Cruise ships are coming back online after coronavirus outbreaks erupted on numerous vessels back in the spring, bringing the multi-billion dollar industry to a grinding halt.
Switzerland-based MSC became the first major cruise company to welcome customers in several months when the Grandiosa set sail from the port of Genoa in northern Italy for a seven-day trip around the Mediterranean on August 16.
MSC implemented a slew of safety precautions to prevent the ship, which was christened last year and can carry more than 8,000 passengers and crew members, from becoming a breeding ground for the virus.
As other companies prepare to re-enter the high seas, new rules on the Grandiosa offer a look at what customers can expect for post-coronavirus cruises – including pre-boarding COVID-19 testing, face masks and social distancing in common areas and strict restrictions for port excursions.
The ship managed to complete its journey without any reported coronavirus cases – providing hope that the cruise industry could safely return sooner than most people expected.
Switzerland-based MSC became the first major cruise company to welcome customers in several months when the Grandiosa set sail from the port of Genoa in northern Italy for a seven-day trip around the Mediterranean on August 16
New rules on the Grandiosa offer a look at what customers can expect for post-coronavirus cruises – including pre-boarding COVID-19 testing, face masks and social distancing in common areas and strict restrictions for port excursions
A family clad in face masks have their temperatures checked prior to boarding the MSC Grandiosa on August 16
A crew member uses a nasal swab to test a passenger prior to boarding the MSC Grandiosa. All 3,000 passengers were each tested for COVID-19 via a primary antigen test and a secondary molecular test before they were allowed on the vessel
‘We’ve created sort of this bubble,’ Ken Muskat, chief operating officer at MSC Cruises USA, told The Points Guy last month.
On its first post-coronavirus voyage, the Grandiosa welcomed 3,000 passengers who were each tested for COVID-19 via a primary antigen test and a secondary molecular test prior to boarding.
Anyone who tested positive, had a fever or exhibited other coronavirus symptoms on a mandatory health questionnaire was barred from the boat.
One embarking passenger tested positive at both screening stages, according to MSC Cruises representative Luca Biondolillo.
‘In accordance with the protocol, the passenger, as well as his traveling party, were denied boarding,’ Biondolillo told CNN.
‘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.’
Crew members were also tested prior to boarding and spent time in quarantine on the boat before passengers arrived.
Passengers wearing protective face coverings gather their baggage before boarding the MSC Grandiosa
Passengers looked thrilled about finally getting back on the high seas after months in coronavirus lockdowns
MSC was the first major cruiseliner to resume operations with strict safety precautions to prevent coronavirus outbreaks
Crew members performed temperature checks on passengers each time they boarded the boat
MSC said one passenger was barred from boarding after he tested positive for coronavirus
A technician is seen processing coronavirus swabs in a lab before the MSC Grandiosa set sail from Genoa
Cleaning protocols on the ship were ramped up with the additions of hospital grade disinfectant and the use of UV-C light technology to detect the virus.
All on-board activities were limited to smaller groups and passengers were required to wear masks in areas where social distancing isn’t possible.
Each guest and crew member was be given a wristband that ‘facilitates contactless transactions around the ship as well as providing contact and proximity tracing’, MSC said.
The Grandiosa made stops at the Italian ports in Naples, Palermo and Sicily and at Malta’s Valletta port – where passengers could disembark for the day, but were kept on a tight leash.
Each off-board sojourn was pre-planned and no one was allowed to stray from the group. Biondolillo said one family that broke the rules during a day trip was not permitted to re-board.
‘The health and safety protocols are put in place for the benefit of every single person,’ the MSC spokesman said.
‘There can be no breaking of the rules. These people risked jeopardizing everybody else’s holidays and health.’
Most passengers appeared to appreciate the precautions that made them feel safe throughout the journey.
‘I think cruises could be the safest holiday right now,’ Valeria Belardi, who was on the cruise and owns a travel company, told CNN.
Cleaning protocols on the ship were ramped up with the additions of hospital grade disinfectant and the use of UV-C light technology to detect the virus
All on-board activities were limited to smaller groups and passengers were required to wear masks in areas where social distancing isn’t possible
The Italian government gave cruise companies the green light to resume service last month, but limited capacity to 70 percent.
Cruise ships and the business they bring to many Italian cities during port excursions make up an important segment of Italy’s vital tourism industry. An estimated 12 million cruise ship passengers arrived or departed from Italian ports last year.
MSC chose to limit its guests to the residents of Europe’s 26-nation Schengen visa free travel zone.
Meanwhile, American operators were placed on a no-sail order running at least through October 31 after coronavirus outbreaks were reported on at least 40 cruise ships around the world earlier this year.
The giant vessels proved a perfect set for the virus to take hold, given their crowded enclosed environments and contact between travelers from many countries.
More than 800 cases of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases and ten deaths occurred during outbreaks on three cruise ship voyages from February to March, according to the CDC, and numerous other ships reported outbreaks as well.
In several cases, passengers and crew members were left stranded for days or weeks on ships that were banned from docking at ports due to concerns that they could spread the virus on land.
The Italian government gave cruise companies the green light to resume service last month, but limited capacity to 70 percent. The MSC Grandiosa is seen departing from the port of Genoa on August 16
A lone passenger stands on the deck of the MSC Grandiosa wearing a mask as it departed from Genoa
Crew members clad in protective face masks pose with their thumbs up inside the MSC Grandiosa
Cruise operators are now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to repair their reputations and convince people to return as the coronavirus threat remains.
‘We know that for every one percent 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 (CLIA), told CNN.
The $150billion cruise industry – which sustains 1.2 million jobs – has experienced a massive spike in demand in recent years, with 30 million passengers setting sail in 2019 as operators rolled out bigger and better vessels.
Golin-Blaugrund said the CLIA is confident that the industry will recover as demand for 2021 cruise vacations is already high.
Among those planning to return to the high seas is Christine Beehler, an American who tested positive for COVID-19 after a trip on the Coral Princess back in April.
‘Even without a vaccine, I’m ready to try it,’ Beehler told CNN in July. ‘There are so many places that I still want to go, and I enjoy cruising.’
But Golin-Blaugrund warned that it could be a while before the cruising industry recovers as many operations remain suspended, threatening up to 2,500 jobs per day.
‘By the end of September, the worldwide impact will be $77billion, 518,000 jobs and $23billion in wages lost,’ she said.
In a harrowing sign of the future of cruising, outbreaks were reported on three vessels operated by smaller companies that resumed service last month – Norway’s Hurtigruten, Germany’s AIDA, and Paul Gauguin in the South Pacific.