By Antonio Paradiso, managing director, UK and Ireland, MSC Cruises
There can be little doubt that health and safety will be at the top of every entity involved directly and indirectly with any aspect of the travel and tourism sector throughout 2021.
That is to be expected and totally understandable given the global pandemic’s dramatic impact for much of the past year on every element of leisure and hospitality.
The global cruise industry collectively ground to a halt in March, but quickly set to work to identify solutions to safely return ships to sea.
We resumed our own operations in August 2020 when our flagship MSC Grandiosa became the first ship of any major line to set sail following the industry’s lockdown in the spring.
We had worked tirelessly on a new health and safety protocol that was designed for the wellbeing of our guests, our crew and the communities that our ships would visit and one that could be recalibrated dependent on the evolving pandemic.
The protocol was approved by a range of regulatory bodies in Europe and, on August 16, MSC Grandiosa left Genoa in Italy for her first seven-night voyage in the Mediterranean.
It effectively set a standard within the industry and, in many ways, it went above and beyond the guidelines set out by the authorities. One of these was with our approach to shore excursions.
Going ashore is a key aspect of a cruise holiday. We don’t believe in ‘cruises to nowhere’ as this is not a rich and complete cruise experience. So, we decided to implement protected excursions, a concept that we will see across the cruise industry in 2021.
A ship is a controlled environment and our protocol encompasses every aspect of life on board, from first ensuring that guests and crew test negative for Covid-19 before reaching the ship, through to ongoing testing and monitoring on board.
So, it is crucial that we are also able to control the risk and exposure when guests go ashore and to deliver the same high standards of health and safety on board.
This is just as reassuring to the destinations that are visited, so they know that cruise lines are bringing healthy guests to their communities and that best practices of health and hygiene will be applied when local attractions are visited.
When we announced last summer that visits ashore would only be possible through our official shore excursions, there were people who wondered whether such an approach could possibly appeal to cruise guests, especially those who had previously been enthusiastic fans.
When we resumed our sailing operation with MSC Grandiosa we offered nearly 60 different shore excursions during five port calls. They proved to be popular, much in demand and many completely sold out.
Guests came back to the ship – and we carried more than 30,000 – from these shore excursions happy, having had an enjoyable time ashore, and they were reassured by the same high standards towards health and safety undertaken by our tour operators and tour guides that they found on board the ship.
Naturally, we and the whole of society hope that during the year ahead the pandemic subsides and we can all return to our pre-coronavirus ways of life which will in turn relax our health and safety measures gradually and responsibly both ashore and on board.
But during the second wave that swept across Europe in the latter part of 2020 our protocol ably demonstrated that shore excursions can take place in a controlled yet enjoyable manner.
We have shown that people can still discover beautiful destinations, ports and attractions that are integral to a cruise holiday, all managed in a safe and responsible way.
By Steve Witt and Paul Harrison, co-founders, Not Just Travel and The Travel Franchise
At the height of the pandemic last spring, looking out from Bournemouth beach on the south coast, the skyline was dominated by the incredible sight of several cruise ships taking shelter in the bay. It would have been easy to think, ‘What will become of these ships and their crews?’ But that’s to underestimate our love of cruise and ships in general.
Within a week of the cruise ships mooring in Bournemouth and Weymouth bays, hundreds of ‘ship tourists’ turned up to have a look at them, as people made the most of their socially distanced outside exercise opportunities. Cruise ship tourism became a phenomenon along the south coast throughout the year – providing an unexpected boost to the economy, as people turned up to have a coffee and look at the new skyline.
This illustrates the universal allure of travel and the yearning we all have to get out and explore again. At Not Just Travel our homeworking travel consultants have already seen a huge surge in bookings since the positive vaccine news was announced. In fact, we believe we are seeing an extended Peaks season. Where traditionally Peaks would run from Christmas to March, we started to see bookings spike in November, as the great news about the vaccine and positivity around Christmas and Black Friday boosted customer confidence. We hope we are going to see this continue.
We started our business the day before 9/11 so we know something about creating a successful business in tough times. The coronavirus pandemic was a very different situation to 9/11. Back then, no-one wanted to travel, but now, customers are desperate to travel and can’t. We are already seeing really strong sales and we believe that this will only increase as more people receive the Covid-19 vaccine. In fact, we believe cruises will be one of the first travel sectors to recover. Why? Because cruises have always been a popular holiday choice for older customers and those who want to visit various destinations in a short space of time. The over-65s will be some of the first groups to be immunised and so will be more confident about travelling. Anecdotally, we are hearing this is the case from our travel consultants. They are seeing a trend of older customers booking holidays and cruises for summer 2021 and beyond.
Throughout last year our team worked tirelessly to help customers to get refunds or re-book their cancelled cruise holidays and we have seen a very high percentage of people swapping their cancelled holidays to 2021. Those cruise companies who issued cruise credits of more than 100 per cent of the value of the holiday won a lot of customers’ hearts. It was a very smart move because it kept customer loyalty and, in many cases, we have seen customers book additional cruises.
Despite Covid-19, we have had our best ever sales days for cruises as customers rushed to make the most of the great deals on offer. In fact, MSC’s short cruise offers led to our busiest ever day of cruise bookings in our history. Holidays may look different in the future and we may need to take extra precautions going forward, but cruising is still phenomenally popular.
We believe that travel insurance will be the single biggest trend to hit the travel industry in 2021. We offer Covid-19 insurance on all our travel insurance packages and that has proven hugely popular and reassuring for customers. It will also be increasingly important because the EHIC scheme has ended. This means that insurance will be an essential going forward for travellers and we recommend it on every booking. Where once you were covered as an EU citizen for reciprocal treatment in the EU, now you won’t be, so make sure you always book it. It may be that a new reciprocal scheme will be brought in with a new trade agreement, but until we know the fine details, it is always best to be safe, rather than sorry.
The travel industry has been through a lot recently, but we predict we are going to see the biggest bounce back in recent history. People have missed their holidays, they have missed their cruises and adventures, and we are really looking forward to helping people reconnect with friends and family on those big holidays we have all been dreaming about through 2020.