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The difficult restart for sea cruises

Anja Steinbuch
August 7, 2020

Should we set sail or cancel? Cruise ships are facing a difficult new start amid the summer holidays — a Herculean challenge for an industry worth billions.

Running track on board the "Mein Schiff 2" cruise vessel
Image: M. Melzer

The cruise industry is fighting its way back into business. Within the space of 24 hours, however, there were two serious setbacks.

First, Aida Cruises had to cancel the planned mini-cruises on the Baltic Sea for the first half of August because 11 crew members became infected with the novel coronavirus — and the Italian authorities did not give the green light. Shortly afterwards, the Norwegian company Hurtigruten stopped all cruises on their three expedition ships for the time being. The reason was that 36 crew members on the "Roald Amundsen" and some passengers tested positive for COVID-19 infections.

On board the "Mein Schiff 2" vessel crew members measure the distances between the sunbed
Tui crew members measure the distances between the loungersImage: M. Melzer

Before breakfast, check your temperature first

Industry observer Alexis Papathanassis, from the University of Applied Sciences in Bremerhaven, nevertheless sees a good sign in the latest reports and cancellations. "Transparent communication and consistent compliance with safety measures are exactly the right way to get started again."

The booking figures with the largest German providers attest to this. Many cruise fans can hardly wait to get back on board. Martin Melzer from Frankfurt is one of them.

The enthusiastic ocean cruise fan and blogger booked himself aboard the "Mein Schiff 2" with Tui Cruises and the three-day trip, which had no stops from Hamburg via Kristiansand, Norway, and back, actually took place.   

There is one scene Martin Melzer will always remember: On the return journey to Hamburg, two Tui sister ships suddenly appeared, flanking the first German ocean liner that had set sail with passengers since the coronavirus restrictions — and greeted all those aboard by honking their ship's horns loudly.

Two cruise ships at sea“
A moment filled with goosebumps: Sister ship escorts "Mein Schiff 2"Image: M. Melzer

This was one of the moments that brought goosebumps — and the reason why the seafaring enthusiast sailed the seas for the 64th time. But this voyage was probably the most unusual one he has ever been on. Melzer was one of almost 1,200 passengers who, together with 800 crew members, were able to set sail on one of the large ocean cruisers after the lockdown.

Everyone had to have their temperature measured with a digital thermal imaging camera. This was repeated every morning. All check-in terminals and reception counters were fitted with plexiglass screens, and areas with disinfectant were set up below deck and on deck. People, sun loungers and chairs had to be kept 1.50 meters (5 ft.) apart. Wearing face masks was compulsory where space was tight: within cabin corridors and in the elevator. Disco and sauna remained closed. "It was never really crowded," Melzer said. After all, the ship, which is designed for just under 3,000 guests, was only half full.  

Martin Melzer on board the "Mein Schiff 2" vessel
Martin Melzer, blogger and avid cruise ship enthusiastImage: M. Melzer

Troubled waters for sea cruises

Sea cruises are one of the most popular ways people all over the world spend their holidays and leisure time. Last year, cruise lines counted around 30 million passengers worldwide. The majority came from the United States. Of the European guests, Germans are the ones who most frequently go on sea voyages. Has the pandemic put an end to this trend?

The test tour by the tourism group TUI Cruises attracted international attention. Both the US competition, the Carnival Group, and the associated Italian Costa Crociere have not yet moved their ships away from the pier, as regulatory authorities have not yet given the green light.

Tui Cruises now dared to embark on a test voyage in which mistakes just couldn't happen. It would be unthinkable what effect images like those of the "Diamond Princess" off the Japanese coast, where the virus had broken out on board, would have if they were repeated. 

Pool on North Sea cruise
A lot of space at the pool, acruise ship with only half the number of passengersImage: M. Melzer

To prevent this from happening, authorities, port cities and the three German lines Aida, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, and Tui Cruises have agreed on a protocol to regulate the reintroduction of ocean cruises in Germany. In three stages, operations are to be ramped up with the help of guidelines for infection control.

The plan initially provides for cruises from German ports without any stops and with significantly reduced passenger capacity. Before a ship is able to set sail with passengers, the crew will first undergo a 14-day quarantine. Coronavirus tests will be compulsory for crew members. Just how precarious the situation remains is shown by the fact that both Tui Cruises had to cancel the first short trip from Kiel planned for July 31st, and Aida is canceling all short trips planned for the coming weeks. A lack of approval from the Italian authorities was the reason for the cancellation of the Italian-flagged fleet.

Creativity and staying power are needed

It's not just the risk of infection for the guests, but also the international travel restrictions for the employees that are proving to be problematic. Often, crew members are unable to reach the ship in time and, in addition, positive coronavirus tests have been found among the crew.

Once everyone has made it to the ship in good health and has been quarantined for two weeks, only pure sea voyages according to the principle "cruise to nowhere" are planned for the time being which are, at best, panoramic voyages through Norwegian fjords.

It is planned to gradually expand to voyages with individual port stops, provided that travel restrictions permit this and protection against infection in the ports is guaranteed. In the third phase, familiar routes are to be resumed.

Safety precautions in the elevator on board a cruise ship
Safety precautions also apply in the elevator on board: which includes compulsory wearing of face masksImage: M. Melzer

"The sea cruise companies are facing enormous logistical and operational challenges with this new start," explains tourism expert Alexis Papathanassis. The effort is also huge financially, and during "an economic crisis when everyone is watching."  

Cruising into the unknown

The cruise business expert is convinced that cruise lines and companies in the passenger ship sector are well prepared for all kinds of crises: "The cruise industry as we know it today was also born out of a crisis and then became a success story. Captains and shipowners have the courage and creativity to weather even this storm," says Papathanassis, who teaches Cruise Tourism Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Bremerhaven. 

The passenger ship business collapsed worldwide in the 1960s and 1970s, when airlines like Pan Am offered transatlantic flights with new jets. Taking to the skies allowed people to reach a destination faster — and turned ship passengers into frequent flyers.  A little later, resourceful shipowners and tour operators remarketed an Atlantic crossing into an "event". Well-known artists performed at sea, arias were performed, master chefs served eight-course menus, jewelry dealers presented top-class products.

Disinfection stations on a cruise ship
Hygiene measures in the corridor to the cabins — there are disinfection stations everywhereImage: M. Melzer

"Without further ado, the means of transport was suddenly the destination," says Papathanassis. It marked the end of the inner wood cabin on the tween deck. Cabins with a sea view were the order of the day for customers for whom travel time plays a secondary role. New luxury cruise liners were built by the score all over the world.

Prof. Alexis Papathanassis
Prof. Alexis Papathanassis teaches "Cruise Tourism Management" at the University of Applied Sciences in BremerhavenImage: Privat

Voyages based on the 'cruise to nowhere' principle

Papathanassis regards this creativity as a great opportunity for cruise companies shaken by bankruptcies, bad luck and pandemics.

"They are on a good path. Nobody needs a rush job," she says, as the new normality on board must be tested with caution.

"If something goes wrong now, if there's an outbreak on board, it will damage the reputation of an entire industry."

Martin Melzer has confidence in the industry and is not fazed by cancellations. His 65th ocean voyage with the Norwegian MS Spitsbergen for a cruise around Spitsbergen was canceled — but Melzer remains steadfast in taking part in future voyages. He now has his eyes set on a sightseeing cruise to Norway with Tui Cruises at the end of August, one that explores the fjords without ever disembarking.