to Business Insider largely acknowledge that, while things can go wrong on the ships, they see dwelling on potential calamities as living in fear. And even when crises do erupt on board, they see the bright side of cruising as easily outshining outbreaks, snarled travel plans, and unexpected ship-wide emergencies.
Kirk Draut, a frequent Carnival cruise goer, is no stranger to an onboard crisis. He was on the Carnival Triumph when the ship's engine room caught fire in February 10, 2013. Draut recalls watching smoke roll off the deck at 6 a.m. that morning, as he witnessed the start of an ordeal that saw passengers stranded on the ship for five days.
Draut was unfazed by the fire, and now looks forward to casting off sometime in August. There's a possibility his upcoming summer cruise will be canceled, but Draut said he feels "good about it" and does not embarking as "taking any sort of excessive risk." He's just eager to be back on the ocean.
"It's peaceful to sit at sunset on your balcony and watch the waves," Draut told Business Insider. "I think that's what a lot of us need right now. Maybe that's what it is — maybe that's what my heart's calling for is just getting away for awhile and get back to what's beautiful in the world."