Carnival (NYSE:CCL) (NYSE:CUK) had better hope its newest ship is worth the wait. Mardi Gras -- the first cruise ship in the Western Hemisphere to run on liquefied natural gas as well as feature the first roller coaster at sea -- won't set sail until 2021 at the earliest. Construction delays at the shipyard initially bumped its original Aug. 31 sailing date to Nov. 14, but COVID-19 concerns are pushing out ship's debut to Feb. 6 of next year. 

Passengers will have to wait until 2021 to go on a coaster, but shareholders have been on a wild ride all year long. Shares of Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NYSE:NCLH), and Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL) have been some of the market's biggest losers in the wake of pandemic cancellations. The ride isn't likely to stop later this week, when Carnival provides what could be a significant business update.

Concept art of the roller coaster aboard the Carnival Mardi Gras.

Image source: Carnival Corp.

Rocking the boat 

Carnival has historically posted its fiscal second-quarter results in late June. It's unusual for it to wait this long to put out a business update along with additional financial information for the period, but no one is holding out for a great report. 

The world's largest cruise line operator hasn't had any revenue-generating sailings since mid-March. This quarter covers the months of March, April, and May. It's going to be a bloodbath. Analysts see a huge loss on a 91% plunge in revenue. The current quarter will be even uglier, with future sailings pushed out until at least autumn. 

Carnival isn't alone in this boat. Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean will be posting even larger top-line declines when they post financial results of this year's second-calendar quarter in a few weeks. 

It's not just the Carnival Mardi Gras that will be delayed. The $200 million makeover for the Carnival Victory -- and its transformational rechristening as Carnival Radiance -- is also being bumped into the springtime of next year. The delayed makeover is forcing Carnival into more cancellations and shuffling around some of its other vessels to make up for the shortfall. It may not matter if the industry's No Sail Order isn't lifted anytime soon. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic -- figuratively and perhaps literally. 

Cruise line stocks were among the hardest hit investments in the first quarter of 2020. They rebounded sharply, but they have largely resumed their slide in recent weeks. The year-to-date slides are pretty jarring. 

  • Carnival: down 71%
  • Royal Caribbean: down 64%
  • Norwegian Cruise Line: down 74%

It's been a roller coaster ride, and not a smooth one like the one that will eventually take on riders aboard the Mardi Gras at some point next year. The rally following the market's correction that finds many market darlings now hitting new highs betrayed cruise line stock investors. Shares of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line have plunged 37% to 43% off of last month's highs (and even those higher were well below where the stocks were earlier this year). 

The longer the sailings get pushed out, the more money that the three companies will bleed through, and the more that folks will realize that we can get by without the industry in general. Throw in this widening recession into the mix, and you may as well check your seat restraints. This coaster ride isn't over yet. 

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.