Cruise line and port executives joined Seatrade Cruise Talks last week to discuss “Health & Safety: Maintaining the Bubble” onboard and off cruise ships during the pandemic. The deep dive into the latest protocols provided an understanding of what clients can expect once ocean cruises resume operations from the U.S.
Fresh off MSC Cruises’ successful safe sailings in the Mediterranean, Bud Darr, the line’s executive vice president of maritime policy and government affairs, spoke about the current benefits of cruise travel under certain restrictions.
Due to the need to temporarily limit onboard capacities, guests are treated to “more personal attention and more personal space,” he said. However, the line’s voyages are currently limited to seven days in length.
On shore, tours must also be chaperoned by MSC for the time being. Illustrating the line’s strict compliance with this rule, some passengers who strayed from sanctioned programming have been kicked off the ship. However, Darr admits that most cruisers “really appreciate these measures we’ve taken.”
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In fact, extensive health protocols begin “well before the guests even arrive,” said Paul Austin, head of safety, security, crisis and business continuity management for Intercruises Shoreside & Port Services. It all requires a close collaboration of individual suppliers, cruise lines and teams on the ground.
Speaking specifically about embarkation and disembarkation homeports, Anna Silva, operations supervisor for Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., detailed numerous enhancements to the facility. These include scheduled arrival windows, mask mandates, physical distancing, contactless payment for parking and plexiglass dividers at check-in, as well as signage and dots on the floor to direct travelers. The port additionally sports a so-called “pharma box” vending machine that distributes face coverings and other drug store-like items.
“It looks like going out in public,” she said, indicating the experience will be comparable to going to an airport or grocery store. There will not be eight ships in port every day right away, so there will be less crowds as well.
Everything “will evolve as the conditions ashore evolve,” Darr said, especially with regard to vaccine developments. MSC does not intend on backing off any measures too quickly. In fact, he anticipates the cruise industry will lag a bit behind to be safe. He said, “we don’t want to get this wrong.”
Of course, should a positive test arise — including those available mid-cruise for guests returning to certain countries — MSC is fully prepared to isolate exposed guests in their own bubbles. To that end, the line prebooks hotel rooms in locations, where possible, for quarantining ashore. It also has insurance to cover guests so they don’t incur extraneous transportation costs.
Intercruises’ Austin added that protocols naturally vary from cruise line to cruise line and from port to port.
The cruise industry’s exemplary methods have even gained the interest of other sectors. Swiss authorities have come to MSC to learn from them for nursing homes applications, and Port Everglades has shared ideas with the adjacent Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Back onboard, guest surveys indicate that they are having a “great experience,” Darr said. “People are ready to come back.”
Granted, things will look a bit different to start. It may not be the “full product,” and it will take a little more time to test for COVID-19 before boarding, for instance, but the embarkation process has been “a little smoother than anticipated,” he said.
Once cruise travel does resume stateside, there’s a common desire to get everything right and not have to go back and do it all over again, according to Silva, of Port Everglades. So, it won’t go from “full stop” to “full steam ahead” immediately.
Nonetheless, Austin is “quietly confident” and optimistic for the months ahead as situations improve globally.
“I’m excited about it,” Darr said. “We’ve got to be patient. We’ll get there. We just have to work our way through it.”
Intercruises Shoreside & Port Services