From nightly sanitation and cleaning measures to face-coverings, social distancing and testing, cruise lines have had to go above and beyond in their safety protocols. It’s exactly what’s needed for guests to return, writes Anthony Pearce.
If 2020 has been the most challenging year in modern history for the travel industry as a whole, cruise has felt the shock even more acutely. While in February we worried about the reputational damage cruise might suffer as the first ships were caught up in the pandemic, by March we realised the impact would be felt immediately as borders were closed and itineraries were cancelled. Of course, we spent the next few months thinking ahead to a summer return, but it soon became clear that in most cases, that wasn’t to be. It became a time for reflection and, crucially, planning.
Over summer, we conducted several surveys with our audience that demonstrated the challenges travel agents face in this climate, but most illuminating was the feedback from former guests. Although desperate to get back on board, they wanted to know how social distancing and other protocols would work in practice, what would happen in the event of an outbreak and whether new measures would impact their overall enjoyment of the cruises, particularly in terms of what features, such as buffets, would have to be closed. We now have many of those answers, with the likes of MSC Cruises having returned to the seas along with a host of small ships and river lines (see Return of river cruise, in this issue), putting the industry in a strong position for the all-important January.
Although cruise lines have individually revealed their safety protocols, perhaps the most significant milestone on the journey back to something like full service 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, with a spokesperson noting: “We see testing as an important initial step to a multi-layered approach that we believe validates the industry’s commitment to making health, safety, and the wellbeing of the passengers, the crew and the communities we visit our top priority.” You can read Andy Harmer’s thoughts on this in Comment, in this issue).
The week before that announcement, Clia and the UK Chamber of Shipping created a new framework for cruise ship operators to begin sailing again safely, and shared the documents with the UK government. The new framework is based on published guidance from national and international authorities including the World Health Organization and International Maritime Organization. The detailed documents for operators and crew lists a series of risk mitigations, including physical signage or markings showing the minimum distance people should be from one another; limiting the number of passengers in certain venues to allow for social distancing to be achieved; encouraging time spent outside on deck; updating seating arrangements to facilitate social distancing; changing the layout of walkways and lifts; waiter-only seated service for meals and bar. Harmer called it a “culmination of extensive dialogue and collaboration by representatives from across the maritime sector working together with government and national health authorities.” The full framework can be seen here.
To look at what that means in theory, the line to look towards is MSC Cruises, which now has MSC Grandiosa in operation for Schengen-area guests only. 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; 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 will support and facilitate the measures, the line said. On MSC Grandiosa, every guest and crew member will be provided with the complimentary wristband, which facilitates 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, has resumed cruise operations, joining Costa Cruises, Carnival’s 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. In Singapore, where Genting and Royal Caribbean (with Quantum of the Seas) are set to resume there is a CruiseSafe standard. Once again, this includes mandatory testing test prior to boarding and strict and frequent cleaning and sanitisation protocols onboard, and “ensuring 100 per cent fresh air throughout the ship”.
As we can see, broadly, the safe protocols fall into six or seven categories: face coverings; enhanced cleaning; social distancing; table service; testing; ventilation and capacity reduction. In the case of the latter, as we have seen with river, 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 it – has long been important in their design, determining whether a vessel can feel too busy or just right. 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 SeaDream I during the following itinerary. Cruise lines will need to act decisively when there are cases on board – and quarantine and testing will play a huge part of this. Hurtigruten, which recorded cases on board MS Roald Amundsen in July after returning to the seas (and continues to investigate the outbreak), has introduced testing for guests and crew before embarkation on our expedition cruises; a contactless fever scan to record guests’ temperature; social distancing, made possible through a reduction in capacity; and face masks or face shields for all crew in public areas on board the ships.
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. There is no magic bullet – everything with coronavirus is about assessing and mitigating risks – but cruise lines have worked hard to establish framework that allows for the safe resumption of cruising. With January around the corner, it couldn’t have come at a better time.