When will it be possible to go on a cruise again?

Maritime minister has hinted domestic cruises will restart from 17 May

When will it be possible to go on a cruise again?

In early February2020 , images of the stricken cruise ship Diamond Princess – which became a Covid hotspot in its own right – showed the ease with which coronavirus transmitted onboard a vessel packed with thousands of passengers and crew.

She was quarantined off Yokohama in Japan, and at one stage had the highest number of Covid-19 cases anywhere outside China.

As the virus crisis developed early in 2020, cruise ships became pariahs. Some were sailing for weeks in search of a port that would allow them to disembark distressed and often ill passengers.

On 12 March 2020, the Foreign Office took the unprecedented step of warning against cruise ship travel – effectively banning cruise lines from carrying British passengers.

While the government says it will “continue to review its cruise ship travel advice based on the latest medical advice”, there is no sign of imminent easing of the prohibition on international voyages.

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This is what you need to know.

Are any cruises sailing anywhere right now?

Before the coronavirus crisis, cruise ships took around 30 million holidaymakers, efficiently and affordably, around the sights of the world each year.

Today, the vast majority of the 270 sea-going ships that were in service worldwide before the pandemic are immobile.

The pandemic has hit every aspect of the extremely complex logistics of a cruise operation, with a labyrinth of restrictions on the movement of people and vessels.

Some very limited cruising has taken place in locations such as French Polynesia, Norway and the Canary Islands, but the continued imposition of travel restrictions – and occasional cases of coronavirus onboard – has made a coordinated restart impossible so far.

Royal Caribbean International says it plans cruises on Quantum of the Seas from Singapore and Spectrum of the Seas from China during April 2021.

When will cruising resume at scale?

No one knows – which is one reason why cruise lines are enthusiastically marketing voyages for 2022 and even 2023.

The UK government has effectively banned “normal” tourism, including cruising, until 17 May at the earliest.

Saga has a 14-night British Isles cruise departing Dover on 20 May, taking in Guernsey and Ireland as well as England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It is subject to the government of each nation easing sufficient restrictions.

P&O Cruises, the most prominent UK-focused cruise firm, says: “We await more clarity on likely dates for domestic and international cruising.

“To minimise any potential further disappointment, we have temporarily stopped selling all cruises that are due to depart before 21 June 2021.”

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has cancelled all its voyages for the first half of 2021, and plans at present to resume on 1 July with a sailing from Rosyth in Scotland to France and Spain. The following day, its ships depart from Liverpool and Dover to Iceland and France respectively.

Even in countries where coronavirus has had a limited impact, such as Australia, the first Princess sailings will not start until 23 October – with a two-day journey from Sydney to Melbourne.

What are the main impediments to a restart?

On the supply side: a combination of logistics and travel restrictions.

Logistically, the complexity of the cruise industry, involving crew and customers from across the world, and voyages typically calling at many destinations, has made it particularly vulnerable to the tangle of restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, cruising’s image problem means that opening up hundreds of ports and entire countries to ships is likely to take much longer than closing.

On the demand side: many of the prime demographic for cruises are older travellers who may well wish to avoid what the US health body, CDC, calls the “very high” risk of Covid-19 on cruise ships. It recommends “all people avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide”.

In addition: “It is especially important that people with an increased risk of severe illness avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises.”

The organisation urges: “Passengers who decide to go on a cruise should get tested 3-5 days after your trip and stay home for 7 days after travel. Even if you test negative, stay home for the full 7 days.

“If you don’t get tested, it’s safest to stay home for 10 days after you travel.”

The Cruise Lines International Association disagrees with the CDC’s “very high risk” assessment, saying: “Cruise lines go to great lengths to support the health and wellness of all onboard.

“From cleaning practices to passenger screening and public health inspections, cruise lines work vigorously to keep passengers and crew healthy.”

Will I need a “vaccine passport” to get back onboard?

Yes, at least on some cruise lines. Royal Caribbean is deploying its newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, on a limited itinerary from Haifa in Israel to the Greek islands of Rhodes, Santorini and Mykonos, as well as the capital, Athens, and Limassol in Cyprus. Only residents of Israel are allowed onboard.

The company says: “Royal Caribbean will be the first to offer fully vaccinated sailings, where both crew and guests above the age of 16 will be vaccinated against Covid-19.”

Saga says while its crew will be tested, rather than vaccinated, passengers must have had both jabs: “All guests must be fully vaccinated against Covid‑19 at least 14 days before sailing with us.”

In addition, Saga passengers will be tested for coronavirus before boarding.

Crystal has also said it will demand evidence of vaccination from passengers. 

The World’s Largest Cruise Ship in Numbers

How different will cruising be when it starts again at scale?

You can expect temperature and rapid Covid checks at the terminal prior to boarding; some social distancing on board; enhanced cleaning; and reduced capacity.

At ports of call, cruise lines may insist on “official excursions only”.

What happens if someone tests positive while on a cruise?

Cruise firms are making plans. The basic idea will be to set up a “hot zone” in the medical centre exclusively for Covid cases, so that the rest of the operation – including medical services for non-Covid conditions – can continue unaffected.

Viruses being brought onboard are nothing new. The US CDC says: “Cruise ship conditions amplify an already highly transmittable disease.”

According to CDC data over the past decade, serious virus outbreaks aboard cruise ships with calls in the US have been happening an average of once a month.

What is the long-term outlook for cruising?

One view is that there are likely to be fewer ships, visiting fewer countries and with fewer people on them. And given the cruel arithmetic of Covid-19, those passengers may well be significantly younger. 

But Julia Lo Bue Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Centres, believes the nature of cruising could actually enhance safety and therefore its appeal.

“It’s the one product provider who has a full end-to-end solution. They have control of that full end-to-end process,” she said.

“In future we’ll find there’s even more rigour on a cruise ship. They’ve invested so much in making sure their people, their staff, their customers are all tested.”