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Over the last few days, there is reason to feel both excited and anxious about the return of cruising.
As UnCruise Adventures set sail on its first Alaskan voyage of the entire season, Hurtigruten and Paul Gauguin Cruises — which also resumed sailing — announced confirmed COVID-19 cases onboard their ships.
It is an unfortunate situation, but it provides a helpful case study for moving forward.
UnCruise marked a milestone on Aug. 1 when its Wilderness Adventurer departed Juneau with 36 passengers, marking the first ship of any kind to embark on an Alaskan sailing in 2020.
The brand is currently enforcing a 66% occupancy limit in Alaska, as well as implementing rigorous health and safety standards, including crew health testing and evaluation in addition to the requirement of a negative COVID-19 testing certificate presented by passengers before embarkation.
The same is true of all travelers to French Polynesia — where Paul Gauguin operates. Passengers must provide a negative coronavirus result within three days prior to international air departure, according to the cruise line’s website. What’s more, an additional self-test is provided by the local government to be conducted on the fourth day after arrival to the destination.
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Unfortunately, though, several news outlets are reporting that the line’s namesake Paul Gauguin ship has one confirmed passenger case of COVID-19. Now, around 340 fellow guests and crew are confined to their cabins until updated results are available.
Even more worrisome, Hurtigruten has indicated that 36 crew and five guests from its Roald Amundsen ship have tested positive for COVID-19. All passengers are now off the expedition ship, which is docked in Tromso, Norway.
Hurtigruten’s policy does not indicate a need for pre-embarkation testing outside of a self-declaration health form, and a medical certificate from a doctor is not required.
The line has temporarily canceled its expedition cruises until further notice.
With these vessels carrying only hundreds of passengers — compared to the thousands on megaships — one might assume larger ships will be the last to return. However, German brand TUI Cruises, which is partly owned by Royal Caribbean Group, successfully finished a voyage with 1,200 passengers (and no COVID-19 cases) last week.
The virus has proven unpredictable even under relatively controlled circumstances, but it’s possible that safe cruising can return before there’s a viable vaccine — provided the industry learns from the successes and mistakes of these initial outings.
Although it appears testing is a major component in ensuring the healthiest of departures, the Paul Gauguin case casts some doubt. It could be that the 72-hour window for testing before flying out is too long, and opens up a chance to still become infected.
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During the World Travel & Tourism Council/Carnival Corporation Global Scientific Summit on COVID-19, Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival, mentioned how important he believes inexpensive rapid testing will be in the near future. If pier-side guests could be verified as healthy immediately before boarding, such time lapses would be eliminated. What remains to be seen is just how soon reliable rapid testing might become available, especially in large enough quantities to supply the largest of ships.
Once a vaccine is available, these concerns will likely be in the rearview mirror. But until then, the burden of safety on the cruise industry is immense. Thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with American cruise lines to eventually lift its no-sail order on ships carrying more than 250 passengers (UnCruise is below that threshold).
Until then, it is likely domestic small ships and riverboats will reign supreme, hopefully without any outbreaks.