One of the earliest stark and unforgettable images of Covid-19 came last February off the coast of Yokohama in Japan where Diamond Princess, a luxury cruise ship operated by California-based Princess Cruises, was anchored amidst an outbreak of coronavirus on board. On February 4, 2020, in the early days of the pandemic outbreak across the world, the ship with over 2600 passengers and more than 1000 crew had entered the Japanese waters off Yokohama to dock and for passengers to disembark. However, when the passengers were tested, 10 passengers tested positive. Yokohama port officials barred the ship from docking or any passengers disembarking and it was kept anchored away from the port.
For nearly four weeks, even as the outbreak spread and some of the infected passengers died, the port authorities did not allow anyone to disembark, leading to widespread infections on board. After about a month, a total of 14 persons had died and over 700 persons infected as the Japanese authorities did not allow anyone to leave the ship.
Almost simultaneously, a similar drama on another ship owned by the same company played out on the other end of the Pacific Ocean, near California. On February 21, 2020, Grand Princess with over 2400 passengers and 1100 crew left San Francisco for a round trip to Hawaii, via Mexican Riviera. However, within days due to death of a passenger who had disembarked from previous voyage, the ship was recalled to California where the then President Donald Trump did not allow it to anchor so that the passengers could disembark. The passengers spent nearly a week, confined to their small cabins. Eventually, eight persons died and over 100 tested positive from the group blocked on the boat.
Two separate incidents of thousands of persons quarantined on board a ship with a mortal infection spreading sounded the death knell of all other cruise voyages lined up for the year, all across the world. Seeing the unrelated cases from Japan and United States, governments took little time in banning all cruise trips until the pandemic was beaten back.
So badly was the industry hurt by the twin tragedies that they took well over a year to recover in any meaningful manner in any part of the world, let alone the traditionally large markets of Europe, United States and East Asia.
Revival on the cards?
Closer home, Singapore – traditionally one of the favourites of Indian travellers for cruises – began piloting a revival of cruise tourism, domestically, as early as November 2020. This was in very large part due to the swift management of the pandemic as the country was able to keep the number of infections and deaths very low. It registered just over 60,000 cases and 30 deaths. By August, the daily infections had fallen to under 50 and have stayed there since, while after July 2020, the country has reported only three deaths.
With the pandemic under control, if not beaten back entirely, the Singapore government allowed cruises to resume in November 2020. However, the permission came with strict conditions attached. “Yes. Singapore continues to make steady progress with the safe resumption of cruises since November 2020 for Singapore residents, thanks to the implementation of stringent hygiene and safety measures under STB’s mandatory CruiseSafe certification programme. Singapore commenced safe pilot itineraries with two operators – Genting Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International,” G B Srithar, regional director (India, Middle East and South Asia), Singapore Tourism Board tells India Outbound.
Thus far, Singapore has completed more than 90 sailings with over 120,000 passengers and no reported cases of Covid-19 spreading on board. This makes Singapore the largest cruising country currently, with its cruise sailings accounting for about one third of the global cruise volume.
While Singapore is off the mark already and has adequate number of sailings and passenger volumes to re-inject confidence in the safety of cruises, a few other players are getting ready to start their own cruises from later this year. One such player is Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), part of third largest cruise operator in the world, that says it has spent the past year in enhancing health and safety measures to ensure safe vacations for guests. NCL has recently announced return to cruising starting with voyages in Europe and the Caribbean beginning July 25.
It says that widespread vaccinations will help in resumption of business. “The growing availability of the Covid-19 vaccine has been a game changer. We are convinced that the vaccine, combined with our science-backed health and safety protocols, will help us provide our guests with what we believe will be the healthiest and safest vacation. We are therefore requiring all guests sailing aboard our initial cruises with embarkation dates through October 31, 2021 to be fully vaccinated and tested prior to boarding our ships,” Nicholas Lim, general manager (sales) Asia, Norwegian Cruise Line, tells India Outbound.
Srithar says that for now the voyages are likely to remain only for Singapore residents. “On the topic of recovery, we do not expect a quick rebound in visitor arrivals to Singapore, as it will take a while for positive global travel sentiments to return. Our aim is not just to open safely, but to also ensure a sustainable resumption. The findings derived from the pilots will continue to enable cruise lines to refine safe management measures and best practices for the industry,” he says.
Indeed, safety is a top priority as cruise companies get back into business. Eager to erase the torrid memories of the last year and more crucially to avoid any repeat of similar disasters, the cruise companies say they have been proactive in significantly enhancing the safety, health and hygiene standards during the entire journey. Of course, it helps that various governments have set up their own guidelines as well that the cruise ships need to meet before they can be used again.
NCL says its measures include compulsory vaccinations for all on board, be it passenger or crew members. Also, all on board need to have negative reports for RT-PCR tests done 72 hours before boarding the ship. There would also be enhanced health screening protocols on board to constantly monitor the situation. In addition, NCL ships have been equipped with greater safety features such as medical-grade air filtration, increased sanitation measures and enhanced medical resources. The company says it has also taken steps to ensure safety ashore through the collaboration with land-based tour operator partners to extend health and safety measures to each destination.
Srithar says Singapore is one of the first countries in the world to develop and implement a mandatory audit and certification programme for cruise lines before they can commence sailings. These include infection control measures at every stage of a passenger’s journey, including a mandatory Covid-19 test prior to boarding, as well as frequent cleaning and sanitisation protocols onboard, ensuring 100 pc fresh air throughout the ship. In addition, the government has also mandated a reduction in the capacity of the ship to enable sufficient safe distancing, discouraging close contact and inter-mingling between groups and emergency response plans for incidents relating to Covid-19.
Eyes on India
Though a lot has changed in the tourism industry around the world and many economies have been battered, the cruise operators remain very optimistic about the Indian market and its potential, despite the current situation. “India remains a major source market for Singapore, not just for leisure and MICE travel but also for cruise tourism. In 2018 and 2019, India was the top cruise travel source market for Singapore. Based on feedback from the recently conducted CruiseWorld India 2021 event, we note that Indian travellers are most likely to take up cruising in Singapore once the international borders open. However, they will be concerned with hygiene and safety measures on board the cruise ships. Singapore is well-poised to receive them,” says Srithar.
He adds that for Singapore Indian families with kids is a significant target cruise segment and he expects this trend to continue. “We also foresee the ‘early and established careers’ segment emerging as a key segment from India who is most likely to travel to Singapore and hopefully consider cruising an ideal way to holiday. In a poll at CruiseWorld India, 42 pc of the respondents said the travellers are likely to take a land and cruise holiday for more than a week. This presents STB and our partners an opportunity to drive longer pre/post stays in Singapore,” Srithar adds.
The Norwegian Cruise Lines also is very optimistic about the response from the Indian market. “We are confident that more Indians will take cruises as and when the international borders open up. We are expecting a good volume of Indian cruisers in the last quarter of 2021 and also a gradual increase of passenger volume in 2022 and 2023. The top three products that are booked from India at the moment include- Norwegian Epic – Western Mediterranean itinerary, Norwegian Jade – Greek Isle and Norwegian Bliss – Alaska itinerary,” says Nicholas Lim of NCL.
It says that that the Greek Isles itinerary of Norwegian Jade from Piraeus (Athens) is a new offering for the Indian market and is being received very well. The 7-day roundtrips offer a new destination every day with eight to nine hours of port time to explore island destinations such as Crete, Rhodes, Mykonos, Corfu or Santorini. In addition, NCL is offering attractive packages for Indian travellers to get them to book early. These include a 50 pc discount for a second guest for every cruise fare purchase. “The offer is available for a limited time only and allows travellers to choose from over 250 sailings including journeys visiting a range of stunning destinations across Alaska, Europe and Hawaii,” he says.
STB says it continues to actively engage its Indian travel trade by organising outreach programmes and participating in industry led events. In January, STB India concluded its first virtual travel trade engagement roadshows for 2021, themed “Charting Our Pathways to Tourism Recovery”.
The Indian travel trade believes that over the years the Indian cruise market has grown significantly due to affordability. “Cruise segment is one of the most dynamic and fastest growing components of the leisure industry worldwide and has grown to become an affordable leisure experience for the middle class. India has been one of the largest source markets for various countries. There has been an interest for short haul destinations like Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Besides, travellers can also explore Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey and Alaska,” says Daniel D’souza, president & country head, Leisure, SOTC Travel.
“India’s new age traveller seeks novel cruise experience and they combine cruises with land packages,” he adds. Rajeev Kale, president & country head – Holidays, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India), the largest tour operator in the country agrees that cruises have developed as a popular holiday option over the past few years. “At Thomas Cook India, we have witnessed a significant uptake in demand with a 20–22 pc growth every year. In addition, the introduction of domestic cruise options over the past few years has allowed an increasing number of travellers to look at cruises as an affordable holiday option,” Kale tells India Outbound.
Both SOTC and Thomas Cook say that cruise holidays are no longer restricted to the luxury segment and has become highly aspirational among millennials, young working professionals, ad hoc groups of friends, families, women travellers, Gen Z, and MICE travellers.
The market has broadened from the previously limited sources of the metro or Tier-I cities, the agents say, adding that while cities in the south and east of India have been top source markets for the cruise travel industry, over the last few years, demand has been growing across the country. “What is noteworthy is that demand is no longer limited to India’s metro cities but has also extended to Tier 2 and 3 cities such as Chandigarh, Patna, Vadodara, Kanpur, Madurai and Nashik among others,” says Kale.
Not just the source cities, but the expectations of the travellers have also evolved, says D’souza of SOTC. “Gen Z and Millennials show an interest in expedition cruises and they are keen to explore wellness cruises and food-themed cruises,” he says.