After being stuck in dry dock as a result of the pandemic, cruising is finally back on the itinerary, and charting a course for a future that includes a less-is-more approach to travel and a healthy focus on the wellbeing of its passengers and the planet.
The last few years haven’t been kind to tourism, and cruising has fared worse than most in the industry. Up until the pandemic hit, the cruise industry was riding a wave of success, having experienced a boom in popularity during the naughts and teens of the 21st century which resulted in more ships, more inclusions, more port visits, more passengers, more everything.
There had been rumblings of discontent, though. Residents and government officials in historic European cities such as Barcelona and Venice bemoaned the overcrowding, the pollution and the loss of authentic aspects of the local lifestyle that they experienced courtesy of the ships manoeuvring their way in and out of their city-adjacent ports. The decision to ban large cruise ships weighing more than 1000 tonnes from entering Venice’s fabled Grand Canal was announced in August 2019. But for the most part, cruising remained a popular go-to option for convenient ‘unpack once, let someone else do the navigating’ exploration of everywhere from Europe to Asia to the frozen wilds of Antarctica.
And then came COVID-19. The industry spent the first few weeks of the developing worldwide crisis racking up headlines about sick passengers and crew being trapped on ships or, in the case of the Ruby Princess, disembarking at Sydney’s Circular Quay without proper health department screening or quarantine measures in place. Government-ordered travel bans and international border closures followed, and the lights went out on the global cruise industry.
So, now that Australia’s stringent international travel ban has been lifted and double-vaccinated-fuelled journeys beyond our own backyard (quite literally in some cases) have finally been given the green light, what does the future of cruising in Australia actually look like in 2022 and beyond?
‘Healthy’ is the word that seems to encapsulate cruising moving forward. From the measures that are being implemented to keep passengers disease-free to the renewed focus on safeguarding the wellbeing of the planet through more sustainable and conscious practices to the forward bookings stretching into the 2023–24 season and beyond (the most celebrated forward bookings in the industry since things started returning to some semblance of normality were for Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ mammoth 132-night World Cruise – departing from Miami in January 2024 and stopping in Australia during its 34,500 nautical mile journey – which sold out in less than three hours).
How cruise lines plan to keep passengers safe
Not surprisingly, given all that we have been through in the last two years, health and safety will be at the forefront of any cruising experience from now on. Most cruise lines will, of course, require passengers to be fully vaccinated with a recognised COVID-19 vaccine, and to provide proof of this before embarking. Some have also indicated they will need guests to return a negative COVID test or rapid antigen test before boarding. And masks, the accessory of necessity, will continue to be worn when, and if, required.
While the appeal of cruising to many is the ready-made social scene it provides, keeping your distance will be the new reality for the foreseeable future. Measures being initiated to minimise unnecessary face-to-face contact include everything from e-musters in place of the traditional mass safety gatherings that take place prior to departure, to reduced onboard capacity to ensure social distancing rules can be adhered to. And the buffet, a much-loved element of cruising for decades, will be less of a free-for-all, with strict ‘look-but-don’t-touch’ protocols, with staff serving up a guest’s selection.
In the case of Royal Caribbean, the company is utilising radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices in the form of its fetching wrist-worn Tracelet to help with contact tracing while passengers and crew move about their ships, and most companies are now offering contactless check-in and check-out, either online or via an app, to ensure social distancing is maintained.
Cruise lines are changing their approach to sustainability
The cruising industry has been wrestling with the issue of sustainability for quite some time, attempting to chart a way forward that is conscious, responsible and achievable. Travellers are becoming increasingly aware of the toll that modes of transport like flying and cruising are taking on the environment, and they want more than platitudes and plastic straw bans in answer to the problem.
As a result, cruise companies are looking to take bold steps in the future. There has been much talk about the development of hydrogen-powered ships, with the ultra-luxe Silversea Cruises recently confirming that it will launch the industry’s first hybrid ship, powered in part by hydrogen fuel cells, in 2023. It will, of course, take some time for this to become the industry norm so, in the meantime, operators such as MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean are committing to a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Beyond these grand plans, cruise companies are also implementing grassroots programs to ensure everything from the complete removal of single-use plastics to improved energy efficiency. Celebrity Cruises, whose game-changing Celebrity Edge is set to arrive in Australia in 2023, has installed solar panels to harness the clean energy of the sun on its Solstice series ships and introduced new silicone paints on the hull, which are environmentally safe and increase the smoothness of the main body of the ship, thereby reducing the amount of energy needed to travel through water.
Expect cruise itineraries to change – for the better
Prior to the pandemic, many operators had recognised that their guests were looking for more meaningful experiences while travelling. With the increase in the number of people choosing to cruise came an increase in demand for sophisticated itineraries that offered up authenticity and a less-is-more approach. Of course, smaller luxury brands had been providing guests with bespoke excursions and exclusive access for some time. Here in Australia, True North’s itineraries through the singular landscape of Western Australia’s Kimberley region truly are a once-in-a-lifetime proposition. Larger operators are now also offering more tailored excursions that tap into the genuine local identity of a destination rather than box-ticking speed tours of iconic sights. For Celebrity Edge, this means adding destinations such as South Australia’s Kangaroo Island to its itineraries and, on Holland America Line (HAL) journeys, it plays out in specialised food and wine experiences; its Melbourne tour takes in seriously good coffee, food trucks and cult doughnut shops.
Partnerships that protect our oceans
Given cruising is all about the experience of being on or near the water, it makes sense for the industry to want to safeguard and protect the medium that sustains it. A number of cruise operators have formed meaningful partnerships with the likes of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to protect marine species and their habitats. For Royal Caribbean, that means working together with WWF-Australia to safeguard the hawksbill turtle from the illegal turtle trade by ending demand for tortoiseshell products, breaking the supply chain and protecting them into the future. It is also assisting with the development of a ShellBank that collects DNA from tortoiseshell products and uses the information gathered to launch targeted conservation initiatives.