Of course, this comes with a few caveats. If there is one thing we have learnt in the last year, it is that we don't really know enough about the virus, and our efforts to contain it, to be able to make accurate predictions.
However, what's changed this time round is of course the introduction of the vaccine, which has made all the difference. Nobody expects that this devastating virus will be completely wiped out, but rather that as a result of the vaccination programme infection rates will be reduced, and so too will hospitalisations and deaths, allowing society to get back to something approaching normal, and for COVID-19 to be viewed as just another infectious disease.
It is now just about one whole year since the cruise industry voluntarily suspended operations. Since then we have seen some limited resumption in services around the world: Costa and MSC have operated in Italy for the Italian market, Ponant in France for the French, Aida in Germany for the Germans, SeaDream Yacht Club in Norway for the Norwegians, Royal Caribbean and Dream Cruises in Singapore for the Singaporeans and so forth. In fact 350,000 people have sailed, with a minimal number of cases (37) immediately nipped in the bud.
We now have a clear indication that UK cruise departures will be available for UK residents before things open up more widely. For the moment, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office advisory against cruise ship travel is still in place. But CLIA UK (the Cruise Lines International Association) has been hinting for some months that the government is ready, in view of the extraordinary measures put in place by the cruise lines in the Healthy Gateways document last year, to lift the blanket ban on cruising 'when the time is right', following in-depth discussions with the FCDO, Department for Transport, Chamber of Shipping and so forth. With rising infection rates in the autumn and winter, the time self-evidently was not right.
Now it may be. The next key date, 12th April, is when the Global Travel Task Force reports back on whether outbound summer holidays could go ahead from May. We are pleased to report that CLIA have representation on the Global Travel Task Force this time round, and that is when we expect the 'no cruise' advisory to be lifted.
Of course, lifting the ban doesn't mean that cruise lines can immediately spring into operation, but we would expect ex UK cruises to resume this summer, maybe from June, which would include the big UK brands such as P&O, Fred. Olsen and Cunard, as well as more exclusive ex UK operators such as Saga, Hurtigruten, Tradewind Voyages, Hebridean Island Cruises and The Majestic Line. We can think of this resumption as the cruise equivalent of the much touted 'staycation'.
As mainland Europe's vaccination programme progresses, we will see the borders open, and more opportunity for the resumption of Mediterranean or Baltic cruises, as well as European river cruises. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that many companies operating in these regions are very dependent on the US market, so an opening up of borders between Europe and the US is also key for them.
Our concern, and that of our clients, is not just 'when?' but also 'how?'. As I said in my opening paragraph, whilst mass vaccination is important, the virus will still exist. Cruise lines will therefore no doubt continue with the 'belt and braces' strategy they have already outlined, using a multi-layered approach to include in some cases the requirement for a vaccination certificate (only some cruise lines have so far confirmed they will make this mandatory) alongside testing, health procedure accreditation with stringent compliance requirements, 100% fresh air on board, ionisation and fogging technology, double medical teams, washing stations, and of course an excellent space-to-passenger ratio enhanced by a cap on passenger numbers, as well as quarantine and isolation zones and finally, of course, an agreement with at least one port of call on the itinerary that the ship would be allowed to dock and disembark passengers in the event of an outbreak.
In addition, question marks remain over other measures. Will face masks and social distancing be required on board, and how will these requirements be implemented? What happens about shore excursions? Will passengers have to be 'bubbled' on organised trips as happened on those large ship cruises operating last summer, or will they be allowed to walk ashore freely? How intrusive will testing be, and how frequently will tests be required? And what about the crew? Will they need to be vaccinated, tested, or what?
The answer is, we don't yet know. Not only will protocols vary from ship to ship and cruise line to cruise line, but also it will depend on the local regulations imposed by countries or individual ports, and by the speed at which things progress. A cruise line simply cannot tell you, for example, in May, what things will be like by November. But what they can say is that they will implement all the necessary measures to keep you safe and healthy, whilst working to ensure that you have the best possible holiday experience. I, for one, can't wait to be afloat again.