How COVID restrictions will change cruising forever

Cruising accounts for a sizeable portion of Sarah Solah’s photo albums.

The mother-of-three is a sea travel veteran, by anyone’s standards, having sailed seven separate cruises over the past decade through the South Pacific, New Zealand and up Australia’s east coast.

Desperate to get back to her “happy place”, she has already pre-booked two cruises for next year, buoyed by the hope that life goes back to pre-COVID normal.

But things on ships will be drastically overhauled in a new normal that will see operators instigate more safety precautions than ever before, to get people like Ms Solah back on board and keep the $5.2-billion industry afloat.

“I am addicted to cruising, if I could go more often I absolutely would,” Ms Solah said.

“The pandemic won’t stop us … I am busting to get back on a cruise, we have one booked for the Great Barrier Reef next year with a group of 20 and are really hoping this goes ahead.”

Ms Solah, who has done seven cruises, was defensive of people who blamed cruise lines for spreading coronavirus.

“You don’t see people stopping going to the shops or to the beach – for the states that can get out, going on a holiday is no different.”

Cruise tourism is worth $5.2 billion a year to the Australian economy and supports more than 18,000 jobs across every state, including regional and remote communities that have suffered enormously in the tourism shutdown.

And it’s not just cruisers and the travel industry that have taken a hit – it’s people along every link of the supply chain – like Steven Biviano, whose business Select Fresh Providores supplies fruit and vegetables to cruise ships, as well as hotels, pubs and clubs.

When cruising halted at the end of March, his business dropped by up to 50 per cent, with cool rooms switched off and warehouses sitting all but empty.

With pubs and clubs now open and a shift to focus on residential delivery, his business is down about 30 per cent overall.

“And it’s not just us either – it’s the farmers, the growers, the chicken guy, the meat guy – so many people have been hugely affected by this,” Mr Biviano said.

“We did everything we could to sustain the business … but in terms of our cruise division – it’s been zero since late March.”

Mr Biviano, who is on a Cruise Suppliers Advisory Group made up of businesses that supply cruise lines’ on-board operations, said the impact for Aussie suppliers like him was considerable.

Aside from a surplus of produce that can’t be used since cruising isn’t occurring, there is a concern that if it were to return in three months, that would be the middle of summer with little stock available and threats of fires to crops.

Recent figures show the suspension of cruise operations cost Australia more than $1.4 billion in lost economic activity up to September, threatening 4800 Aussie jobs.

Commissioned by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia, analysis forecasts that if the cruise suspension continues, the economic loss to Australia would total a further $3.8 billion and put another 13,000 jobs at risk.

CLIA Managing Director Australasia Joel Katz said when the time was right, cruising would return in a carefully phased, regional approach, beginning with local cruises for local residents.

“With the help of scientists and medical experts, cruise lines are developing an industry-wide response to COVID-19 that will be adopted by all CLIA ocean-going cruise lines worldwide,” he said.

“The approach is wide-ranging, involving a door-to-door concept that begins at the time of a passenger’s booking, continues throughout the entirety of their journey, and concludes only after their return home.”

He said it would include robust screening and testing, expanded cleaning and sanitation practices and comprehensive shipboard prevention, surveillance, and response measures.

“Everything is being taken into account – boarding processes, dining, entertainment, ventilation, shore excursions – every step of the cruise experience is being examined,” Mr Katz said.

He said when cruising resumed in Australia after the December 17 ban lifted, it was likely to involve restricted passenger numbers and intrastate or interstate itineraries, which in time, could be extended to a trans-Tasman bubble or ‘carefully managed’ operations in the South Pacific.

CLIA ocean cruise line members worldwide this week agreed to conduct 100 per cent testing of passengers and crew on all ships with a capacity to carry 250 or more persons. — with a negative test required for any embarkation.

“This is a travel industry first and an example of the cruise industry leading the way,” a spokesperson said.

“We see testing as an important initial step to a multi-layered approach that we believe validates the industry’s commitment to making health, safety, and the wellbeing of the passengers, the crew, and the communities we visit our top priority.”

A report by the Healthy Sail Panel of international experts recently detailed 74 detailed best practices to protect the public health and safety of guests and crew.

They included compulsory testing, daily temperature tests, face masks, modified facilities, touch-less check-ins, upgraded air filter systems, increased medical staff, designated quarantine cabins, and verified offshore excursions only.

“Despite the challenges our industry is responding to, we know there is an enormous number of passionate cruise fans in Australia who are keen to travel again as soon as they can,” Mr Katz said.

“The extensive new health measures planned by cruise lines will help give them confidence.”

President of Carnival Australia and P&O Cruises Australia Sture Myrmell said their seven cruise lines — P&O Cruises Australia, Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard, Holland America Line, Seabourn and P&O Cruises World Cruising — were preparing to return to sailing for when the time was right.

“We know there is a vast reservoir of hundreds of thousands of experienced cruisers who are looking forward to sailing again but like us they are taking a realistic and pragmatic approach,” the spokesman said.

“Future cruise programs are being released by our cruise lines and the response has been both gratifying and encouraging.

“We are ensuring that bookings can be made with minimal financial outlays and, should it become necessary due to the pause, with generous and flexible cancellation arrangements.”

Sydney Cruise blogger Honida Beram has been on 25 cruises – eight last year alone. She quit her job last year to follow her passion, with 300,000 readers on her blog Cruising with Honey and 2.5 million page impressions and strong social media following.

“It’s been a really tough time – it has really affected people because if you love cruising it takes a lot of your time thinking about past cruises and planning new ones – it gives you a sense of hope, freedom and enjoyment,” the mother of three said.

“It’s a whole state of mind.”

She said passionate cruisers like herself were worried about crew who had lost their jobs, as well as primary producers, food and beverage divisions, travel agents – the entire industry that needed support.

“So many people have been affected by the cruise pause, but I’m trying to keep hope alive … it will come back and cruisers will be able to get back to doing what they love to do.”

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