Has MSC Cruises cracked the code for a safe return of cruising?

Sep 4, 2020

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Just a few months ago, with COVID-19 raging, it seemed like the shutdown of cruising might go on forever — or at least until the world had developed widespread immunity to the illness.

But in recent weeks, something big has happened that has raised the possibility that cruising might be able to come back in a significant way much sooner than some people think.

One of the world’s biggest cruise ships, the 4,842-passenger MSC Grandiosa, has resumed sailing with paying passengers in the Mediterranean, stopping at ports in Italy and Malta, without recording a single case of COVID-19 on board.

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“It’s working, and our protocol is doing what it’s meant to do”, one of the top MSC Cruises executives in North America, Ken Muskat, told The Points Guy on Friday in an exclusive interview. “There are no reported cases (of COVID-19), no issues on board, and guest satisfaction is high”.

In what is turning into something of a test case for the entire cruise industry, MSC Grandiosa resumed operations on 16 August out of the port of Genoa, Italy, with two big innovations that some industry watchers think could be the key to keeping the new coronavirus off ships: A requirement that all passengers test negative for COVID-19 in the moments before boarding, and a rule that passengers can only leave the ship in ports when on a cruise-line organized shore excursion.

The supervised tours, which are taking place in such ports as Naples and Palermo, Italy, are carefully designed for social distancing and led by guides who have tested negative for the illness. Buses used for the tours are regularly sanitized.

“We’ve created sort of this bubble”, said Muskat, who is EVP and chief operating officer at MSC Cruises USA, the U.S.-arm of Switzerland-based MSC Cruises.

The idea, he suggested, was to give the new coronavirus no way to sneak on board.

MSC Grandiosa wasn’t the first cruise ship around the world to resume service. Since late June, several small- to medium-size oceangoing vessels have restarted a small number of sailings out of ports in Germany, Norway and a handful of other countries. Quite a few small river ships in Europe also have resumed sailings. But none of the vessels have been of the size or significance of MSC Grandiosa — the world’s seventh-biggest cruise ship.

Loaded with restaurants, bars, showrooms and deck-top attractions, including a giant waterpark, MSC Grandiosa represents the sort of megaship cruising that is favoured by large swaths of the cruising public. Along with Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, MSC Cruises dominates the world of big-ship cruising.

Related: The 12 giant ships with the most over-the-top attractions

In addition to being the only line to relaunch a megaship in this new age of coronavirus, MSC Cruises has been the most aggressive about creating a coronavirus-free bubble on its ships.

That’s significant, as several of the lines that have restarted trips already have run into trouble.

One of the first cruise ships to resume operations since the industry shut down, Hurtigruten’s 535-passenger Roald Amundsen, experienced a major outbreak of COVID-19 in late July, within days of restarting service. Dozens of crew and passengers became ill, with more than a half-dozen requiring hospitalization. The line ended up cancelling all sailings until further notice.

Three other small vessels that restarted service in July also have had to cancel voyages after a single passenger on each ship received positive test results midway during a sailing. One of the lines, UnCruise Adventures, subsequently cancelled all trips for the rest of the year.

None of the lines that experienced COVID-19 scares, however, were testing passengers for the illness as they arrived at the pier.

“That was a critical decision”, Muskat said of the testing at the cruise terminal, which was a major commitment from the line.

Already, the testing has kept one passenger with COVID-19 off MSC Grandiosa. A passenger tested positive during the check-in process for the ship’s second sailing out of Genoa, Italy, on 23 August. He was sent home along with his family and several other people who had shared a van transfer to the ship. There were 15 passengers in all who were not allowed to board.

“Of course, we’re not happy about turning people away. But in this environment, you don’t want to risk (the health of) a few thousand people who are on board the ship”, Muskat said.

Muskat said MSC Cruises started planning for the pre-cruise testing months in advance by lining up testing equipment and materials. The testing itself is a major logistical operation, and an expensive undertaking, he said. While MSC Grandiosa is sailing at a reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, there still are a couple of thousand passengers a week boarding the vessel in various ports who need to be tested as quickly as possible as they arrive.

The restriction on passengers leaving the ship in ports — passengers can’t just walk off vessels on their own; they have to be on an organized tour — comes with its own challenges. But Muskat said the port restriction also is a key element of the line’s comeback plan.

It’s “all part of that bubble experience making sure we are controlling the exposure that our guests have and that everybody is adhering to our policies”, he said.

MSC Cruises is being strict about the new rule. A family travelling on the first sailing of the vessel was sent home after sneaking away from a tour in Naples, Italy, to explore the city on their own.

“They broke the bubble, and we don’t know where they went, so you can’t let them back on board”, Muskat explained. “Our CEO has made it very clear that there is no way around that. If somebody doesn’t follow the rules, they don’t get on board”.

Muskat said the safety of passengers and crew is the line’s number one priority. In addition to COVID testing at the pier and port touring restrictions, the line has implemented several other measures to ensure that passengers on MSC Grandiosa remain healthy, including social distancing and mask-wearing requirements on board the vessel, and a reduction of the capacity of some onboard venues.

MSC Cruises also has set aside cabins on MSC Grandiosa to isolate any passengers or crew who become ill, and arranged with port towns and their hospitals to take in such passengers and crew.

It’s a strategy that other cruise companies already are noticing. In the wake of MSC Cruises’ initial success, Costa Cruises has announced that it, too, will require day-of-departure testing for passengers in advance of sailings. The line, which plans to restart cruises later this month in Italy, initially had said it wouldn’t do such testing.

Costa Cruises also recently announced plans to only allow passengers to tour ports as part of a cruise-line organized tour.

A top Royal Caribbean Group executive also recently said that the company’s multiple brands were likely to test all incoming passengers for COVID-19, too.

Muskat said that, so far, cruisers were taking the new requirements in stride.

“We’re getting no complaints about it”, he said. “I think people realize that this is the new world we’re in right now. Things aren’t the same as they used to be, and the guests understand that”.

That said, Muskat said the cruising experience on MSC Grandiosa wasn’t as different now as some people might think, despite all the new rules and procedures.

“The pools are open, the entertainment is open, the bars and lounges are open”, he noted. “We’re very closely practising social distancing, (but) we have great signage on board telling people where to sit or where to walk, just like you would see in many places today”.

While passengers can’t get off in ports on their own, those who have previously received a voucher because of the cancellation of a cruise who book a new Welcome Back cruise-only fare will receive up to three complimentary shore excursions. For all new bookings, three shore excursions can be added to the Welcome Back offer for 100 euro.

Related: You now can take a boat tour to see all the empty cruise ships 

MSC Cruises also has added a COVID-19 insurance plan — currently only available to residents from Schengen area countries — that will reimburse passengers if they have to cancel a cruise due to developing the illness or fall ill during or soon after a cruise. For passengers from Italy — the majority of passengers currently booking the ship — the insurance is included in the fare. For all other passengers, it can be purchased for 18 euro.

For now, only residents of Europe’s Schengen countries are allowed to book the new MSC Grandiosa sailings.

So, has MSC Cruises cracked the code for a wider resumption of cruising? Muskat said he was hesitant to put it that way, given the potential for setbacks. But he was upbeat about the first few weeks of MSC Grandiosa’s return to service.

“I don’t think anybody is declaring 100% victory”, he said. “Have we cracked the code? I don’t know. Is what we’re doing right now working? Yes. Are we making continued enhancements and tweaks to it? Yes, and we learn every day”.

When asked if the procedures in place for the sailings of MSC Cruises were scalable to hundreds of cruise vessels across the globe, Muskat said that remained to be seen.

“So far, it’s gone very smoothly, but we’re also not filling a ship of 5,000 people”, he said, noting MSC Grandiosa was operating at significantly reduced capacity. “And, so far, we’re not sailing our ships all over the world as we’re reintroducing our ships in a phased approach”.

Muskat noted that a second MSC Cruises ships, MSC Magnifica, would start sailing out of Italy at the end of September, and the line would go from there.

“We’ll have to see how scalable it is”, he said. “I think it’s going to be a while until the industry is sailing at 100%”.

Feature image courtesy of MSC Cruises

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