The cruise line industry is sailing in choppy and uncharted waters these days. Carnival (NYSE:CCL) (NYSE:CUK)Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL), and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NYSE:NCLH) haven't taken on new passengers since mid-March, and late last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the no-sail order to operate within U.S. territorial waters for as long as 100 more days if the public health emergency isn't cleared.

The near-term outlook is brutal, and the cruise lines are one of the few pandemic-battered industries that won't be able to score a spot in line for the U.S. government bailout. The current interruption, inevitable global recession, and industry-tarnishing events will make it hard for Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and NCL to return to their former glory anytime soon. But things still don't have to end badly for today's hammered investors. Let's go over a few of the potentially upbeat scenarios.

The top deck of the Royal Caribbean Anthem ship.

Image source: Royal Caribbean.

1. Success is relative

Shares of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line enter the new trading week between 70% and 79% below their January highs. Carnival and NCL would need to more than quadruple to get back to where they were three months ago, and that's not going to happen anytime soon. It will take years before the industry gets back to where it was last year, and that's certainly not going to happen next year or even in 2022. Even when revenue returns to 2019 levels, it will take even longer to approach last year's profit levels.

The outlook is bleak, but investors don't have to see today's purchases roughly quadruple to come out ahead. If the three stocks doubled in two or maybe three years (and no investors should scoff at that kind of haul, even given the outsize risks), they would be winners at half of where they were earlier this year. 

2. Bulls are starting to come out into the open

It may not seem fashionable to stay bullish on the three cruise line stocks given all of the calamity, but after last week's bounce it seems as if a few Wall Street pros are ready to dip their feet back into the water. Stifel analyst Steven Wieczynski updated his position on Carnival over the weekend, and he's sticking to his buy rating on the largest cruise line operator despite slashing his price target on the shares from $59 to $17. 

Shaving a price goal by more than two-thirds is rarely a good look, but $17 is more than double the $8 a share that Carnival had to sell its stock at in a secondary stock offering earlier this month. The new target is also a healthy 37% above where it closed last week. 

Wieczynski is cautious in his remarks. He believes that Carnival actually has the biggest hurdles to clear, since most of the horror stories of coronavirus-smacked sailings that kept passengers and crews quarantined on board happen to be on Carnival-owned brands. He's bracing for a slow recovery, but doesn't see Carnival as a bankruptcy risk. If the new update on Carnival is bullish with a decent price ceiling, one has to wonder about the prognosis for Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, which don't apparently have as tough a road back. 

3. Billions have been raised in more ways than one

Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and NCL have been raising money in recent weeks. Once they realized that the bailout wouldn't apply to them given their overseas registrations and minimal tab when it comes to taxes, they have been busy securing billions in financing. It's not pretty, given the convertible debt at dilutive conversion prices and high interest rates, but in the industry's darkest hour they were able to secure a lifeline to stay afloat for several months.

Potential passengers will also be receiving billions in the form of stimulus checks. You won't find too many people flipping those checks into future cruise deposits, but some of that money will inevitably trickle down to the cruise lines, which will likely be offering some pretty ridiculous rates. The near-term demand issue might also not be as bleak as initially expected given the folks on now-canceled cruise vacations opting to take sweetheart deals on rebooked future getaways. 

The road back for the cruise industry won't be easy. The coronavirus crisis will take years for the leading players to overcome, but with the damage already done to the stocks and pessimism running thick, it could be time to be a contrarian here. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.