Should cruise ships require masks, social distancing? Cruiser views are changing

Oct 12, 2020

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Will travellers still cruise if they have to wear a mask and social distance on ships?

A few months ago, many were saying “no” in the strongest possible terms, according to industry watchers. But there’s been a sea change, so to speak, in the thinking on the topic as the coronavirus crisis has dragged on.

“Back in March, they said ‘no way’ to things like masks and social distancing,” Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, said Wednesday at Seatrade Cruise Virtual, an online version of the cruise industry’s annual meetup. “They’re much more prepared to take (it) on now.”

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McDaniel, who cited Cruise Critic surveys of readers as pointing to the shift, was speaking on a panel on “the future of the guest experience” that included several cruise line representatives who echoed her comments.

“In April, they were saying, ‘Well, (if) I have to wear a mask, I’m not going to go,’” said Dan Blanchard, CEO of small-ship adventure company UnCruise Adventures. “Now they’re saying, ‘If you don’t require me to wear a mask and everybody (else), I’m not going.’”

Blanchard suggested that the majority of Americans now don’t want to go anywhere unless they know they will be in a bubble of safety. If that means sometimes intrusive anti-COVID measures, so be it.

MSC Grandiosa
MSC Grandiosa is one of the few cruise ships that has resumed sailings since March. It’s operating voyages out of Italy that are open to European travellers only. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises)

Bernhard Stacher, vice president of global hotel operations for MSC Cruises, said his company had seen something similar in Italy, where the line recently resumed limited sailings for Europeans only.

Stacher said MSC Cruises customers had become more comfortable not just with mask-wearing and social distancing on ships but even more extreme anti-COVID measures such as rules forbidding passengers to disembark in ports on their own.

“In the beginning, it was, like, ‘Hmmm. We can’t go ashore and explore now?” he said. “Since we’ve run (ships with the policy for) a few weeks, and other cruise lines have said they are going to do the same, people feel very comfortable (with the idea).”

The changing consensus comes as Americans become more accustomed to anti-COVID measures in all aspects of life, McDaniel noted.

“They’re just getting used to it in their day-to-day lives,” she said of things like mask-wearing. “It’s something that just becomes routine and habit.”

McDaniel added that after so many months without cruising, cruise fans were ready to do just about anything to get back on ships. Cruise Critic surveys show that, despite the COVID outbreak, about 75% of readers are planning to cruise again in the next year.

“If (wearing a mask) means that they can get back on board cruise ships, they’re ready to do it,” she said.

Most major cruise lines haven’t operated a single departure since March, when health officials declared the new coronavirus a pandemic. But the main trade group for the industry, the Cruise Lines International Association, has said in recent weeks that it would require its members to implement a wide range of safety protocols when they restart operations.

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The protocols will include such things as mandatory COVID testing for all passengers, restrictions on port touring, mask-wearing on ships at times and social distancing on ships.

Already, a handful of lines that have resumed sailings out of Italy and other European countries are implementing such protocols, and the early word is passengers are complying with the rules, not complaining in great numbers and still enjoying the cruise experience.

“Italy was very hard-hit during the initial stages of the pandemic … and thus (had) already really changed their culture to accept mask use and the distancing and certain restrictions,” Stacher said. “So they (have been) very obedient.”

Stacher said passengers on the two ships the line now is operating out of Italy sometimes forget to put on their masks when walking in public areas. But the crew is trained to politely remind them, and the passengers have been very accepting of such nudges.

“They do follow (such requests), and they actually are very appreciative and say ‘thank you very much,’” he said. “I think it’s a big success story.”

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Featured image of courtesy of MSC Cruises

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