If you’re one of the majority of cruise travelers, you can’t wait to return to the waves and waterways. (It’s true! Surveys show over a third of cruise travelers want to board a ship within 3 months of the return of cruising!)
Cruise travel involves a lot of moving parts (that’s one of the reasons most cruises are booked with a travel advisor’s help). And they all have to be in safe operation. From the moment you leave your home to the onboard health protocols that keep guests and crew safe.
The good news is that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. A number of cruise lines in the last few days have announced they’re putting together teams to come up with health and safety practices that will get ships sailing again.
In one extraordinary move, rival cruise companies Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises) and Royal Caribbean Group (Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara, Silversea) have teamed up to develop common standards that will benefit the entire travel and hospitality sector. The CDC will have a seat at the table, and the team’s work will be freely available to other businesses, from spas to hotels to destination companies.
(The Emerald Azzurra launches in 2021; it's being custom-built for Mediterranean, yacht-like cruises)
Europe’s New Cruising Guidelines
These announcements come on the heels of last week’s release of cruising guidelines by the European Union. The guidelines (they’re not regulations) include the expected, like more physical distancing, mask wearing when distancing can’t be maintained, more hand and ship sanitization.
But they also include recommendations that might be much harder for some cruise lines to deliver than others, and that might change your cruising experience a lot. Things like:
· designated boarding windows to reduce crowding;
· routine health and temperature checks;
· fewer amenities in rooms and only providing mini bar, in-room coffee service on request;
· no self-serve food;
· no indoor pools (including pools with retractable roofs);
· only members of the same household in hot tubs together;
· minimum 5 feet between deck chairs and between guests and crew at all times;
· limits on public space occupancy (keeping empty seats at theatres, lounges and restaurants);
· guest ‘bubbles’ who dine, take zodiac tours, embark and disembark together to reduce exposure;
· reduction of occupancy to allow for extra rooms to be available for guests or crew to be in completely isolated accommodations if they show symptoms of COVID;
· shorter cruises (3-7 days); and
· fewer port calls to reduce exposure to and from people on shore.
It’s not known how many of these EU recommendations will become part of your new cruise experience.
But here’s how I see your opportunities to cruise unfolding in Post-COVID Cruise 2.0:
1. Bubble Cruises
Like having social bubbles at home, cruises that take guests just from a specific location, and sail within that same space, maintaining the local established and agreed-on health protocols, are a safe way to provide the cruise experience and minimize risk.
Bubble cruises have begun. For example, French cruise line Ponant’s ships were recalled from around the world to France, where they are sailing French coastal itineraries for French guests.
(SeaDream has resumed sailing in Norway)
2. Small Ship and Luxury Cruises
(Especially with new, ‘bubble’ itineraries or private islands)
It’s easy to see that small and luxury cruises are already set up to achieve many of these new guidelines. They already have more space allotted per person, and more staff available to undertake extra cleaning.
It’s happening: In late June, SeaDream became the first small-ship, luxury cruise line to re-start cruising, with Norway-only ‘bubble’ itineraries so much in demand, the line has added more ships.
3. Cruises to Nowhere
Lots of cruise travelers are saying they’d take a cruise to nowhere, just to get onboard a ship again. Cruise lines may start giving them what they want.
Destinations continue to ‘re-open’ for tourism, but many still have quarantine (like the UK) or negative COVID test requirements (like Puerto Rico) upon arrival. So cruises for North American guests within the Caribbean but without ports of call may meet the demand for warm weather cruising.
(Celebrity Flora was designed and built exclusively for Galapagos itineraries)
4. Remote and Expedition Cruises
It’s easy to avoid interacting with people on shore if there’s no one there. Wilderness-focused, ‘expedition’ cruises to destinations like the Galapagos and Antarctica - especially since many expedition cruises are smaller ships – see above – can help kickstart cruising again.
In addition, as long as those on board are safe and well, remote areas that are COVID free would be safe itinerary choices. For example, Hurtigruten is already sailing Scandinavian-only guests on remote, ‘bubble’ Norwegian itineraries. And Windstar has announced it will commence cruising again in September in Tahiti, which is COVID free.
5. Big, Mainstream Ships
These are the ships whose experience may be most changed by new guidelines. After all, they carry the most guests, so distancing is harder. Masks, directional arrows to manage foot traffic flow, new dining and entertainment arrangements, pools closed off, staggered, designated dining times… all of those possibilities seem on the table.
But there’s one big advantage to these ships, too. These are the cruise lines who have already heavily invested in technology to serve more guests with fewer crew, so safely contact-less transactions, reservations and communications are already part of the cruising way of life on these lines.
Cruising on the big ships will likely begin with modified ‘bubbles’ from drive-to ports of embarkation, on itineraries with fewer ports of call – maybe even just the cruise line private island (pictured top: Holland America anchored off the line's private island, Half Moon Cay) and days at sea!
Will any of these changes stop you from – or convince you to start – cruising again? We’ll soon see.
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