Planning for the safe return to cruising

Rebecca Barnes asks Wybcke Meier how TUI Cruises started to safely resume operations and welcome guests onboard its ships despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic

Planning for the safe return to cruising
All the Mein Chiff vessels offer plenty of open-air spaces, making it easy for guests to socially distance

At the beginning of 2020, the billion-pound cruise industry was riding the crest of a wave – passenger numbers were up and around 20 new ships were poised to launch. Then the coronavirus pandemic emerged, forcing lines around the world to suspend operations. As the year progressed, many cruise operators continued to pause their services. However, thanks to the easing of travel restrictions in Europe, Germany-based operator TUI Cruises was able to resume partial operations in July.  

So how did things unfold? “Right after the shutdown we had two priorities: to get all guests and then all crew safely back home,” says Wybcke Meier, CEO of TUI Cruises.  

During a worldwide lockdown with many restrictions, this was no mean feat. After the last guests disembarked from TUI Cruises' Mein Schiff fleet on 23 March, the first crew members were flown back to their home countries with more following. “By the end of April, we had repatriated more than 3,000 crew members and by the beginning of July, we’d brought almost all of them back home,” says Meier.  

The next priority was to get back on track as soon as possible. This involved liaising with the necessary authorities while working on various scenarios in the background. One of the prerequisites for resuming operations was for the Federal Foreign Office and ports to lift the travel warning and relax entry regulations in the travel areas. Next, TUI Cruises focused on enhancing health and safety measures.  

“The health of guests and crew was, and is, our top priority,” Meier says. “We examined additional measures to prevent infection, going beyond our existing strict processes. The result is a vast health and hygiene concept which served as a backbone for our restart.” 

Developed in conjunction with medical experts, the concept includes mandatory health questionnaires and PCR tests before the cruise, daily temperature checks for guests and crew, mandatory digital check-in and staggered check-in times. To comply with social distancing regulations on land, the passenger capacity is limited to a maximum of 60 per cent, while only balcony cabins and suites are occupied. Onboard, TUI Cruises has introduced additional, and very strict, cleaning and disinfection measures to prevent the spread of viral diseases. Staff in the hospitals onboard each ship have also been trained to deal with Covid-19-related emergencies efficiently.   

These measures are based on medical standards developed by renowned institutions, such as Germany’s Robert Koch Institute and the World Health Organisation, and they comply with the guidelines of the respective authorities for resuming cruise operations. 

Once TUI Cruises had all these protocols in place, there was no shortage of passengers willing to get back onboard.  

“Since the end of July 2020, we have hosted more than 60,000 guests,” confirms Meier. “We started by offering short cruises to and from the ports of Hamburg and Kiel, with sea days only and no shore leave. We then started weekly cruises with the same concept.”  

In September 2020, TUI Cruises' began sailing to Greece. The itineraries included shore excursions following a controlled ‘cruise in a bubble’ concept: cruises were offered as a complete package, including transport to the ship in chartered aircraft used exclusively by Mein Schiff guests.  

“In order to avoid uncontrolled contact with other travellers, neither individual transport nor individual shore leaves are possible at the moment,” says Meier. “Shore leaves are only possible for guests who are in organised groups led by us in cooperation with local agencies.” 

With many successful sailings now behind it, TUI Cruises has proven that cruising is able to weather the Covid-19 storm – and, crucially, that passengers are willing to pay for the experience, even if it may be a little different. 

“The future is positive as we have proven that cruises are possible despite the pandemic, and we know that people want to travel and come onboard,” Meier says. “We are confident that we will be able to sail with all our ships again in the course of 2021, with suitable hygiene concepts. We have done our homework in the past few months and are well prepared to endure a longer phase of lower capacity.”

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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By Rebecca Barnes
05 May 2021

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