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“You’ve got to be optimistic,” said Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises.
During this year’s Seatrade Cruise Virtual pandemic-edition conference, the annual State of the Global Cruise Industry panel focused on “Perspectives on Cruising in the COVID-19 Era.” In addition to Vago, in attendance were Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation & plc; Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings; and Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group.
The main topic of conversation was the resumption of cruising from North America since Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to extend its No-Sail Order, which is currently in place until Oct. 31, 2020. Nonetheless, every executive foresees a return to operations sooner rather than later.
In fact, I don’t know of another industry in the world that does 100% testing.
"We are optimistic that we’ll be in a position, as an industry in collaboration with [CDC] and in collaboration with the [Trump] administration, to resume cruising sometime this year,” Donald said.
Crucial to that return, according to Fain, is sharing everything the cruise industry has discovered and planned during the past six months.
“I’m really quite pleased to see how much the industry has worked to find ways to learn from the science,” he said. “There is a time when it seems right that all the forces are coming together: the knowledge of the disease, the technology and the willingness to work together.”
To eventually set sail again, Del Rio admitted restarting a ship is not something that can be done quickly. That’s why his company’s brands — Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — have pushed back their return to December at the earliest, giving a 60-day lead time to the installation of new tech and recommendations as put forth by the Healthy Sail Panel in corporate collaboration with Royal Caribbean. Even Vago, whose MSC brand restarted in the Mediterranean relatively quickly during the summer, agreed it takes time.
In either case, the resumption of cruising in Europe is proving to be a viable case study for a safe and healthy return in the U.S. And robust protocols, as suggested by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and Healthy Sail Panel, provide a road map for how to specifically do so — placing the greatest emphasis on testing of all passengers and crew before boarding.
“No other industry in travel does that — not airlines, nothing,” Fain said. “In fact, I don’t know of another industry in the world that does 100% testing. Our objective when we started was, ‘Can we do this in a way that makes being on a ship as safe or safer than being in your hometown?’"
Crucial to that goal, he said, will be to “control the environment once onboard, to have all the ways of making sure that the transmission is less,” including physical distancing and masks.
Donald believes that a case of COVID-19 onboard a ship is still possible, so plans to insulate the virus so “everyone can go about their business as in a city” are important.
“If there’s an incident, we can isolate it and take care of it without inconveniencing our guests, our crew or, very importantly, the societies in which we operate, communities that we go to and sail from and the governments involved,” Fain said.
All the while, European satisfaction remains high with such protocols in place according to Vago, who mentioned that MSC guests questioning, “Why am I going back home or what am I going back home to?” are currently booking back-to-back cruises to escape. Of highest importance, “they feel safe because of testing,” he said.
For American cruising to resume, Del Rio believes the local market simply needs the opportunity to “show proof positive that we can operate in this environment safely,” as it has in the Mediterranean.
To those clients concerned about how the cruise experience will be affected in the long term, Fain said “protocols will taper off as the science, technology, treatments and testing get better.”
In the meantime, reservations are still coming in.
One of the big factors is going to be the travel advisor community and their ability to explain things.
“Future business is a lot stronger than you’d expect it to be, given that the industry is completely shut down, our sales and marketing efforts have been really turned to zero, many travel agents are not working, and ports around the world are closed,” Del Rio said. “Against that backdrop, that we are booking as much as we are shows the resiliency of our industry.”
And travel advisors are necessary to keep getting the word out as the industry gears back up.
"One of the big factors is going to be the travel advisor community and their ability to explain things,” Fain said. “People need to know the facts, and I think we need our friends to help us get those facts out there.”
"People want to get back to their normal life,” Del Rio said. “This pandemic is an interruption to their normal life.”
Living and cruising is going to “come back stronger than before,” Vago concluded.