The cruise industry’s first phase of reopening is focusing on small, regional sailing, plying more rivers than oceans. But what of the big companies and their giant ships?

When these behemoths set sail again, with up to some 8,880 passengers and crew on board, they’ll be on the cutting edge of post-pandemic technology. They’ll have to be.

“Cruising has always been a ‘high touch’ business in almost every aspect,” says Chekitan Dev, professor of marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. You rub shoulders with people at bars. You share the buffet, join crowds for activities and shows, pass off fitness equipment and poker chips, and discover new places on shore excursions with other people. Cruising is the antithesis of social distancing; it’s all about the group travel experience. “Going to a ‘less touch’ model is going to have to have cruise companies rethink almost everything they do,” he says.

Besides Norwegian, which this week announced some preliminary reopening plans—for example, fleet-wide installation of medical-grade air filters (H13 HEPA) that the cruise line says will remove 99.95% of airborne pathogens—none of the major companies has publicly released specifics on post-pandemic health and safety plans. In the U.S., cruise lines await new regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; a no-sail order from the CDC remains in effect until at least July 24.

In the interim, cruise lines will outsource at least some of that “rethinking” process for the post-pandemic era to industrial designers who normally tackle such challenges as putting water slides on top decks. Their proposals, which are being shopped to cruise executives with the help of virtual reality technology, range from smart, wearable devices for crowd control to elevators that work on voice commands and even robot crew members, among the innovations. Some are already being moved into prototypes under strict non-disclosure agreements.

“Now is the time where we can be creative and crazy,” says Georg Piantino, senior architect at Norway’s YSA Design, a leading cruise ship design company with clients that include Disney, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and MSC Cruises. Here’s what he and other industry experts are lobbying for in cruise ships of the very near future.

Smart Tech Everywhere
Some of the latest cruise ships already have integrated touchless systems. Princess Cruises, for example, gives guests a quarter-sized wearable device that unlocks cabin doors and pays for drinks, and the app for Celebrity Cruises allows users to open doors remotely. That trend will only accelerate. Beyond the obvious need for touchless soap dispensers and toilets, trivia games, menus, receipts will be rendered hands-free; elevator buttons will be replaced by motion- or voice-activated sensors. 

Smart tech, whether integrated into wearable devices or mobile apps, may also be the key to social distancing. Especially on large ships with thousands of passengers, Piantino envisions them as being like the buzzers at fast-casual restaurants that alert customers when it’s their turn to use the pool deck or gym. (The same goes for crowd control in embarking or disembarking.)

Systems that can track your location may also tell passengers which ship locations are at maximum capacity and which are crowd-free. Piantino expects casinos to become touchless, too, with slot machines that can be controlled from your phone.

The main issue, he says, is making sure that people have space to linger while they wait to use popular amenities. “You can’t have them stand [around the pool deck] and watch somebody else bathing,” he explains. His fix: Direct passengers to activities in less-populated areas. That might mean art tours down guest corridors or daytime lectures in the disco. By extension, cabins with balconies—with no required wait for sunbathing—are sure to become more prized.

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