Believe it or not, cruising is back — and it's weirder than we expected
Would you still want to take a cruise if you found out the spa, pool and fitness center on the ship you'd booked would be closed for the entirety of your trip? What if you had to undergo daily temperature checks while on board and sometimes wear a mask?
Judging from the experience of passengers this week on the first cruise vessel in the world to restart operations, that might be the new normal in the era of coronavirus.
Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates
In a move that caught many cruise industry watchers off guard, Germany-based Nicko Cruises on Monday dipped a tiny toe back into cruise operations by restarting departures of a single river vessel on the Rhine in Germany, the NickoVISION. In the process, it offered a first glimpse of what cruising could look like as more lines begin resuming operations in the coming months — and raised questions about whether cruising fans will really want to rush back to ships in the near future.
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In addition to keeping the spa, pool and fitness area of the ship closed in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Nicko Cruises has implemented such unusual -- and some might say awkward -- social distancing measures as a "one-way street" system for walking in tight areas of the vessel. Passengers also are being asked to wear mouth and nose protection (a mask or screen shield) when walking in such areas, as well as when touring by bus off the ship.
There also have been some major changes to the dining operations. For starters, tables and chairs have been spaced farther apart or separated by screens, and passengers no longer can serve themselves at buffets. Passengers now are being served by ship staff.
Also, every meal is being served either in two waves with two distinct table times or at one seating in two different rooms, in an effort to keep passengers more separated than in the past. All crew in the ship's restaurant, bar and saloon are wearing mouth and nose coverings and gloves.
Nicko Cruises also is limiting the number of passengers it will allow on the ship to about 70% of normal capacity. Not that overcapacity is an immediate issue. Only 40 people signed up for this week's first departure, a spokesperson told TPG. The NickoVISION normally sails with 200 passengers.
Catering to the German-speaking market with German as its onboard language, Nicko Cruises isn't a brand most Americans would know or, for the most part, ever book for a trip. The sailings that NickoVISION will operate in the coming weeks are aimed at a local German customer base that can easily reach the ship without ever leaving their country.
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But the new policies and procedures Nicko Cruises is implementing can be seen as a road map for other lines thinking about a resumption of operations. Indeed, several lines already have announced plans to take similar action when they resume service.
Just this week, one of the world's biggest cruise operators, Norwegian Cruise Line, unveiled a plan for new health and safety measures on ships that included many of the things Nicko Cruises passengers are seeing this week. Norwegian was the first major North American cruise brand to come out with such a plan.
Along with most major North American cruise brands, Norwegian has canceled all sailings through the end of July and may not resume voyages until much later this year. It's still in discussion with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about how it would restart cruising in U.S. waters. The CDC has issued a "no-sail" order for cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters that isn't set to expire until July 24 and could be extended.
Related: 17 destinations that may not welcome ships when cruising resumes
Like Nicko Cruises, Norwegian is planning new social distancing measures to keep passengers a reasonable distance apart and new screening measures such as regular temperature checks. But, in some cases, Norwegian is going even further than the German line.
Notably, Norwegian is planning temperature checks not just once a day but every time a passenger enters a restaurant for a meal or a public area for an activity. This is in addition to temperature checks prior to embarkation and disembarkation and after every port call. Logistically, it'll be quite the undertaking, and -- we suspect -- not wildly popular with cruisers. Having to stop four or five times a day for a temperature check isn't exactly how most people expect to spend their vacation days.
Related: 10 ways coronavirus could forever change the future of travel
Like Nicko Cruises, Norwegian will have staffers serve food to passengers at shipboard buffets -- no more self-service. Norwegian also plans to increase the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting on ships, and regularly fog cabins and public areas with hypochlorous acid to kill bacteria, spores and viruses (the line says this will be a nontoxic process). Social distancing efforts will include sailing ships at a reduced capacity, staggering boarding times for arriving passengers and reducing the capacity of all public areas on vessels.
Norwegian also will enhance its medical screening of passengers at embarkation and may deny boarding to some passengers who show signs of infection.
Much of what Norwegian announced was consistent with what the line and its parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, have been talking about doing for weeks. But as longtime industry watcher Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, noted this week in a dispatch, there were "some true head-scratchers."
Related: Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO shares his plan for a comeback
In its response to the question, “If a guest is denied boarding [because of COVID-19 symptoms], will they be refunded their cruise fare?” Norwegian replied, “We’re evaluating reimbursement options and will share details as they become available.”
"It’s difficult to imagine [Norwegian] forcing guests with COVID symptoms to pay for a cruise they weren’t allowed to take, so why not just say so?" Driscoll wrote.
Still, Driscoll and other industry watchers generally see the implementation of the sort of measures Norwegian announced as a positive, concrete step toward reducing the likelihood of a coronavirus incident on a ship.
"The company is to be applauded for sharing these measures publicly, so they can receive input and feedback," Driscoll wrote, before adding one big caveat — "The big unknown is whether the steps [Norwegian] is putting in place can actually effectively contain any infections, as nothing like this has ever been attempted before."
Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:
- Why you shouldn't expect bargain-basement cruise deals anytime soon
- How to cancel or postpone a cruise due to coronavirus
- Expecting a refund for a canceled cruise? Here's how long it will take
- Good news for cruisers worried about strict new boarding rules
- Some of the year's hottest new ships could be delayed
- Stream these 13 movies, television shows to get your cruise ship fix