TThe first Princess cruise ships return to the water – 18 months after the quarantined Diamond Princess became a grim harbinger of the pandemic – at a symbolic moment for a sector hard hit and early by the Covid crisis .
“At first it was quite moving, as we haven’t sailed for over 500 days,” says Tony Roberts, UK vice-president of Princess Cruises. “As we welcomed the first guests on board, we felt like we had come full circle. “
Regal Princess spent the first part of this week sailing for a three-night getaway from Southampton, while a sister ship, the Majestic US, returned safe and sound from a week-long trip to Alaska.
” There are differences. You wear masks when moving around the ship. But it was nice to be back on board, ”said Roberts.
An even greater sign of hope for the UK cruise industry was the government’s signal that international cruises could now depart from these shores. Since the start of the summer, short domestic routes have been in operation, with a limited number of passengers, on other routes, including P&O, Saga and MSC. However, most trips did not have stopovers in their short duration: for colossal cruise ships, this is the equivalent of being stuck in an urban apartment with brief periods of exercise allowed.
The UK’s wider and fluctuating travel rules – which may require a quarantine after certain calls at foreign ports – mean lines aren’t rushing to take new routes immediately. The government also does not give the cruise a resounding approval: it warns that “the confined framework allows the Covid-19 to spread faster than it can elsewhere”, and that the ships concerned “have already having been refused permission to dock or disembark passengers, [with] serious consequences ”.
CLIA, the cruise industry association, said it has provided large amounts of data to Public Health England and government departments to prove it is handling the situation. The operators have also signed a memorandum of understanding according to which cruise passengers will bear the costs of repatriation if necessary.
According to Ben Bouldin, vice chairman of Royal Caribbean and chairman of CLIA UK, the companies have made deals to disembark all guests if necessary, thus eliminating the specter of ships stranded again offshore, while customers will only be disembarking. “bubble” shore excursions – organized trips – rather than wandering independently in ports of call.
The road to recovery has been arduous. Skeletal crews serviced the ships while they were anchored offshore, during a break that Roberts originally thought would last two months: “We got the crew together and they worked out the new protocols; many of them have been on board for a few months, coming from over 30 countries.
The crew will almost outnumber the passengers. Princess started with a very low occupancy rate – around 40% on Regal, which has 1,400 of the 3,560 spaces reserved – even after government restrictions were lifted. “We make sure that the protocols are working so that we don’t increase capacity – it’s important that we grow gradually,” says Roberts.
Only double vaccinated can travel, with additional tests for each passenger before boarding Southampton. Technology on Princess will play a role, with passengers carrying a contactless key that doubles as an opt-in tracking device that can show when cabins are occupied or restaurants or theaters are busy. The restrictions mean that while passengers can have a socially distanced martini from the 50 varieties on offer at Crooner’s Bar, they can’t jump in the hot tub with couples outside of their bubble.
Customer trust is essential – but apparently vastly high. “Obviously, there are people who think, in fact, it’s not for me anymore – but others think it’s probably one of the safest ways to travel because of the extra measures in up, ”says Roberts.
Notable ambassadors are David and Sally Abel, an Oxfordshire couple who found themselves stranded aboard the Diamond Princess during the initial outbreak and then hospitalized in Japan after contracting Covid. They’ve booked at least five more Princess cruises, starting with a UK ‘session’ next month and four to various corners of the globe next year. DAvid Abel told the BBC this week: “It’s a wonderful way of life… We really think it’s very safe as long as passengers are double vaccinated. “
Such loyalty is not unique, says Roberts. “David and Sally are a great example of people who love cruises… And although they had a pretty painful experience, their overwhelming feeling is that they have been caught in a global pandemic, not something specific to cruising. .
“Obviously we’ve given a lot of refunds and credit scores, but they’re definitely using them – we just put 2023 up for sale because we’ve seen such high demand. New customers also book at the same or higher rates than pre-Covid, he adds.
Anchored ships meant significant costs, as well as no income. Princess parent company Carnival has released grim business updates during the pandemic, racking up billions in losses, selling six ships and warning at one point that demand may never recover.
Roberts says he remains optimistic, even though the restart is slow: “We’re coming back to the point where it makes more sense to have ships operational than not fast enough, but we’re nowhere near the levels we would have been before. ”