Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the implementation of lockdowns earlier this year, we’ve been tracing the cruise industry as it seeks to stay afloat and chart a course through its biggest crisis in decades.
In April, the world’s largest cruise liners had hoped to set sail in a more regular fashion by August, that then moved to September – and now we are looking at December, or even Spring 2021 for the start of the new cruising normal.
There has been some progress made in recent months however with the likes of Costa Cruises providing cruises in Italy albeit with Italian passengers only. Thailand, Germany and France have followed suit with similar restrictions and staying local. While there have been few reports of outbreaks to date, in October, French cruise operator, Ponant, reported 17 positive COVID cases, including 14 crew members. This is despite Ponant’s robust COVID-19 protocols, including health checks and screening of passengers by the ship’s own medical team.
It is a troubling setback and what it means for the long-term future of cruising under COVID-19 is hard to define. But any next steps could rely heavily on how the industry itself tackles testing as they scale-up the number of passengers and duration of cruises. That begs the question, what is the right way to test? Well, there is a lot to consider in tackling that question and, as has been the theme during this pandemic, there are no easy answers.
The picture as it stands
The situation currently, in terms of testing, requires all passengers to be tested two or three days before they are due to sail. The £69 – £145 cost of the test often includes certification confirming the passenger is COVID-free and fit to sail, fly. In addition to presenting the certification, on arrival at the terminal, passengers are subjected to an addition temperature check on the day of boarding.
While this somewhat protracted boarding process has enabled smaller cruises, like Ponant, to restart services, it has also seen the larger, 5,000 capacity ships setting sail with a fraction of these passenger numbers. But even taking into account the possibility this opens up, it is unclear how this will play out as cruise companies look to expand their services in terms of passenger numbers, cruise duration, distance and daycalls made.
When thousands more passengers are involved, the management and administration of the cruises becomes a significant undertaking and one that becomes all the more difficult to stay on top of when you consider that COVID tests are only accurate at the point of testing. What occurs in the two to three days post-test and pre-boarding is an entirely different matter. As cruise companies seek to return to normal operations, it is logical to question whether passengers are willing to cover the cost of their test personally and then self-isolate at home for in the period before sailing. And if they are, how long are they willing to do that for and how can cruise operators verify passengers have followed the appropriate quarantine guidelines?
Such considerations and challenges paint a difficult picture for the industry in the months to come. But perhaps there is another way of doing things that could in parallel mitigate some of these concerns.
On-the-day testing – the other way…
As time has passed and the cruise industry has been forced to delay or suspend operations, it is also fair to say that our understanding of COVID-19 has improved along with the ability and speed of testing. This leads us to consider the potential for the use of on-the-day testing – an option which would remove the near-impossible task of monitoring passenger movement and location in the days prior to sailing.
In this scenario, passengers would be tested on arrival – ideally in their cars. If travelling by public transport (e.g., a bus) passengers could be tested and then return to the bus or socially distance from others pending the results. Confirmation of the results by SMS would provide confirmation to travel… or not.
In-terminal or remote testing?
Under this scenario, the decision will need to be made around where to conduct testing – within or outside the terminal.
To date, cruise liners have pursued a strategy of in-terminal testing; a strategy driven by the lack of money and limitations of terminal space. The potential cost of acquiring space at remote locations to set up temporary testing and processing facilities is not attractive to an industry already under financial strain.
But there is merit in the remote set-up route since it offers safety and more security to test and process passengers. Remote testing also brings with it the advantage of maintaining a “clean”, COVID-free hub that significantly reduces the risk of contracting then spreading the virus onboard.
While money will inevitably remain a key factor, terminals will in the mid-term save costs by not having to invest in making structural alterations to their terminals to accommodate testing and processing. More importantly, such an approach is likely to provide greater reassurance to passengers; after all, only COVID-free passengers will be sailing. This might well be a price worth paying if the return is a net gain in passenger trust and confidence.
A question of trust and reliability
Irrespective of the scenario deployed, cruise operators, like their cousins in the aviation sector, still need to tackle the issue of trust.
With some COVID-19 tests exhibiting variance in accuracy, it is frighteningly easy to calculate the consequence of mass testing 3,000 passengers with 80% accuracy rate test kits. There is undoubtedly an element of risk here for cruise companies, and one of reliability for passengers. Observations across the cruise and aviation industries would suggest a degree of passenger willingness to accept the risks and/or take various measures in order to travel, but how long this will last is yet to be seen.
Where to from here...?
If there is a way to get the cruise industry going, it seems that remote, on-the-day testing could be the breakthrough that is needed. If successful, there could be scope to expand the concept to day calls – allowing passengers to disembark and then be tested prior to re-joining the ship. Indeed, this process is already employed on yachts and smaller vessels, so there is hope that it could work at scale.
Ultimately, the industry must now reflect on its position and ask itself what it is prepared to do to meet shifting deadlines and the inevitable passenger demands for safe sailing.
To find out more about the possibilities of remote, or on-the-day testing, contact our team today.