For cruise operators, the post-pandemic revival of the industry has been an emotional experience as the tough months of Covid-19 restrictions begin to recede into the distance.
Getting back to cruising has triggered a cocktail of thoughts and emotions, says Daniel Schäfer, managing director at Sea Cloud Cruises. “First I was very much relieved, that all the time of being unsure about the future had ended. Just happy to be back at sea again. In addition, there were some magic moments, especially as Sea Cloud Spirit left the shipyard for her first journey – the happy end after 12 years of planning, working, struggles and hopes.”
Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder of Aqua Expeditions also had a special reason to look forward to the return of cruising this year. “Our new ship, Aqua Nera, started sailing this summer in the Peruvian Amazon. I was thrilled to be back in the unspoiled sanctuary that is the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve – where it all started 14 years ago – for the launch of our fourth vessel after an incredibly challenging period. I felt incredibly grateful to have been able to share this special moment with my talented crew, my family, and our valued guests.”
Meanwhile, Bret Bullock, director of guest experience at American Cruise Lines, says: “With comprehensive Covid mitigation and response plans in place, we resumed partial cruise operations in late March along our Mississippi River and Historic South itineraries on the East Coast. After such a long pause in travel, with pent-up demand at an all-time high, American’s unique ability to offer guests from the USA and around the world a safe personalised way to explore again, was truly a dream come true for all of us.”
Galapagos Islands specialist Metropolitan Touring resumed operations in August 2020 – earlier than most other cruise companies, thanks to the remote nature and low population density of the brand’s destinations. Product manager Klaus Fielsch recalls: “Weighing the anchor for the first time since the world’s complete lockdown was for us a special moment. We were the first to implement expedition cruises in Galapagos back in 1969, and now we were the first to resume operations after five months.”
However, president of Albatros International Hans Lagerweij strikes a note of caution regarding the return to planned itineraries: “Of course it is a promising development, and we are excited to finally plan our operations again. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but a lot still needs to happen. Many source markets are still closed: China, Japan, Australia. Many destinations are still closed or have restricted access, leading to a lot of uncertainty. I think it will take into 2022 to see things ‘normalise’.”
Different regions are restarting at different rates, says Franklin Braeckman, marketing and sales manager for Oceanwide Expeditions. “While the situation remains quite uncertain, especially for the unique character of expedition cruising, we are delighted to be able to restart our operations in North Norway,” he says: “After many months in lockdown, with all options being investigated for our Antarctic programme and multiple safety enhancements to our ships including the installation of quarantine cabins with independent ventilation systems, we are eager to start sailing again and can’t wait to have passengers onboard again.”
The difficulties faced by the global cruise industry over the course of the pandemic have in many cases revealed great depths of solidarity and mutual support. “The river and coastal communities we visit are like family to us,” says Bullock. “And as family does, we all stuck together and supported one another while riding out this unprecedented storm. Throughout the highs and lows, our common mantra was the same: we are in this together. For months on end, we shared stories and communicated regularly with all our shore partners across the country, becoming even closer as a result of having weathered the storm together.’”
Schäfer agrees, saying: “I am thankful for the support of our guests and of our business partners. They trusted us; they understood our situation. For a small cruise line like Sea Cloud Cruises these values have the same importance as any monetary value. In addition, please don’t forget our crews on ship and on land. They really had a hard time – but none of them left us, even not when times seem to be very rough. That is just great.”
Galli Zugaro remarks: “The global tourism industry has certainly experienced a huge hit, but I was always positive that we would come out of this stronger. Since founding Aqua Expeditions, it has been my mission to create intimate, small-ship expeditions in distant parts of the world. Now, more than ever, our company demonstrates the advantages our small explorer vessels offer families and friends travelling to remote parts of the world, with a focus on nature, wildlife and culture. I would like to thank all our valued guests and trade partners who have accompanied us in this journey.”
As a business-to-business-only operator, Albatros is particularly reliant on good links across the communities it works with. “We have to say a huge thank you to all our travel advisors, our operators and other partners around the world,” says Lagerweij. “We have been extremely successful together in rebooking guests, and despite the challenging situation we managed to attract many new partners, due to our excellent reputation and fast refund policy. This was truly a superior joint effort of maintaining guests, providing excellent customer service and even attracting new guests.”
Metropolitan Touring’s Fielsch believes that spreading factual and accurate news about the operations of vessels has been critical to inform the public. “Thousands of travellers have been visiting the Galapagos onboard expedition vessels since August 2020 in a flawless operation. The Ecuadorian Government has vaccinated all adults in the Galapagos and all crew members of the small Galapagos fleet have also been vaccinated since the second half of 2021. It is now one of the safest places to spend a nature-oriented vacation.”
While cruise ships were unable to set sail during the pandemic, operators were working hard behind the scenes, preparing exciting new itineraries for their destinations when the industry opened up again. Bullock highlights American Cruise Lines’ cruises in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, as well as the Mississippi, while Schäfer recommends Sea Cloud Spirit’s Canary Islands to Las Palmas itinerary as “a perfect mixture of sailing and land experience” and Sea Cloud II’s Istanbul to Piraeus itinerary for “swimming from the ship and small, hidden Cyclades and Sporades islands.”
Meanwhile, Galli Zugaro says: “One of the most special aspects of sailing in an unexplored and incredibly biodiverse location such as the Peruvian Amazon, is that no two voyages are the same. I’m excited for our guests to continue exploring the deepest parts of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve with our expert guides.”
And Lagerweij says longer voyages such as Albatros’s ‘Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands’ itinerary have been attracting guests post-Covid, “so we have opened extra departures.”
All the operators are looking forward to introducing guests to unmissable new shore excursions. These range from camping on the famous Greenland ice cap for Albatros, to catamaran sailing and snorkelling in the Tobago Cays for Sea Cloud Cruises. Meanwhile, Aqua Expeditions will take guests to ancient nutmeg plantations in Indonesia’s Spice Islands, and Metropolitan’s tours feature sightings of the ‘BIG15’ must-see endemic species of Galapagos.
The cruise sector is well equipped to serve guests safely going forward, says Oceanwide’s Braeckman. “IAATO, AECO and all member operators have been working towards safe and feasible health protocols,” he says. “Oceanwide Expeditions has implemented a rigorous system of safety protocols, including full Covid-19 vaccination, to help ensure the health of our passengers, staff, and crew during all voyages. These protocols are continuously updated based on the latest scientific information.”
This article was first published in the 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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