At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, many cruise liners were stranded at sea, with ports everywhere from the US to the Far East denying them entry on scheduled calls. As the industry prepares to reopen after being at a virtual standstill since March, the hope is that situations like these can be avoided in future, even with new government travel advisories popping up regularly. Key to this will be building more flexibility into itineraries and closer cooperation between ports, operators and regulators.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was already some level of flexibility built into cruise itineraries. Hurricanes in the Caribbean and storms in the North Sea could hardly be avoided or precisely predicted, and ports were generally happy to accept unexpected visitors if they had a free berth and waive cancellation fees for those who had to reroute at the last minute.

Of course, these situations were far from ideal for operators. Museum tickets and bus tours had been booked and pre-sold far in advance, travel agents had been informed, and customers’ expectations set. Revenue would certainly take a knock if everything had to be cancelled and rebooked in a different city, but passengers would generally take it on the chin if it was unavoidable, happy to substitute a Guinness brewery tour in Dublin for a visit to the Jameson distillery in Cork.

In northern Europe, itinerary flexibility was climbing closer to the top of the cruise industry’s agenda, even before Covid-19, because of the discussions around extending the cruise season at both ends and the obvious weather issues that come with that. Cruise Europe, a business-to-business network of cruise ports and destinations in Northern and Atlantic Europe, has been advocating for greater flexibility in itineraries – both on arrival dates and times – to avoid congestion in ports and arrivals in cities during peak traffic times for the past five years.

“We will have to build in flexibility so that the passengers are not causing congestion in ports during peak times, especially with social distancing, which is a double-edged sword.” Michael McCarthy

“The season in northern Europe is clearly limited by the weather, so we’ll have days with six ships in Tallinn and a potential waiting list,” says Cruise Europe chairman Michael McCarthy. “What we can do, with help from ports, is spread those six ships across the day. If some arrive in the morning and leave in the afternoon, and some arrive in the afternoon and leave in the evening, quite a bit of the problem will be resolved. Buses, guides and venues are now not swamped but can work in shifts.”

Building flexibility into itineraries

Add a global pandemic into the mix and it’s no wonder that flexibility has shot to the top of itinerary planners’ priority list. “Covid hotspots are developing quickly and cruise lines need to adapt to new changing realities,” says Brian Salerno, SVP of maritime policy at the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, CLIA.

Yet, while it’s crucial to build flexibility into itineraries because of fast-changing travel restrictions, the coronavirus also means that shore excursions must be selected and planned even more carefully than they had been previously. “When you go through all of this effort to create a sanitary environment on the ship, you also want to make sure that you don’t undermine that by failing to account for potential exposures when people go ashore and then then bring the virus back to the ship,” Salerno explains.

“Usually, an operator would seek to substitute another port where they have ongoing relationships and logistical support, where the ship could be supported from a mooring, fuelling and reprovisioning perspective. But at this stage of resumption that’s more difficult to do because the itineraries that are under consideration are the result of some pretty in-depth discussions between the cruise lines and local health authorities. It’s all being done very, very carefully.”

Another new factor that itinerary planners need to consider is social distancing. As McCarthy stresses, “We will have to build in flexibility so that the passengers are not causing congestion in ports during peak times, especially with social distancing, which is a double-edged sword.” Cruise Europe recently organised a webinar with cruise terminal design company Bermello Ajamil about the effect of Covid-19 on the operation and design of cruise terminals. “For a big ship – 4,000 to 5,000 passengers – the pre-Covid turnaround was 11 hours, but because of social distancing and how many people would be on escalators, in lifts, going through preinspection, disinfecting baggage and being tested before going on to a ship, that could go up to 18 hours,” McCarthy says.

Fostering cooperation between ports and destinations

For Salerno, relationships between ports, operators and health authorities are always vital, even in the best of times. “It’s even more so now, with the pandemic,” he says. “There needs to be a very clear understanding of risk. The ports want to know what the ships are doing before they’ll decide if it’s okay for them to come in and the ships want to know what the conditions are in the port.

“The idea is that you want parity between conditions on the ship and the local health conditions and measures instituted by health authorities. When those things match up, you have the foundation for a healthy, and safe, port visit and shore excursions.”

He says the interaction with shore excursion providers is likely to become much more in depth. “What are the health procedures that are being followed by the shore excursion providers? Do they sanitise their buses or trams? Do they require people to wear face masks? Is there social distancing? And what types of venues will they visit? Are they predominantly outdoors? Or are they indoors and, if they’re indoors, what density of people would be expected. Those types of factors all weigh in to determine which shore excursions may be permissible from the cruise lines’ perspective,” he explains.

McCarthy says bodies like Cruise Europe can assist in fostering greater cooperation between operators, ports, municipalities and tourism authorities. “We’re experts in our area – we have harbour masters, commercial managers, itinerary planners – and we can sit down with all the parties involved to ensure operators aren’t all doing the same route at the same time and causing congestion,” he says.

To help manage capacity and improve the guest experience, he thinks there needs to be a proactive focus on events and themes to help planners differentiate itineraries. He also believes the season could be extended more effectively, reducing congestion. This could be achieved by ports offering more competitive shoulder season pricing and incentives, as well as a transparent berthing policy and better online booking systems including availability, terminal coach shuttles and transfers.

A very different cruise industry

CLIA is working closely with member cruise lines to develop protocols for when operations resume. “A big part of that is dialogue between ports and destinations,” says Salerno. “We’re supporting travel agents, suppliers, tourism operators and helping them get on the same page and share information about what resumption might look like.”

The organisation is also working to bring the detailed work the cruise lines are doing to make cruising a safe and healthy experience for their passengers into a global policy, which, eventually, will be applicable to all members around the world. “Generally, we’re speaking in terms of a door-to-door approach,” Salerno says.

“That means the process begins at booking when health information is collected from passengers – and that carries all the way through the cruise experience.”

Shore excursions will be one of the most difficult parts of resumption, Salerno anticipates. “There’s likely to be some form of social distancing, masks and temperature checking when passengers return to the ship,” he says. “One of the lines is even recommending that when passengers come back, they go and change their clothes or have their clothes washed. Very few operators are doing shore excursions right now because of the complexity. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it will have to be done very carefully.”

“The idea is that you want parity between conditions on the ship and the local health conditions, and measures, instituted by health authorities. When those things match up, you have the foundation for a healthy, and safe, port visit and shore excursions.” Brian Salerno

Meanwhile, with no one able to gather safely at in-person events or exhibitions, Cruise Europe is putting its efforts into online meetings, regular social media updates, assisting the cruise lines in their ‘lay-up’ of vessels, keeping abreast of the industry’s moves to recommence, issuing newsletters on national responses, and liaising with CLIA and the EU on national guidelines for recommencement.

“The role of Cruise Europe will always be to present our members to the cruise industry, create networking opportunities, information sharing and exchanging best practices,” McCarthy says.

Both McCarthy and Salerno are keen to stress that the cruise industry will emerge from this crisis in a very different shape to how it went in. “The level of care really has to be elevated substantially. It was high before but it has to be even higher now,” Salerno notes. “We can’t and we’re not going to go back to doing things the way we did back in January.”