While much of the world remains firmly closed to leisure travel, or is still in the grip of COVID, Europe’s cruise industry is emerging, blinking, into the late summer sunshine. It’s been a bumpy ride – but then, this is a pandemic.
Everything was supposed to resume in style when Hurtigruten started operating three expedition ships along the Norwegian coast in July, having very publicly laid out it’s impressive sanitation protocols. Yet the line’s failure to quarantine its incoming Filipino crew meant Covid quickly took a grip on the expedition ship Roald Amundsen, resulting in 41 crew members and 21 guests testing positive.
The line’s expedition season was promptly cancelled. “We were all set to go and then Hurtigruten happened,” one expedition insider told Cruise Passenger.
SeaDream Yacht Club had also started operating in Norway. One asymptomatic case of COVID emerged in early August but thankfully, the disease had not spread. Yet it’s one step forward, two back; SeaDream’s cruises are still running but Norway has suddenly clamped down on quarantine-free entry from all but a handful of European countries. Cruising the fjords for what’s left of summer could well end up the way the shortened season began, with just small bubbles of passengers from countries considered ‘healthy’.
Second spikes of COVID are leading governments to slap quarantines, sometimes with no notice, on arrivals from areas with accelerating infections, making cruise planning difficult. Understandable, of course, but attitudes vary wildly, too. Spain has banned cruising indefinitely, while the UK government advises Brits against all sea-going cruises. Greece is the opposite, recently opening six ports to international cruise ships, with some hope of salvaging the summer over the next few weeks.
Several cruise lines are favouring a social bubble approach, sailing with either a single nationality, or a very conservative itinerary that stays in one country, or both. Next week, Scotland’s Majestic Line will start operating two tiny ships around the remote Western Isles of Scotland, having satisfied Visit Scotland’s ‘We’re Good to Go’ protocols. Ponant is operating ships from French ports, carrying almost exclusively French passengers. Greece’s Variety Cruises is carrying international passengers but sticking close to home in the Greek islands.
River cruising has seen some success although again, the days of the truly diverse passenger mix seem a distant memory. Most cruises are on the Rhine and Danube, on German lines like Nicko and A-Rosa, aimed at local markets and people who will drive, not fly, to join the ship. AmaWaterways with APT is the only US-owned line sailing – and only on whole-ship charters to Dutch and German tour operators. This situation is likely to evolve, though, as river cruise ships tend to be seen, arguably illogically, as floating hotels and less of a threat than seagoing ships. With Portugal’s infection rate falling, there’s hope for CroisiEurope and A-Rosa to offer a decent late summer season on the Douro. TUI River Cruises has confirmed its launch in November with the adults-only TUI Isla carrying British passengers on Christmas markets cruises – although what a socially distanced Christmas market will look like is anybody’s guess.
So far, Germany is the summer’s success story for bigger ships, even if only on cruises to nowhere. TUI’s Mein Schiff 2 sailed on July 24, with bookings only open to Germans, Swiss and Austrians and no ports of call. Hapag-Lloyd’s luxurious Europa 2 and the new Hanseatic Inspiration are both sailing. Again, there are no ports of call, although the expedition nature of the ships means that on a circumnavigation of Denmark, one of the itineraries on offer, there are tours by Zodiac and for the hardy, swimming from the ship in the chilly North Sea.
MSC Grandiosa set sail just recently, on a five-port itinerary including Genoa, Civitavecchia, Naples, Palermo and Valletta. Passengers from the Schengen region only are allowed to travel and while the ship will sail in two countries, Malta and Italy, passengers will remain in a strictly sanitised environment once they’ve been tested and cleared to board, going ashore only on MSC’s official, carefully controlled excursions.
The line quickly proved how seriously it takes this by kicking a family of four off the ship on the first cruise after they’d gone rogue in Naples.
“By departing from the organised shore excursion, this family broke from the safe ‘social bubble’ that MSC Cruises created for them to safely enjoy their visit ashore, and therefore could not be permitted to re-board the ship,” the line said in a statement.
MSC Magnifica is due to start sailing the eastern Mediterranean, while rival Costa will set sail this weekend, although only in Italy and only carrying Italian guests. They line has a battery of health security measures in play.
P&O Cruises has said it will take delivery of the 5,200-passenger Iona, aimed at a British audience, ‘before autumn’.
But then, plenty of lines have stated their intention to restart in the next couple of months. The reality is, cruising in Europe is still very much a waiting game.