“The cruise industry has arguably been one of the most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic,” says William Tatham, vice president of cruise shipping and marina operations at the Port Authority of Jamaica. But Tatham also believes that there will be some important lessons to be learned during this period.
“Traditionally in the industry there have been very strong relationships between various parties who work together to better the experience for everyone involved,” he explains. “However, challenges such as crew repatriation have highlighted how communication was lacking.”
As the pandemic took effect across the globe, many nations closed their ports to vessels at sea, effectively stranding the passengers and crew onboard until they could safely manage the influx of people.
“It turned out to be an unbelievable challenge for cruise lines and ports alike, but there is no right or wrong about how it unfolded – it was simply in reaction to a very difficult situation,” says Tatham. “However, it showed that there is a real disconnect between players in the industry and government agencies. So, there is now an opportunity to bring those together and manage all of this in a more holistic way. When business does restart, I am hopeful that we can use this opportunity to re-engage and strengthen our relationships.
“I think what has come out of this is a real recognition of the importance of each other. In the future, it will enable us to prepare for other potential crises by putting the right systems, relationships and tools in place to ensure a fluid level of communication that can help resolve issues.”
While there are few silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry is still trying to manage available operations until cruise business can resume.
“From speaking with various industry members, I think everyone recognises that this will end,” says Tatham. “The industry is just trying to bridge this period of time as best as it can.”
And the same goes for Jamaica. Cruise business accounts for around 40 per cent of the port authority’s revenue, with other divisions like cargo and logistics making up the rest. As such, the authority has suspended all cruise-related processes, such as marketing efforts and major cruise capital projects and has focused on implementing new hygiene protocols at the cruise ports. But while Tatham agrees that investments in hand sanitisers and thermometers will be necessary, he admits that there is an industry-wide reluctance to spend money when they are unsure that those investments will be well-received or even deemed necessary.
“Every day we are hearing more and more about Covid-19 and what it can and can’t do,” he explains. “One day you need one thing and the next day the science has shown that it isn’t very effective. So our approach is to put in 70 per cent of what everyone else is doing and hold back on that other 30 per cent so that hopefully, as we get closer to start back, we are prepared and ready to do what is necessary.”
The Port Authority of Jamaica has been able to maintain its team throughout this time, so it has been reassigning its employees to plan for the future and troubleshoot potential issues.
“We are having everybody think about how we can be better – planning doesn’t cost,” says Tatham. “If you have the team there, activities like brainstorming are simply drawing on those human resources in a positive way. Then, when there is some kind of return to normality, we will have some solid ideas and plans as to the future of cruise in Jamaica.”
One area of focus is to re-examine how the port authority processes passengers.
“Traditionally everyone comes off the ship and you sort them into groups depending on their chosen tours and activities,” Tatham explains. “That is going to have to be done differently because we need to minimise these mass gatherings. Some of the ways this could happen is by working closely with ships and having them pre-sort these passengers, or even have the ships spend longer in the port to enable staggered disembarkation.”
These new measures to avoid dense crowds in the port could create new, more exclusive experiences for visitors.
“Instead of this ‘herding’ process, I think it could result in wider tourism offerings,” says Tatham. “Many of Jamaica’s major attractions may need to reduce the number of visitors they allow, which could encourage more frequent tours and excursions with fewer people, as well as new attractions popping up. And for our visitors, it could offer a much richer experience and open their eyes to some of the less famous – but equally wonderful – offerings we have. This will also create other job opportunities, which can only be a good thing for the economy.”
The Port Authority of Jamaica manages the operations of five ports: Port Antonio, Falmouth, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Port Royal, which opened at the start of 2020. The ports of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios can accommodate a maximum of three ships at one time and Falmouth can accommodate two, while Port Antonio and Port Royal only offer a single berth each. These single ship berths could give Jamaica the edge when it comes to providing those more exclusive, boutique experiences once cruising resumes.
“There are some ports that can accommodate six ships and around 12,000 people, but you have to wonder how they will manage to separate all of them and ensure there will be no cross-contamination,” says Tatham.
The new reality that is being driven by the hygiene protocols highlighted by Covid-19 and cruise lines’ interest in offering more boutique experiences could also further improve the industry’s sustainability efforts.
“With the heightened sanitisation regulations in place around the world, and increased usage of single-use plastics, there could be a potential short-term step back in the industry’s work in this area,” he explains. “However, there is a generation here that is determined to be more environmentally conscious and do the right thing. The size of our ports will help us to deliver this by reducing congestion and dense crowds, and ensure we do not overwhelm – from an environmental, socially sustainable, and safe perspective.
“At the end of the day, when we are past this crisis, we will hopefully be able to look back and see that lessons were learned and changes were made.”
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