Will it be possible to embark on a cruise before the end of the summer? The sector hopes it so this August, key month of the season, but with ports closure due to new sanitary constraints, getting back into the water looks complicated.
Maritime and river cruise lines had temporarily suspended their services worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March after several high-profile epidemics at sea. More than 600 people became infected on board the Carnival Corporation's Diamond Princess while it was under quarantine off the coast of Japan.
Most of the companies had had to voluntarily stop business after facing port closures, lack of appropriate infrastructure, including flights, and increased travel restrictions that varied from country to country. CLIA, the international cruise line association representing most cruise lines, has issued a further voluntary suspension of operations until October 31.
In addition to the voluntary suspensions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its No Sail Order on July 16 for all cruise ships with more than 250 passengers and crew operating in U.S. waters. The order is expected to remain in effect until COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency, or until September 30, 2020.
Expectations were high in the Mediterranean due to the relative lull in pandemic activity in Europe since early summer. The reopening of the six main Greek ports on August 1 was good news for the sector.
But the recent decision by number one, Carnival Cruise Line, to postpone its first trips, scheduled for early August after several months of suspension due to a lack of approval from Italy, showed that all obstacles were far from being removed.
The Norwegian shipowner Hurtigruten also suspended all its expedition cruises after dozens of cases of new coronavirus were discovered on one of its ships. Norway has put in place restrictions on cruises along its coasts.
Questioned by AFP, Costa Croisières, a brand of Carnival Cruise Line, says it is "working on planning for the gradual resumption of its cruises, once the flag state and destination authorities define what can be done".
"The few signals that seem to be emerging are more likely to come in the second half of August, or even the last week of August," Erminio Eschena, president of CLIA France, the association of the main shipowners, told AFP.
For his side, CEO of MSC Crociere, Gianni Onorato, during a press conference to present his new health protocols, said he wanted to return to the Mediterranean very quickly with two ships. "We are ready, we have worked very hard". The company has been working for months with the authorities of all the countries where its ships can dock. The company has drawn up a very detailed plan to take care of its passengers, before departure, during and after the cruise. A system is in place at each port of call to deal with any situations that may arise during the cruise. Dedicated insurance is offered to cover all risks related to a possible contraction of the COVID-19.
If the latest authorisations expected from the Italian government authorities are granted, two ships will depart in the Mediterranean Sea from Genoa mid-August, initially, and from Marseilles in September: the MSC Grandiosa (3,000 passengers in this new post-Covid configuration) and the MSC Magnifica (2,000 passengers).
Patrick Pourbaix, head of MSC Crociere for the French and Belgian markets, expressed his confidence in the responsiveness of partner travel agencies and loyal cruise customers. "First of all, we should be aware that we have only had 2% firm cancellations of our bookings," he explains. "Most of the files have been postponed or protected on other itineraries. Customers are waiting for our proposals to make a decision. With this recovery program, we are only offering 2 ships with 70% capacity, when the initial program included 9. So, there should not be any filling problems. We even have some ships reserved if we need to increase the number of cruises to meet demand. We just need to be aware that the measures taken are very cumbersome and costly and that we will have to be alert to the opportunities in the face of the additional costs. »