COVID-19 & Small-Ship Cruising
by Anne Kalosh.
Most cruises on ships of any size are halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic as travel and cruise-specific restrictions remain in place. But vaccines and improved health practices and protocols should, hopefully, remedy this in the year ahead for 2021.
Some small-ship lines were able to operate for stints in 2020, most without any issues and a few that that were halted due to outbreaks or because of changing COVID regulations shoreside. Examples include Paul Gauguin Cruises and Aranui Cruises in French Polynesia,
SeaDream Yacht Club’s Norway-Denmark cruises, Hurtigruten’s Norway-Svalbard expeditions, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ North and Baltic seas jaunts and European river cruises on a number of lines. Eight Ponant ships were able to sail in Europe over last summer on itineraries as varied as Iceland and the coasts of France.
Europe’s restart of ocean cruises last July relied on the development of EU Healthy Gateways guidance with detailed prerequisites and practices. The same month, Taiwan allowed domestic cruises carrying only Taiwanese on a big ship, Explorer Dream.
Close To Home Cruises
With the exception of French Polynesia, which opened to all travelers last July, passengers carried on small ships were from local or regional markets. North Americans, who have been driving the growth in European river cruising in recent years, were blocked from most European countries.
SeaDream’s Northern Europe sailings drew mainly Norwegians and Danes. SeaDream later became the first cruise line to sail in the Caribbean since the pandemic lockdown but the first voyage from Barbados was cut short by an outbreak.
Australia’s Coral Expeditions sailed a season of Great Barrier Reef cruises starting in mid-October, carrying Aussies only, and is expanding itineraries to the Coral Sea, South Australia and Western Australia. Australia is banning international cruises until at least mid-March.
New Zealand still forbids international cruises but has allowed domestic jaunts on a case-by-case basis. Family-owned Heritage Expeditions received an exemption to begin sailing the Russian icebreaker Professor Khromov as Spirit of Enderby for the local market. Cruises began in late November. Recently, Ponant got the green light to operate domestic expeditions in New Zealand, starting Feb. 8. These will be available to Kiwis only.
Singapore developed a mandatory CruiseSafe certification program that enabled cruises to begin from there last November.
In the United States, restrictions on cruises apply to overnight ships carrying 250 or more souls (passengers and crew).
While UnCruise Adventures gave Alaska a shot last summer on one of its small vessels, the first voyage was cut short after a passenger tested positive (and, subsequently, negative).
Due to state and local restrictions, other domestic small-ship brands like American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Co. were not able to operate but expect to do so in 2021.
Canada’s cruise ship ban currently extends through February 2021.
Cruise lines have developed robust COVID-19 protocols including testing and screening, enhanced sanitation, technology and tracing, with dining, activities and entertainment reimagined to allow for distancing and to do away with self-service. Ventilation systems are being addressed to minimize the chance of spreading the virus.
Medical capabilities on board are being enhanced, and rooms are being designed to isolate/quarantine people who test positive and their close contacts.
Agreements for safe evacuation and transfer to shoreside medical or quarantine facilities are being developed as well. Like passengers, crew will be routinely tested and monitored, and they’re undergoing added training to carry out the new safety protocols and practices.
So far, nobody is requiring COVID-19 vaccination to cruise, however it’s possible some countries could decide to block certain nationalities unless they present proof of vaccination. Some cruise lines are considering mandating crew vaccination.
U.S. Framework For Conditional Sailing
In late October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention replaced its seven-month no-sail order for ships (carrying more than 250 persons) operating from the United States with a Framework for Conditional Sailing. This is a phased approach to facilitate the safe resumption of cruising.
Currently, lines are only in the first phase of the process, which entails crew testing and building the laboratory capacity needed to test future passengers. Future steps include trial voyages, certification for ships that meet specific requirements and a gradual return to passenger voyages carrying reduced numbers of people. Voyages may stretch no longer than seven days.
Healthy Sail Panel Recommendations
One factor that played into budging the CDC from its no-sail stance was the submission of 74 detailed recommendations by the Healthy Sail Panel jointly assembled by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.
This panel of prominent public health experts, led by Mike Leavitt, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and board member at Pfizer, a COVID-19 vaccine developer, came up with a detailed risk mitigation plan.
This was submitted to the CDC and also subsequently adopted as the industry standard by Cruise Lines International Association for oceangoing lines serving the U.S.
It includes requirements like pre-cruise COVID-19 testing, attention to ventilation systems, controlled shore excursions and many more elements.
In addition, individual lines have their own programs. To name just a few, Windstar Cruises’ “Beyond Ordinary Care” program, a multimillion-dollar effort, includes retrofitting all ships with hospital-grade HEPA filters and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. A partnership with the epidemiology department at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Center provides ongoing guidance.
American Queen Steamboat Co.’s prevention and mitigation program involves a partnership with Ochsner Health for ongoing assessments and a telehealth program with access to infectious disease experts.
Ships will operate at reduced capacity for the foreseeable future. This applies even to the smaller, Quirky-sized vessels. For example, Coral Expeditions’ SailSAFE protocols, developed with health emergency specialist Respond Global, include a 100-passenger limit for all departures.
Testing & Screening
Ocean cruisers most everywhere can expect they’ll have to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test, typically within 72 hours before setting sail, and some lines and countries require another test at embarkation.
Online check-in ahead of sailing was already becoming routine, but this is stepped up in the coronavirus era to reduce touchpoints and crowding at embarkation.
A pre-cruise health screening questionnaire is a universal standard, as are temperature checks at embarkation and regularly (daily) throughout the cruise. Temperature screening may occur at the gangway as travelers return from shore trips, at the entrance to dining rooms and in other well-trafficked spots.
Masks & Hand Washing
Masks for all in public areas and additional personal protective equipment for crew with prolonged passenger contact are other elements of shipboard programs. Frequent hand-washing is encouraged, and alcohol-based hand sanitizers are placed throughout the ships.
Technology & Tracing
A growing number of lines use facial recognition technology, wearable technology such as a wristband or token and/or smartphone apps to assist with temperature monitoring and, in the event of coronavirus, contact tracing.
Enhanced Sanitation/HVAC Management
Anyone who’s ever cruised is used to a high level of cleaning and sanitation on board. That is going to new levels with more frequent cleaning and sanitation, particularly of highly trafficked areas with particular attention to high-touch surfaces like elevator buttons, door handles, tabletops and handrails.
Spas and fitness centers receive added attention, and fitness center occupancy is limited by signups for time slots.
Sports equipment, games and items in children’s areas are cleaned between use. Some ships aren’t initially offering children’s programs.
Ventilation systems should use only fresh air and not recirculate it. Some ships are incorporating high-grade HEPA filters, UV-C radiation and other strategies.
Lindblad Expeditions and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises employ the ACT CleanCoat solution to render surfaces self-disinfecting after one application in conjunction with daily use of ACT Electro-chemically Activated Water as a hospital-grade disinfectant for regular use.
Special hospital-grade equipment is being harnessed, too. SeaDream Yacht Club became the first cruise line to incorporate the Altapure AP-4, a $100,000 device, according to maritime distributor BioHiTech. This automated, advanced ultrasonic technology delivers a dense cloud of sub-micron fog droplets for the high-level disinfection of large spaces, including air and surfaces.
Dining & Entertainment
Self-service tea/coffee machines, drinks and dining are no longer part of cruising. Staff in PPE plate items at buffets as guests point to what they want. Touchless restaurant menus, widely spaced tables and reduced restaurant occupancy are all parts of the new practices.
When it comes to entertainment, lounges have seats blocked off between parties to allow for distancing. Because fewer people can see a show, lines offer several performances instead of just one or two nightly.
Yoga and fitness classes take place on the open deck, instead of indoors.
Enhanced Medical & Isolation/Quarantine Facilities
Ships are to have COVID-19 testing capabilities and facilities for isolation and treatment of cases. Additional medical personnel will be carried, in the event a doctor falls ill. Arrangements for safe evacuation and shoreside care, at a hospital or a quarantine facility, depending on the need, are to be secured in advance so there’s a plan in event of an outbreak.
As well, staterooms should be set aside for isolation of sick people and quarantine of their close contacts before those people can be safely disembarked.
Most lines, at least initially, require travelers wishing to go ashore do so only via the ship’s own controlled excursions.
These operate on frequently sanitized vehicles with reduced capacity to places with controlled access. Expedition ships and yachts with marinas take advantage of their water sports programs, and Zodiacs can be used to transport travelers to remote areas or isolated beaches where they have no contact with local populations.
Cancellations/Future Cruise Credits/Refunds
When lines cancel cruises due to coronavirus restrictions in destinations, the standard practice is to automatically give travelers a future cruise credit equal to the monies paid, sometimes with an added bonus amount. Travelers may use this credit to book a future cruise within a specified time period such as a year or two years. Or they may request a full refund. Often lines set a date by which travelers need to request the refund.
Policies vary, and legal requirements for compensation may depend on national consumer protection regulations.
As an example, at Avalon Waterways, travelers from the United States impacted by a canceled sailing may rebook on any Globus family of brands (Globus, Cosmos, Monograms or Avalon Waterways) vacation for any destination. If travelers aren’t ready to choose a new vacation, they’ll receive a letter of credit redeemable for any future departure through 2022 plus a $200 bonus credit.
Flexible Booking/Cancellation Policies
Most lines are currently offering flexible booking policies. The particulars vary. Penalty-free cancellation policies typically apply only to the cruise portion of the trip; airfare and add-on hotel stays or land tours may not qualify.
For example, AmaWaterways’ “Ultimate Cruise Flexibility” program allows travelers who book a Europe or Asia trip by Jan. 31, 2021, the ability to reschedule the river portion without penalty. Cruise dates may be rescheduled through 2023 with no change fees. Travelers may change the date for any reason up to 48 hours before the start of their AmaWaterways-purchased services without fees.
For those who book other parts of their journey through the line, from a pre- or post-cruise land package to air travel and extra hotel nights, the “Travel Waiver Plus” can be purchased for $175 per person to cover cancellations for any reason up to 24 hours prior.
Paul Gauguin Cruises is allowing travelers who book a sailing through April 2022 between now and Jan. 31, 2021, to delay final payment until 30 days before the cruise departure date. Travelers may postpone or cancel their voyage up to 30 days before the cruise departure, for any reason, and receive a credit voucher for a new cruise booking made within 24 months of the initial departure date.
Crystal River Cruises, Crystal Yacht Cruises and Crystal Expedition Cruises currently have a no-money-down offer on voyages from 2021 through 2024. Deposits will be due Feb. 22, 2021. During 2021, travelers pay a reduced deposit of 15 percent to book a trip (compared to the normal 25 percent), and their final payment is due 60 days prior to first date of service.
Crystal travelers who pay in full 90 days prior to first date of service will get an additional 2.5 percent off their cruise fare. The early final payment savings deadline is normally six months.
Passengers sailing in 2021 may cancel their booking with no penalty up to 60 days prior to their first date of service.
At sister companies American Queen Steamboat Co. and Victory Cruise Lines, travelers who book by Feb. 28, 2021, may cancel their reservation up to 121 days before departure and receive a full refund. Or, up to 61 days before departure, they can reschedule their trip to another date in 2021, without penalty.
New brand Atlas Ocean Voyages is letting travelers change their reservation as many times as they wish, up to 15 days before sailing. They may even change their destination and sail to another part of the world. Or, they may cancel at least 15 days before they voyage date and get a 100 percent future cruise credit.
Plus, Atlas is currently bundling in emergency evacuation and return-to-home insurance for all travelers. This covers emergency medical transportation from the ship to a local treatment center, as well as return transportation to home or a medical facility close to home, as required.
Some lines also offer “cancel for any reason” protection plans, often for an additional fee.
Cruise Lines International Association
Healthy Sail Panel Recommendations
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
EU Healthy Gateways
UK Chamber of Shipping
World Health Organization
Ministry of Health Singapore
Australian Government Department of Health
New Zealand Ministry of Health
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