Boarding in the Italian port of Genoa for a seven-day Mediterranean cruise on August 16, travel agent Valeria Belardi prepared herself for a voyage like no other.
Belardi was one of some 3,000 pioneering cruisers on board MSC Grandiosa, the first cruise liner to return to the Mediterranean following the global shut down of the multi billion-dollar cruise industry in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The voyage was characterized by Covid testing, social distancing, hand sanitizing and temperature checks, but it was, Belardi told CNN, also relaxing and enjoyable. More importantly it was, reportedly, virus-free.
MSC Cruises wouldn’t confirm exact numbers, but the Grandiosa was operating at about 60% of its 6,300 passenger capacity.
There were day trips, including sightseeing in the Maltese capital Valletta and the Sicilian city of Palermo. While on board, Belardi enjoyed pre-packaged snacks on the deck, relaxing evenings by the pool and a trip to the spa.
“I think cruises could be the safest holiday, right now,” said Belardi, who owns travel company Vivere & Viaggiare Roma Pittaluga.
But MSC Grandiosa is almost alone in its return to the high seas.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended a no-sail order effectively banning cruising around American waters until at least September 2020.
Major operators, including Princess Cruises, have also canceled sailings in regions outside the United States, including Asia, the Caribbean, South America and Antarctica, until mid-December.
Smaller cruise lines across Europe have restarted operations, with varying results. Earlier this month, 41 crew and 21 guests tested positive for Covid-19 after sailing on small Norwegian cruise ship MS Roald Amundsen.
MSC Cruises is one of the first major companies to test the waters with a big ship, and cruise industry experts see it as a crucial test.
How Grandiosa and subsequent scheduled Med voyages fare could be an indicator of how cruising can safely return in a changed world.
State of play
For the cruise industry, the stakes are incredibly high.
In the past decade, cruising experienced a major boom, with 30 million passengers in 2019, creating a demand for bigger, better, grander ships and a $150 billion industry that sustains 1.2 million jobs.
That exponential growth was already causing image problems amid concerns about overtourism and environmental impact.
Then came the PR disaster of coronavirus, with cruise ships branded high risk for Covid-19 during the height of the pandemic after several significant outbreaks left ships scrambling for safe port and crews stranded at sea.
The challenge now facing cruise operators around the world is how to recover safely and effectively while convincing travelers to return.
“We know that for every 1% drop in cruising that occurs worldwide, up to 9,100 jobs can be lost,” Bari Golin-Blaugrund, a spokeswoman for industry body Cruise Lines International Association, told CNN.
Golin-Blaugrund says CLIA is confident that cruising will recover as demand is already being seen for 2021 vacations and beyond, but, she says, with most cruise operations still suspended, that means up to 2,500 jobs being lost per day.
“By the end of September, the worldwide impact will be $77 billion, 518,000 jobs and $23 billion in wages lost.”
Among those planning to return to cruising is American traveler Christine Beehler, who says testing positive for Covid-19 following a trip on the Coral Princess back in April hasn’t put her off.
“Even without a vaccine, I’m ready to try it,” Beehler told CNN last month. “There are so many places that I still want to go, and I enjoy cruising.”
The new normal
Following its successful first voyage, MSC Grandiosa departed on August 23 for a second cruise, stopping off at the Greek ports of Corfu, Katakolon and Piraeus.
Before boarding, MSC Cruises passengers were tested for Covid-19 via a primary antigen test and a secondary molecular test.
MSC Cruises representative Luca Biondolillo told CNN that one embarking passenger tested positive at both stages.
“In accordance with the protocol, the passenger as well as his traveling party were denied boarding,” said Biondolillo.
“Additionally, other passengers who had reached the ship with the same van were denied boarding as they were close contacts of the one passenger who tested positive.”
This response, said Biondolillo, suggests that strict testing is working, successfully weeding out anyone with Covid-19 before they step onto the ship.
Alongside testing, passengers must complete a temperature check and health questionnaire. Crew members are also tested for the virus prior to boarding and, according to MSC Cruises, “regularly during their contract.”
On board, cleaning methods have been stepped up, including hospital-grade disinfectant and the use of UV-C light technology.
The maximum 70% capacity rule is there to ensure social distancing is followed, while all activities on board are catered toward smaller groups.
Some cruise experts have floated the “cruise to nowhere” concept – to allow guests to enjoy the amenities of ship life without the worries of potentially picking up the virus in a port and spreading it around the ship, or vice versa.
But MSC Cruises decided to stick to port sojourns, while ensuring all excursions were pre-planned and tightly controlled.
Biondolillo told CNN that during MSC Grandiosa’s August 16 journey, one family did break the rules during a port stop and were subsequently denied reboarding.
“The health and safety protocols are put in place for the benefit of every single person,” he said. “There can be no breaking of the rules.
“These people risked jeopardizing everybody else’s holidays and health.”
Passenger Valeria Belardi said the “strong, detailed and really effective” health and safety measures allowed her to feel relaxed on board.
She described the ship’s atmosphere as “peaceful and quiet.”
MSC Cruises’ European voyage will no doubt be under scrutiny by Italian company Costa Cruises, which is dispatching its ship Costa Deliziosa from the Italian city Trieste on September 6 for a trial voyage to a series of Italian ports.
MSC and Costa operate large vessels that, in usual circumstances, house thousands of passengers. Even with reduced numbers, there will still be a substantial number of people on board these floating palaces.
Other cruise ships that have returned to the water in recent months have been significantly smaller, but still problematic.
In addition to the outbreak on board the Norwegian vessel MS Roald Armundsen, a small cruise ship, the Paul Gauguin, hit the headlines when French Polynesia’s High Commission reported that one passenger had tested positive while on board in Polynesia. SeaDream Yacht Club also reported one guest tested positive for Covid-19 following a cruise on its ship SeaDream 1 in Norway.
In the United States, adventure cruise company UnCruise Adventures was able to restart operations as its small vessel Wilderness Adventurer was under the 250-passenger limit of the US no-sail ban, but it soon halted when one of its 36 passengers tested positive. Following a retest, the passenger received a negative result.
“We were able to act quickly, but that doesn’t mean this event has not been painful to our company and guests,” said Dan Blanchard, the operator’s CEO and owner, in a statement.
Cruise line perspective
While a couple of MSC and Costa ships may be tentatively returning to the seas, most big vessels remain out of action – docked in ports across the world and unlikely to sail again until 2021.
Some, such as Richard Branson’s Scarlet Lady Virgin Voyages vessel, have never even had their inaugural voyage.
After years of requests for hulking vessels offering every amenity, from rooftop bars to spas to hot tubs, cruise lines may find themselves with an excess of ships.
In June, cruise giant Carnival Corporation announced plans to remove at least six cruise ships from its fleet. The company posted a $4.4 billion loss for the second quarter of 2020.
British operator Cruise and Maritime Voyages entered administration in June, with the future of its fleet uncertain.
Meanwhile, Holland America also announced plans to offload four of its 14 ships: Amsterdam, Maasdam, Rotterdam and Veendam.
“It’s always difficult to see any ship leave the fleet, especially those that have a long and storied history with our company,” said Stein Kruse, chief executive officer of Holland America Group and Carnival UK, in a statement.
Kruse added that there were plans for new ships in the pipeline.
When cruise ships are sold, they’re sometimes earmarked for demolition and sold for scrap. Other times, they’re bought by other cruise lines. This option is likely less tempting to many cruise lines right now, but it is still happening.
In July, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines announced plans to buy Amsterdam and Rotterdam from Holland America.
The UK-based cruise line is known for operating smaller ships – and the addition of these two bigger liners, now christened Bolette and Borealis, will increase its capacity by 30%, even as the cruise line gets rid of two older ships in turn.
Managing Director Peter Deer told CNN he sees the decision as a mark of confidence in the cruise industry.
“I started to look to see if there’s opportunities in the market where we could actually grow our capacity,” he said.
Still, Fred Olsen has yet to resume operations, and Deer says it won’t do so until it’s confident it can proceed safely.
“I think my preference would be that there is a vaccine which we’ll all have – or the people at risk would take,” he says. “Whether that will happen or not is difficult to predict. I think what’s really important is that you’ve got a means to make sure that there is super quick testing.”
For the ports used to cruisers crowding out their terminals, the past few months have also been a time for reckoning.
CLIA’s Bari Golin-Blaugrund said the pause in operations has allowed for further consideration on the topic of cleaner fuels and more sustainable practices.
Pre-pandemic, the CLIA had already started working in partnership with the Croatian city of Dubrovnik to develop responsible tourism, amid concerns about the impact of cruises on a city that has seen a sharp rise in visitors in recent years.
New rules were subsequently introduced last year, limiting the city’s harbor to a maximum of two ships at any one time.
Venice has also seen campaigns for cruise companies to rethink their operations in the city.
But many ports around the world previously inundated with too many guests, are now struggling from a lack of tourists.
In the Bahamas, where cruise ships brought in 5.4 million tourists in 2019, the industry standstill has been “economically traumatic,” according to the country’s tourism minister, Dionisio D’Aguilar.
Austrian dancer Conny Seidler, who was working on the Costa Deliziosa when the pandemic hit, has been watching developments within the cruise industry with keen interest.
Seidler won’t be on board the Deliziosa when it returns to the waters for its seven-day September voyage around Italy – dancing isn’t returning to cruise ships while Covid is still a threat.
Seidler’s also not sure about the new regulations, which mean port excursions are potentially off-limits for crew. That, plus restrictions on using onboard gyms and restaurants and the fear of the virus getting aboard, means working conditions would be tough.
“I understand all the precautions and everything – there is a reason behind it. But for me, it takes away all the reasons why people would go and work on the ship,” Seidler tells CNN. “Because you would go on a ship because you want to travel the world, you want to see places.”
“People from poorer countries come to the ship to earn money and send it back home,” she adds. “But what keeps those people sane, if you never go out, is you go to the gym or you go and socialize with your friends in the crew bar, these kind of things and that’s all kind of been taken away.”
But even with those strict guidelines, Seidler says she would go back on board if she could, as there’s currently no work for her on land either.
“I miss dancing,” she says. “I’ve been thinking to myself, whatever job comes first I take it. I don’t care this time if it’s a casino, if it’s theater – I just do it, because I miss dancing.”
Seilder does acknowledge that she’s coming from a position where her experience of cruising in the wake of Covid-19 was largely positive. Unlike many crew members across the world, she never spent time in isolation, nor did she struggle to get repatriated.
Getting crew members home – amid reports of on-board protests and mental health crises – has been a controversial topic. There are still cruise workers awaiting repatriation, stranded by closed borders, red tape and complicated travel arrangements.
The CLIA’s Golin-Blaugrund says caring for and repatriating crewmembers remains a top priority for its cruise lines.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time on board cruise ships, Seidler reckons the future of the industry will be determined by a “learning-by-doing process.”
It’s hard to imagine, she says, that cruise travel will ever be the same.