Cruising Restarts in “Travel Bubbles” or “Travel Corridors”
By Anne Kalosh.
Cruising will restart in “travel bubbles” and, not surprisingly, on small ships.
It’s beginning this week as a few European river vessels are getting underway, on limited national runs, with plans to go further afield as things gradually open and if things go well. A few oceangoing ships are preparing to sail in Europe, as well.
All of these will be open to travelers from certain European countries only.
“Travel bubbles,” or “travel corridors,” are places where the virus is under control and countries mutually allow their residents to cross borders, without having to quarantine on arrival.
Nations that are further behind on the curve — the United States, for example — are probably not going to be in any travel bubbles soon. Not only is the virus still widespread stateside, the U.S. lacks a unified response and has low rates of testing and contact tracing.
That’s not the case in parts of Europe.
Europe is Opening
Starting June 15, residents of the Nordic countries — most of Sweden excepted — will be able to travel across their borders without having to quarantine on arrival.
This includes Norway, Denmark, Finland, the island of Åland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Swedish island of Gotland. The rest of Sweden is excluded for now since the infection rate there is still considered too high.
SeaDream’s Norwegian Coastal Cruises
SeaDream Yacht Club is taking advantage of the opening by deploying its pair of 112-passenger yachts on cruises along the Norwegian coast with a call at Denmark. Sailings start this month. SeaDream announced plans for nine voyages on one yacht in late May and demand was so strong that the company added a second yacht and increased departures to 21.
The travelers are primarily Norwegians, but also Danes.
The destinations were hand-picked by SeaDream’s Norwegian founder and owner, Atle Brynestad.
SeaDream I is scheduled to sail past the Arctic Circle to the Lofoten Islands in 12-day voyages between Oslo and Tromsø. SeaDream II will sail seven-day cruises between Oslo and Bergen. Both itineraries include Ålesund, Flåm and Olden in Norway as well as Skagen, Denmark.
The Norwegian company Hurtigruten, which operates coastal cruises and expedition voyages, is gradually resuming coastal sailings between Bergen and Kirkenes from June 16. Starting in Norwegian waters is a natural first step, according to Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam.
Svalbard expeditions will come.
Just days ago, the Norwegian government gave the green light for expedition cruises to Svalbard under rigorous safety conditions.
This resulted, in part, from work to provide nearly 100 pages of infection control guidelines for the expedition cruise industry carried out by several governmental institutions and local stakeholders in collaboration with the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO).
“We are thrilled that the Norwegian government and local stakeholders are demonstrating determination, willingness and cooperation to open for expedition cruises in Svalbard again, which is a vital contributor to local tourism economies,” AECO Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen said.
The reopening will take place within existing national rules for entry so, from June 15, residents of Nordic countries (apart from most of Sweden) are allowed to travel there.
Very strict criteria will have to be met by expedition cruise operators during the first phase of reopening.
These include carrying only half of a vessel’s passenger capacity, increased numbers of medical staff and guest health certificates, among other requirements. Each operator will need to develop and apply individual plans based on the infection control industry guidelines, which then will be considered by the governor of Svalbard.
“It will take time before all cruise operations as we knew them can be resumed, but this cautious, phased and responsible beginning with expedition cruise tourism in Norway and Svalbard is a very important step for the expedition cruise industry and everyone affected by the halt in operations,” Jørgensen said. “This is a beginning that gives hope for the industry, and for other destinations.”
Typically three-quarters of European river cruisers come from overseas, mainly the United States.
This year, it’s quite likely that only Europeans, from certain countries, will be able to sail the European waterways.
A-Rosa, a line that carries mainly Germans, is getting ready to go, thanks to Germany lifting its travel warning for 29 European countries and members of the Schengen area from June 15. The borders between these countries will reopen and quarantines will be abolished.
However, various country and region-specific regulations are still fluid.
On June 17, A-Rosa Alva is set to start plying Portugal’s Douro River, while other A-Rosa vessels will resume on the Rhine and Danube, followed by the resumption of cruises in France in early July.
French Rivers & Coast
Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope plans to be back on the rivers of France — the Seine, Loire, Gironde, Garonne, Dordogne, Rhône, Saone and Rhine — starting mid-July.
And, subsequently, CroisiEurope’s 128-passenger oceangoing ship, La Belle des Océans, is scheduled to embark on a new Corsica itinerary, from Nice. The ship is the former Silver Discoverer, acquired last year.
Pending government approvals, the French line Ponant hopes to deploy six of its expedition vessels on five different domestic itineraries. The weeklong voyages would sail from Saint-Malo to the Ponant Islands that gave the company its name. And they would also sail from Le Havre along the Normandy coast, from Bordeaux on nature and gastronomy sailings, from Marseille along the Côte d’Azur and from Nice to Corsica.
U.S. Rivers & Coasts
For Americans, there probably will be domestic travel options on small ships, like those belonging to American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC), UnCruise Adventures, Blount Small Ship Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises and several of Lindblad Expeditions‘ vessels that are U.S.-registered.
As earlier detailed here, ships carrying under 250 people (passengers and crew) are not subject to the U.S. no-sail order. Nor, as U.S.-flag operators, do they require approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; instead, their health and sanitation programs fall under the Food and Drug Administration.
According to John Waggoner, founder and CEO of AQSC, his American Empress in the Pacific Northwest and American Duchess on the Mississippi have U.S. Coast Guard approval to sail and plans are being reviewed by the FDA. The challenge is all the different phases of opening of the various states, counties and ports.
Still, Waggoner said he’s optimistic the first departures could happen in July.
American Cruise Lines hopes to begin sailing even earlier, with a first American Song sailing planned for June 20 on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
There are a few other parts of the world that may be able to restart small-ship cruises in 2020. Emilio Freeman, a seasoned itinerary planner who has experience across a range of lines and is now with SeaDream, thinks nature destinations are going to be especially popular after COVID-19.
“The Galápagos are going to do very well,” he predicted. “The uncertainty is how you get there (airlift), but people will have a great experience out in nature with the wildlife. It’s going to be in demand. These types of destinations are where people will want to go.”
Silversea Cruises is hopeful its newly delivered Silver Origin, built for the Galápagos, could begin sailing there Aug. 22.
A national park, the Galápagos are among the most controlled and remote cruise destinations, with islands spread across a vast expanse of the Pacific. Only a few places have human populations.
Several South American countries have become the new hot spot of the pandemic, and Ecuador is still closed. However, Fernando Delgado, vice president of Canodros/Silversea Cruises Ecuador, is confident air travel will be reinstated soon. The company has arranged adequate charter flights between the Ecuadorian mainland and the Galápagos, where travelers will embark Silver Origin. The issue is getting people to Ecuador.
It seems that people really want to go. According to Silversea, of all its itineraries, the Galápagos have had the fewest cancellations, followed by Antarctica.
The Antarctica season, which begins in October, is months off, and many expedition cruise lines hope it will be possible to operate.
As with the Galápagos, the uncertainty is airlift.
Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina, is the main gateway to the White Continent, and most travelers would first fly to Buenos Aires. So far, Argentina has fared better than some neighbors in controlling the virus though its national quarantine has been extended through June 28. There’s no telling when regular commercial air service will resume.
This leaves a lot of uncertainty. Some lines may decide they don’t want to risk it, while others may be seeking alternative homeports.
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