The president of Carnival Corporation says cruise has “taken a punch in the gut” from the Covid crisis in terms of attracting new-to-cruise customers, but expects them to trickle back when sailings begin again.

Speaking as part of Travel Weekly’s Future of Travel Week, Arnold Donald said the resumption of the cruise sector would rely on experienced cruisers filling ships.

But he said cruise was used to having to manage its image among those who “mischaracterise” the sector, so would recover.

Asked about the impact of Covid on new-to-cruise customers, he said: “We’ve taken a punch in the gut because of the media and the noise, but it’s just a punch. We’re not down for the count.”

He said that because a “fraction” of the cruise sector will be sailing for the first few months of the return that there is “plenty of demand from previous cruise-goers” to fill them.

“We have time,” he said. “And the most powerful way to get to the new-to-cruise [customers] is to chip away at the pre-conceived notions. And the best way to do that is with those that cruise. The bottom line is, they believe the people they know. If they know someone who is a cruise-goer, then over time we will just chip away at what now seems like this huge barrier. It’s a temporary thing and we’ve seen that in the past when we’ve had other issues.”

He said his favourite “myth” about cruising in the UK was the perception that people think it’s “only for their mum and dad”.

“Like anyone in cruise I’m hyper-sensitive,” he said. “I always feel like there are people who are saying things that are either inaccurate or out of context.

He said cruise is “often mischaracterised” but that that happened “before Covid” and will continue to happen in the future. “It’s something that we live with,” he added.

Carnival reported strong 2021 bookings in its recent financial results. Asked if this was mainly down to rebookings ahead of new bookings, Donald said: “Clearly, the future cruise credits from cancelled cruises is contributing to that but there are definitely new bookings. We’re not surprised but we’re encouraged.

“People who cruise know that the cruise industry probably has superior health protocols to other forms of travel already,” he said, noting hand sanitising stations were already on board many ships. “We had to because we have dealt with viruses previously. So they are comfortable and confident.”

He also praised the “outpouring of support” from travel professionals and guests for Carnival’s nine lines and its crew members as a “human spirit elevating experience”. He said “it just affirms how beautiful the cruise industry is”.

Donald said the mass use of future cruise credits for cancelled 2020 trips had led to the decline in selling price. He said there was “no need to do heavy discounting” for future bookings at “this point in time”.

He said Carnival was doing “very little” marketing, but when it does resume in earnest it would be focussed about the onboard experience and destinations – rather than new health and safety protocols – because the target audience is experienced cruise-goers.

Those passengers would “assume” cruise lines are doing the right things in terms of health and safety, said Donald, who accepted the media, and new-to-cruise customers may seek health and safety information. He said they could access it online but it wouldn’t be part of marketing tactics.