With the all-important January booking period not far away, the cruise industry’s commitment to safety and testing protocols couldn’t have come at a better time, writes Anthony Pearce, after the unique challenges it has faced during the pandemic
Cruise ships have played an unfortunate part in the story of the pandemic so far, becoming a very visual sign of its devastation. Even before most borders closed and the UK lockdown began, cruise lines began to suspend sailings, at first individually and then as an industry, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a no-sail order in the US, and UK operators followed suit.
Although 2020 has been a year of unprecedented struggle for the travel industry as a whole, the cruise sector has faced its unique challenges. In July, as the government first began to allow international travel as the travel corridors system opened up a series of destinations, it moved to confirm that cruises were not part of the wider relaxation. In March, the Foreign Office (FCDO) had taken the unusual step of warning against a particular holiday type, advising the over 70s and chronically ill to avoid cruises. On July 9, it was updated to advise all Britons against taking cruise ship holidays “at this time” (with the clarification that river cruises were, in theory, OK coming a few days later).
Cruise lines and associations, in both tourism and wider shipping, have spent the period of enforced suspension planning for the return to the seas, with a handful of ships – mostly smaller vessels and river ships – starting operations again. Perhaps the most significant milestone on the journey back came last month, as Clia revealed that its ocean members worldwide have agreed to conduct 100 per cent testing of guests and crew on all ships with a capacity to carry 250 or more guests. The association said that a negative test was required for any embarkation – an industry first. Shortly before that, the UK Chamber of Shipping created a new framework for cruise ship operators to begin sailing safely. Clia called it a “culmination of extensive dialogue and collaboration by representatives from across the maritime sector working together with government and national health authorities”.
To look at what the guidance means in practice, MSC Cruises provides a good example. With MSC Grandiosa sailing for Schengen-area guests only, it owns one of the only large ships currently operating. Key to the return has been the creation of a “social bubble”, it says. Its safety protocols include universal health screening of everyone – guests and crew – which includes tests for Covid-19 before they can board a ship and halfway through each sailing; elevated sanitation and cleaning measures throughout the vessel; managed social distancing; wearing of face masks in public areas; while the ships’ capacity has also been reduced to 70 per cent to ensure social distancing can be guaranteed on board. Furthermore, the MSC for Me app supports and facilitates the measures, the line said. On MSC Grandiosa, every guest and crew member will be provided with the complimentary wristband, which allows contactless transactions around the ship as well as providing contact and proximity tracing. Guests will be encouraged to wear it at all times, while Zoe, the in-cabin virtual assistant, will mean guests can get answers to questions without the need to go to guest services.
Another significant moment in the return to full sailing came in October when Aida Cruises, Carnival Corporation’s German brand, resumed cruise operations, joining Costa Cruises, its Italian brand, which is now operating three ships. Testing, regular temperature and health checks and social distancing guidelines, as well as managed shore excursions, are among protocols introduced – paving the way for Carnival to do the same across its US and UK brands, which share ships in the same class. In Singapore, where Genting and Royal Caribbean (with Quantum of the Seas) are set to resume, there is a CruiseSafe standard, which again includes mandatory testing before embarkation.
Broadly speaking, the safe protocols fall into six or seven categories: face coverings; enhanced cleaning; social distancing; table service; testing; ventilation (through the utilisation of outdoor space) and capacity reduction. In the case of the latter, as we have seen with river cruise lines currently sailing in Europe, this impacts excursions, with guests spread into smaller groups over more coaches, while the much-loved cruise buffet has been closed on many ships, meaning guests can maintain social distancing while sat at their tables. The ‘flow’ of ships – that is, how guests get around them – has long been important in their design. It’s now more crucial than ever.
Of course, testing is not watertight, particularly with guests getting on and off the ships. As a demonstration of the logistical issues cruise lines face, in August, after a guest tested positive for Covid-19 upon returning home to Denmark, all guests and crew were forced to quarantine on board one ship during the following itinerary. How cruise lines deal with outbreaks will be critical, given one of the great challenges in the early days of the outbreak was docking. In March, Holland America Line’s president Orlando Ashford accused countries of turning their backs on thousands of people, as Zaandam returned to the US through Central America, with four people on board dying from Covid-19 during the journey; and while Cuba offered a safe haven for the coronavirus-hit Braemar, it was among a host of ships that other Caribbean nations wouldn’t let dock. Cruise lines will need to act decisively when there are cases on board, and quarantine and testing will play a huge part of this – but so will diplomacy.
It’s fair to say that, because of the time guests spend on board and the impact the pandemic has had on the image of cruise as whole, operators have had to go above and beyond to ensure that cruises not only are safe, but that guests are confident of that. Although the cruise industry has one of the most impressive retention rates in travel, and many will be desperate to sail again, former customers will also want to know what life on board looks like in the age of Covid-19. With the all-important January just around the corner, the commitment to testing and other safety protocols couldn’t have come at a better time.