Once upon a time, the world’s cruise ships were titans in the oceans, earning billions as their passengers from major cities traveled around the world. But last year, many of these floating palaces became outbreaks of the coronavirus, diverting from port to port when COVID cases appeared on board and the pandemic escalated on land.
First, the passengers, then the crew, struggled to get home. By the summer of 2020, the world’s cruise ship fleet was essentially out of action. Most ships stood quietly in ports, and some were sold for scrap as the industry struggled to survive financially.
Now, more than a year later, the first passenger cruise ship is leaving the United States.
The departure of the Celebrity Edge, a 1004-foot ship with a capacity before COVID of 2,918 guests, marked a significant step for an industry that lost thousands of jobs and millions of dollars a day during cruise shutdowns.
The stakes for cruise ships are high – they need to stay virus-free, navigate the bureaucracy and restore their reputation and return safely to the seas.
The global state of the cruise industry
Celebrity Edge, owned by Celebrity Cruises of the Royal Caribbean Group, may be the first cruise to leave the United States, but it is not the first ship to sail after the pandemic.
The return of the cruise ships came in August 2020, when the flagship of MSC Cruises Grandiosa departed from the Italian port of Genoa for a seven-day voyage to the Mediterranean with comprehensive security measures in place.
Since then, Italian domestic cruises have been operating, navigating the uneven waves of the pandemic and the occasional Italian breaks imposed due to lockdowns.
MSC Cruises already operates ships in European destinations, including Spain, Croatia, and Malta. In the UK, confined to the waters and ports of the United Kingdom, they began sailing in May aboard the MSC Virtuosa.
In Singapore, the premiere of Royal Caribbean “Cruises to Nowhere” was in December 2020, while Celebrity Millennium is currently sailing in the Caribbean. In China, Royal Caribbean’s Sea Voyage makes domestic trips.
Martin Griffiths of the International Cruise Line Association (CLIA), the industry body that represents the world’s major cruise lines, told CNN Travel that 16% of CLIA ships have returned, a figure expected to rise to 49% by the end of September 2021.
By the end of 2022, Griffiths expects all CLIA member ships to be operational again.
Health and safety protocols
Cruise companies have introduced a number of health and safety requirements on board to avoid a repeat of the spring of 2020.
Restrictions vary from country to country and cruise line, but ships usually run at reduced capacity – for example, the Celebrity Edge is only 40% full at the moment.
Rapid tests are also planned, face masks are mandatory in many areas of certain voyages, and there are more medical units on board. Many cruises also require the crew and/or passengers to be fully vaccinated.
In some countries, however, cruises are still completely blocked. Australia, which introduced strict border controls during the pandemic, continues to ban cruises while Canada vetoes them until February 2022.
Even in the regions where cruises have begun to sail, most ships do not stray too far from their home port. There are currently no four-month trips around the world.
International travel, in general, is still affected by travel regulations and restrictions due to COVID, and the cruise industry is not far behind. Summer voyages in the United Kingdom, for example, are largely the result of the country’s strict restrictions on travel abroad.
However, even domestic cruises can have complications. During a recent voyage to the United Kingdom, passengers aboard the MSC Virtuosa were prevented from disembarking in Scotland due to regional COVID restrictions.
Griffiths of the CLIA called cruise ships “one of the safest holiday destinations available today.”
“This is proof of the effectiveness of our protocols – so far we have had over 550,000 passengers without a serious COVID-19 outbreak on board,” he added.
So far, cruises have not been fully immunized against COVID, with occasional positive tests among passengers and crew, but they are rapidly being curtailed.
When a case of infected ships is discovered in recent months, the industry says it is a sign that the system is working. For example, before MSC Grandiosa returned to the waters in August 2020, one of the passengers gave a positive result and was subsequently denied boarding, as well as his close contacts.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, says it’s all about creating layers of safety – he calls them “a series of slices of Swiss cheese”.
“Everyone has a barrier, but every barrier has gaps in it, there are small holes. So you put another and another barrier, and then another after that. And if you do a whole series of things like that, then the risk of the activity – in this case, cruises – decreases. “
The various safety measures that are now being implemented on board ships are “good barriers,” Schaffner said.
British cruise fan Katie Bunyan says that boarding the MSC Virtuosa in June this year was a long-awaited sip of normalcy.
Bunyan, a hairdresser, traveled with her three young children and her parents. She says the restrictions on COVID have made her feel safer than on land.
“When I’m in the supermarket, I don’t know who has what, or when was the last time they did a test or something. While on the ship, I know that everyone did a test before boarding it,” she said.
Bunyan had received only her first dose of the vaccine before the cruise. According to MSC guidelines, she provided a negative PCR test before arrival, but all passengers, regardless of vaccination status, were tested before boarding. Only her youngest child, one year old, were exempted from the test.
Bunyan and her husband are now considering booking a “cruise for nowhere” from late July in the UK. The couple is now fully vaccinated, so they will be able to board in accordance with the requirements of P&O.
Cruise fan Christine Biler, meanwhile, is closely following American cruise updates. Biller has planned 10 cruises for 2021, which have been canceled.
“Some of them were canceled because of the pandemic, others because the ship was sold or moved on a completely different route,” she told CNN Travel. Biller saw firsthand the potential impact of COVID-19 on cruise ships. She is on board one of the cruises that return to the United States in April 2020 with 12 confirmed cases and two dead passengers.
Biller, 72, was also positive when she returned home. However, this experience does not stop her from traveling, but she wants to travel on a ship where everyone is vaccinated.