Whilst in the UK the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) advisory against taking ocean cruises is still in place, in the rest of Europe we are seeing some encouraging domestic activity, with TUI and Hapag-Lloyd in Germany, Ponant in France, MSC and Costa in Italy, Variety in Greece, and SeaDream Yacht Club in Norway all restarting operations.
In a week when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closed its Request for Information, we have seen two significant steps forward. First, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Geneva called for the development and deployment of rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure as an alternative to quarantine measures, in order to re-establish global air connectivity. They are working through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and with health authorities to implement this solution quickly.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, the Healthy Sail Panel, created by Royal Caribbean and NCLH jointly, completed its comprehensive 70-page report with recommendations for the cruise industry to safely resume operations, which was submitted to the CDC on Monday.
In both instances, we see organisations not simply trusting to luck that things will eventually 'turn out ok', but rather addressing the challenges head on with thoughtful and rigorous planning, balancing risk assessment and mitigation, as opposed to the reactive (and apparently panic stricken) behaviour of governments the world over.
If you have the time and the inclination, I strongly recommend reading the Recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel.
In terms of content, the document is similar to the EU Healthy Gateways document released earlier this year, but from the perspective of readability, it is organised, clear and simply expressed, a fitting end to four months of hard work by a prestigious group of experts in public health, infectious disease, biosecurity, epidemiology, hospitality and marine operations. It outlines protocols and procedure to protect not only the guests and crew on board ships, but also the communities they visit. Whilst acknowledging that of course it is impossible to eliminate risk, it suggests that it should be possible, by following these procedures and protocols, to reduce the risk to below normal levels.
So what happens next? There are strong indications that the huge cruise lines have finally run out of patience. The humility and rigorous thinking of the last six months has culminated in the Healthy Sail Panel recommendations, and now it is time for government to engage. US Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have introduced the Set Sail Safely Act, which would establish a Maritime Task Force, in coordination with a Private Sector Advisory Committee, to address the health, safety, security, and logistical changes needed to develop a roadmap for cruise lines to resume operations, challenging the CDC No Sail Order which is currently in place until 31 October 2020. The high level of indignation in the cruise community comes from the fact that there has been simply no engagement from the various federal agencies up to now.
We know from the panel's recommendations, and from the example set by the cruise lines currently operating, that the resumption of operations will be cautious, with plenty of testing on short cruises with limited itineraries, leaving from and returning to the same port. We would suggest that such cruises might possibly operate late this year and into the first quarter of 2021. As testing improves, and the possibility of a vaccine moves closer in tandem with the resumption of operations, so will more ships be pulled back into service, on more varied itineraries.
Finally, here in the UK, we expect that once progress is made in the US, the FCDO might lift its own advisory against ocean cruise travel before the year is out.