From being a cynosure of the leisure travel industry to being right in the eye of the storm during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cruise industry has been subjected to major scepticism and baptism by fire by both the cruiser and the authorities. Cruising was eyed with unwarranted suspicion, not applying to it the same yardstick as other travel verticals like airlines, trains, and hotels. While domestic airline operations resumed to near-normal levels in countries and international air route bubbles were established, cruise liners had to find their middle ground operating short cruises to nowhere, catering only to the local populace as inter-country port visits were not allowed. Since mid-2021, cruise line operating statistics showed positivity in consumer confidence and safety. The omicron variant appears to be sending ripples as things were looking up. TTJ speaks to the leading lights of the Indian cruise industry to find out about the technology, safety upgrades, confidence-building measures, expansion plans, and what perhaps 2022 holds in store for the industry.
– Gurjit Singh Ahuja
It’s no secret that no cruise liner was spared in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the last two years have been catastrophic for the industry, but learnings have emerged, and now cruise lines are much better prepared to handle any future situations. Explaining the situation, Nishith Saxena, Founder & Director, Cruise Professionals (India GSA for six global cruise brands), elaborates, “One of the greatest learnings for the entire industry and stakeholders is that COVID-19 virus did not originate on a cruise ship. Secondly, with each of the cruise lines carrying thousands of passengers each week since July 2021, there have been minuscule cases of COVID-19 onboard and the need for cancellation of cruise has been extremely limited. Therefore, establishing that hygiene protocols on cruise ships are better than the best in the travel industry. Most important – cruising has emerged to be the safest mode of luxury vacation where 95-100 per cent passengers and 100 per cent of the crew is vaccinated.”
Adding further to this, Naresh Rawal, Vice President, Sales India & South Asia, Genting Cruise Lines, said, “In these last two years, Genting Cruise Lines was at the forefront rethinking, redesigning and enhancing our operations to adapt to these new travel environments and trends, especially in safety and preventive measures. We were the first international cruise line in the world to resume cruises since July 2020 with Dream Cruises. To date, all three ships under the Dream Cruises fleet are currently operating safe cruises in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as for Star Cruises in Penang, Malaysia.”
Everyone agrees to the need to be vigilant and sensitive about the new twists and turns the pandemic takes and ensure measures are in place and updated following both international guidelines and domestic requirements. Sanjay Kapoor, VP, Sales Support & Marketing, STIC Travel Group, GSA for Holland America Line, Windstar Cruises and A-Rosa River Cruises, explains, “Holland America Line, has enhanced the air-handling systems onboard all ships using a combination of increased circulation of fresh air together with upgraded air filtration. Windstar Cruises has implemented ‘Beyond Ordinary Care’ program on all of its luxury and semi-luxury yachts. This is a multi-layered strategy with key hospital-grade elements: HEPA (high-efficiency particulate) filters and UV-C, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation to filter and disinfect the air, plus electrostatic sprayers to sanitise all surfaces throughout the yachts. Similarly, at A-ROSA river cruises in Europe, the health, safety and well-being of all guests and crew members has always been their top priority. For this reason, the A-ROSA Care Team has developed ‘Safety First’ concept, a comprehensive health and hygiene concept based on the official directives and recommendations of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal government agency and the research institute responsible for disease control and prevention, which meets national and international health standards.”
Today, every cruise ship has a team of experienced doctors and nurses trained to manage various medical conditions, including COVID-19. Saxena also points out, “The Return-To-Service” for most cruise lines was delayed due to unprecedented scrutiny and overcautious approach from the global regulatory authorities over the last twenty months. Having said that, it is important to note, all decisions by cruise lines have been taken based on science and in collaboration with relevant authorities ensuring that health safety of the crew, passengers and communities we visit on our voyages, is never compromised.”
Despite the Omicron variant, the mood is upbeat for 2022, Rawal explains, “At Genting Cruise Lines, we remain optimistic of the cruise industry in 2022. Over the past year, we observed an increase in consumer confidence in cruising as we had successfully demonstrated safe cruises in these recent years, resulting in emerging new domestic markets with consumers also making bookings within a longer lead time in advance. We have to adopt a realistic approach in our operations as the pandemic will continue to evolve. As such, it’s crucial for cruise lines to work closely with international bodies and local authorities to monitor the situation closely, so preventive and safety measures can be effectively adapted and implemented to safeguard all on board.”
The need now is for the governments worldwide to realistically and pragmatically evaluate the current situation and open their borders and ports to regular air and cruise traffic to all fully vaccinated and screened travellers. This will encourage a transition to normalcy and do away with knee-jerk reflexes and backtracking of decisions which are detrimental not only to the travel and cruise industry, but to the global economy as a whole.
Kapoor, however, points out that the uncertainty surrounding omicron has affected their future bookings, “Usually this is the season for promoting and selling Alaska and Europe cruises, but with the recent travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, people are hesitant to book right now and mostly postponing their plans. Most of our agents have also put on hold their group allocation requirements. Additionally, non-issuance or delay in visas is also making travel difficult.”
Discussing the impact of the very recent caution to avoid cruises issued by CDC, Saxena, emphasised, “CLIA- Cruise Line International Association which is the voice of the cruise industry has reacted sharply by stating that the decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for the cruise is particularly perplexing considering the cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard—far fewer than on land—and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore.” He further added, “There has been no dip in cruise queries or bookings after the CDC warning, which also means that even passengers and travel advisors understand the safe environment provided onboard the cruises. We assess, in all likelihood, this CDC alert would be revised before the end of this month unless something dramatic unfolds.”
Many new ships were under construction and scheduled for deliveries at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some deliveries were postponed but not cancelled due to constant fleet renewal and the latest technology and ship design upgrades. According to Rashmi Ahuja, Divisional Head, MSC Cruises India, “MSC launched two new ships in 2021, MSC Seashore and MSC Virtuosa. In 2022, MSC World Europa will be launched – the first ship in the trailblazing MSC World-Class fleet. LNG powered with one of the world’s cleanest marine fuels and featuring breakthrough green technologies, MSC World Europa symbolises the beginning of a new era of cruising.”
Rawal also states, “The pandemic situation has affected the delivery schedule for our ships under construction. However, we are looking forward to welcoming our Global Class ship under Dream Cruises this year as we introduce the next generation of cruising.” Kapoor too is upbeat about additions to his portfolio, “Ms Rotterdam, the newest Pinnacle-class ship of Holland America Line sailed on its maiden voyage in September 2021. Windstar, on the other hand, undertook a USD 250 million Star Plus initiative to completely transform their three all-suite luxury Star Plus Class ships—Star Breeze, Star Legend, and Star Pride—end-to-end to offer guests more comfort in-suite, more delight on deck, etc. A new A-Rosa cruise ship, A-Rosa Sena is currently under construction, scheduled to depart on its inaugural voyage from Cologne on May 21, 2022.”
Saxena summarises, “The new year will see 32 new cruise ships debut, made up of 25 new ships on the cruise ship order book for 2022, plus an additional seven vessels that were built in 2021 and are expected to enter revenue service this year. The new ship line up of 2022 will contribute 44,659 new berths to the market, plus an additional 23,366 berths from ships from 2021 that will debut this year, meaning 68,025 new berths are set to enter the cruise industry in 2022.”
Clear indications are that the cruise business is set to grow at a very fast pace in the year 2022–2023, catering to the pent-up demand of first-time cruisers who are searching for a very safe and exciting vacation option. In their advertisements and regular communication to their past and potential consumers, the cruise lines have been very upfront about the consumer-friendly booking terms and value additions, motivating passengers to choose a cruise and book early.
“All Ahoy…Bon Voyage”