Wednesday, December 1

‘We think we’re not going to get really sick’: why the pandemic hasn’t deterred ocean cruisers | Cruise ships

OROn September 16, Miami-based Oceania Cruises, a kitchen-focused luxury cruise company that is a division of Norwegian Cruise Lines, set an all-time single-day booking record. It was fueled by the introduction of its newest ship, Vista, which was due to carry its first passengers in April 2023. Nearly half of Vista’s inaugural season on-hand inventory was sold in one day. These were new cash reserves, 30% of which came from people booking with the company for the first time.

It is difficult to know what this means for Australia. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), 1.34 million Australians took a cruise in 2018, one of the highest rates in the world by population, yet international travel is currently prohibited.

At least 28 people died and more than 800 were infected with Covid after the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney in March 2020, the most disastrous of the many outbreaks aboard cruise ships in the first weeks of the pandemic.

Since March 27, 2020, foreign flag cruises have not been allowed to enter Australian waters and remain prohibited until at least December 17. It is unclear whether it will then be lifted, and there is no published plan for how the industry could reopen.

However, James Kavanagh, managing director for Australia at Flight Center Travel Group, says Australians’ interest in setting sail has been on the rise, increasing by around 40% each month since June.

CLIA has established extensive new health protocols, but has not required mandatory vaccinations for crew and guests on its member cruise lines. This would seem contrary to the best advice of epidemiologists.

Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University, says it makes “absolute sense” to require vaccinations for passengers and crew.

“The traditional cohort of cruise ship passengers is also larger and has a higher risk of severe Covid disease due to other underlying diseases but, fortunately, it generally has a higher uptake of vaccines.

“Studies from the UK show that unvaccinated people are three times more likely to be infected. If vaccinated people have a breakthrough infection, they are 95% less likely to develop a very serious disease.

“Vaccines reduce the risk of someone needing intensive care beyond what the ship can easily provide. Cruise ships need to run rapid tests, especially after shore visits, but it’s not enough. It’s about minimizing risk and maximizing preventive measures. Among other things, they also need to improve air filtration, take off with lower passenger density and ensure their ability to deal with people descending downhill quickly.

The Carnival Spirit cruise ship in Sydney.
The Carnival Spirit cruise ship in Sydney. Photograph: David Gray / Reuters

“When the cruise ship recovers, the last thing the industry wants is a Covid outbreak on a maiden voyage. We will soon reach a point where we will have vaccination rates high enough to stop worrying about demanding this, ”he says. “But in the meantime, there are still high levels of Covid where ships visit all over the world.”

Many individual cruise lines have established vaccination mandates, but they can vary by port and destination and even by specific voyages, as some companies distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated cruises. Some require unvaccinated guests to have travel insurance. And the definitions of what it means to be fully vaccinated can vary by country.. Vaccination rules will also change over time, as Covid cases ebb and flow, so booking early requires a leap of faith as to what the protocols might be in 2022 or 2023.

Bryan and Kay Tolra, on one of their frequent pre-pandemic cruises.
Bryan and Kay Tolra, on one of their frequent pre-pandemic cruises. Photography: Supplied

If there is a lot of repressed desire to travel, the emotion is mixed with the uncertainty. Covid has diminished the appeal of cruise ships for some over 60, while others, like the self-described “cruise junkies,” Bryan and Kay Tolra, in their 70s, from Perth, are eager to get back on the high seas. They have made 64 cruises since 2003.

“We love cruising because they take great care of you; you travel to fantastic places around the world; and you meet great people along the way. It’s safe, the food is fabulous, you can drink and not drive, and the crew is excellent. We have already booked a world cruise for 2023, ”says Bryan Tolra.

“I am deeply confident that the cruise industry will do everything possible to keep passengers safe in a post-Covid world. I think it is a good idea to require that the crew and passengers are vaccinated. We are both doubly empty. However, Covid has impacted our destination choices. There are some places we wouldn’t go anywhere now. “

Gold Coast resident Sally Wiseman, her husband and their three children (ages 12, nine and seven) are eager to start sailing again. “The sooner the better,” he says. “There is a pent-up demand for cruises from the whole family. As a mother, I also don’t have to worry about packing and unpacking and cooking dinners. We can all relax and the children have a lot to do.

“During the confinement, we discussed with the children what family memories we wanted to create and it was about bears, whales and glaciers, so we are planning a cruise in Canada and Alaska in 2023,” he says. “I am more concerned about the logistics of the flights than about our safety. We are twice vaccinated and the 12-year-old is reserved for his vaccination, so we feel like we are not going to get really sick. It is also important that the crew are vaccinated and wear masks ”.

Neil Stollznow is Director of Sales for SMP Survey Software, which conducts regular brand health surveys in the travel industry. Their July 2021 survey of ocean cruises found that 26% of those surveyed planned to take a cruise in the next five years.

“There is no evidence that high-end cruises are in greater demand than the low-cost domestic market,” he says. “Everyone is doing well. Cruising is the best-marketed sector in the travel industry. Other tourist areas are so fragmented that they do not have a unified offer.

“Cruise customers tend to be very loyal and assume that cruise companies will operate safely for Covid. When norovirus swept ships, cruise lovers were far more forgiving than consumers in other industries. Ocean cruising is the Teflon market for travel. “

The speed of the cruise industry recovery depends on how effectively you can establish a post-Covid safety record, to allay the concerns of the public and regulators.

Bennett explains epidemiologists’ understanding of risk.

“Traditionally, we are concerned about any activity that holds people together for a long time and that usually doesn’t mix. With cruise ships, especially large ones, if a person gets sick, there will be a rapid escalation of a viral outbreak because these are the ideal conditions for microbes to spread, ”he says.

“In the case of Covid, if very few people are vaccinated, the transmission is faster and more people get seriously ill. If we can’t control Covid with lockouts and isolation in Sydney, it will be much worse in tight spaces on ships.

“Cruise operations can be much safer now than before,” he says. “The question is: will it be enough?”

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