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Cruise lines facing a much-changed future

London, England — From Bridgetown’s Carlisle Bay to England’s south west coastal town of Weymouth, cruise ships berthed offshore and out of service have become a familiar sight.

Their presence brings a daily reminder of the economic challenge that faces the Caribbean in a year that has seen visitor arrival numbers collapse, cruise ship calls all but cease, and revenues from tourism hugely diminished.

Since 14 March, almost every cruise vessel that sails out of the US to the region has been under a ‘no sail’ order from the US authorities. However, in the last few days, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has set out a basis on which ‘test sailings’ undertaken without paying passengers might lead to restricted passenger voyages.

CDC’s forty page order made in the light of the ‘continued spread of COVID-19 worldwide and increased risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships’ is intended to eventually allow passenger sailings to resume in ways that mitigate the risk to everyone, including communities.

It requires that US cruise lines operating large cruise ships undertake far reaching changes in distinct phases before passengers are allowed to travel again. These require: the laboratory testing on board of all crew; simulated voyages to test operators’ ability to mitigate COVID-19 on board; and after that a complex certification process undertaken by CDC.

If all goes well, a line will then be able to request a Conditional Sailing Certificate, and if CDC agrees may introduce ‘restricted passenger voyages’. These will operate based on strict new health and other provisions. Itineraries may be no more than seven days, modifications must be made to meals services and on-board entertainment, and hygiene arrangements and social distancing for passengers as well as crew must be enhanced.

In addition, passengers and crew will require laboratory testing at every port of call on embarkation and disembarkation; those who test positive will be denied boarding; all passengers and crew who report illness consistent with COVID-19 during a voyage must be laboratory tested; and all results provided rapidly.

CDC’s order has enabled the major US cruise lines to begin to speak about how a gradual return to sailings might be achieved in 2021.

According to Richard Fain, the CEO of the Royal Caribbean Group, what is now required is “a slow and methodical approach to cruises restarting”. “We will not rush to return to service until we are confident that we have figured out the changes that we must make to offer our guests and crew strong health and safety protocols with the enjoyable experience that they rightly expect”, he said.

He pointed to Europe, where cruises have been able to resume service with limited capacity due to the cooperation between health officials, political officials and cruise lines “trying to solve something that is a problem for all of us.”

Despite this it is hard to see in the short to medium term how an industry that rightly or wrongly suffered global reputational damage earlier this year and which has focused on building ever larger ships, can be quite the same again.

This is not because the cruise lines are not prepared to adapt their ships, but because the basic cruise concept for most but not all cruise lines, involves transporting large numbers of vacationers who spend most of their time in close and sociable proximity, in one onboard location.

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It is a model that does not fit well with the ways in which the coronavirus is transmitted, easily correlate with moving thousands overnight from island to island, or large numbers spending short periods ashore in accordance with the variable and sometimes draconian health screening and movement requirements that every Caribbean government has established.

In an ideal world, the global pandemic will start to subside next year, and an efficacious vaccine will become widely available, particularly to the demographic that the cruise ships presently most appeal to.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 case numbers continue to surge unmitigated or in a second wave present in the region’s most important tourism markets – North America and Europe. Worse, the scientific evidence appears to be moving toward the view that even with mass vaccination becoming available from the latter part of 2021 on, the world may have to live with variations of the disease for many years to come.

For Caribbean governments, having to restore revenues and balance economic recovery against voter concern about the possible importation of the virus, this is a conundrum.

One obvious solution, given the pressing need to encourage in a controlled manner a gradual increase in both long stay and cruise visitor arrivals, is to find new ways to try to adapt to the new reality.

This is leading, for example, Barbados to explore the idea of a Southern Caribbean cruise alliance operating in a safe corridor with ships home porting out of the island, Cuba encouraging European lines to home port taking advantage of its strict epidemiological controls, and Grenada reportedly considering restarting cruise calls in part by offering ‘secure access to uncrowded beaches to minimise personal contact between locals and visitors’.

Before the pandemic, the Caribbean accounted for more than 35% of all cruise vacations globally with more ships sailing in or through Caribbean waters than in any other part of the world. It is therefore economically vital that in an adapted but revitalised form, cruising fully return to region in 2022.

CDC’s ‘Conditional Sail Order’ plus the earlier European Maritime Safety Agency’s equivalent report, ‘COVID-19: EU Guidance for Cruise Ship Operations’, if sustained, have the effect of establishing a gold safety standard for the industry, its passengers and the region.

As this column has observed before, there is a need for a cruise industry that is genuinely Caribbean focused and developmental rather than existing solely to benefit the owners of the big cruise companies.

It is therefore to be hoped that in returning to Caribbean waters and a much changed future, the cruise lines and the countries they serve can achieve a viable balance between on-board and on-island public health requirements in ways that support governments as they seek a safe and rapid return to economic stability.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at [email protected]

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