It was always around this time of the year, as summer breezes start to stir and the sun caresses our shoulders, that many thousands of Australians traditionally directed their travel dreams to the idea of a cruise.
By now, we'd be off by the shipload to Pacific islands, Queensland reefs or the fiords of New Zealand (and then there's the northern hemisphere ocean and river seasons). Not this year. Or probably most of next.
As the annual Australian winter ski season was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, so too has the summer cruise season been virtually abandoned, with the federal government ordering a ban on foreign-owned passenger ships in Australian waters until at least before Christmas (currently December 17).
Little or no life on an ocean wave therefore beckons, with no sign of a full, let alone a limited, resumption.
But don't bet on this being the end of cruising. The enforced pause has provided time for an embattled cruise industry to rethink and regroup. Some ships abroad have actually been cautiously, and, arguably at times not as cautiously, sailing for months, signalling a mostly unheralded but hopeful international cruise revival.
While Australian waters are bereft of cruise passenger ships, it's not entirely the case elsewhere. i Dream Cruises, owned by the giant Malaysian Genting group, have been running cruises from Taiwan - admittedly one of the most successful nations in dealing with the pandemic - on its Explorer Dream since the end of July, devoid of COVID-19 incidents.
Earlier this month, it became the first cruise line to resume in Singapore, another country with a relatively low incidence of COVID-19 cases and deaths, with World Dream offering two- and three-night "Super SeaCation" cruises.
Dream Cruises had sought to employ Singaporeans as crew to avoid the vexed issue for cruise lines of having to quarantine staff from traditional labour markets such as the Philippines where the pandemic has hit hard.
Over the past few months, several other cruise lines have operated in destinations including Italy, France, Greece, Iceland and French Polynesia. Coral Expeditions relaunched Australian cruising in mid-October when Coral Discoverer began seven-night itineraries on the Great Barrier Reef.
These are small steps for cruising and its devotees, who, difficult as it is for critics of the cruise industry to countenance, remain committed to the form of travel and confident of the ability of operators to address its deficiencies.
Despite its detractors, both booking and anecdotal evidence indicates the appeal of cruising endures, particularly in the luxury and small-ship segment.
Indeed, Michelle Black, the managing director for Viking Cruises in Australia and New Zealand, says there has been strong interest in 2022 and 2023 sailings. She predicts that once international travel is open again there will be huge demand for cruises and in the meantime there is a "definite push to secure date and itinerary preferences" from prospective passengers.
"This year seems to have made people reassess their future plans, and decide not to put off their dream travel list any longer," she says. "We're definitely seeing a positive attitude towards the future of cruising."
There was another milestone at the end of October when, in an apparent pre-election move, the US Trump administration lifted its no-sail order. The decision, which may or may not be rescinded by the new Biden administration, opened the way for the conditional return of cruises in US waters, although the full return of cruising will be a slow, phased process.
That future depends particularly on when (or whether) a COVID vaccine is produced. In the meantime, however, the cruise industry is already taking steps to restore public confidence and keep ships safe.
"Cruise lines have committed to a response that extends far beyond measures being adopted by other industries," says Joel Katz, managing director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia.
"The approach has been wide-ranging and holistic, involving a door-to-door concept that begins at the time of a passenger's booking, continues throughout their entire journey, and concludes only after their return home."
One significant initiative has been the establishment of a Healthy Sail Panel of medical and public-health experts by two dominant players, Royal Caribbean Group (which includes Azamara, Celebrity and Silversea) and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (which includes Oceania and Regent Seven Seas).
So far, the panel has detailed 74 recommendations, and will continue to make more for at least the next two years. Every other cruise line has now developed its own protocols as well. Here's what to expect.
STEP ONE: SWABBING THE DECKS
The frontline has to be stringently-guarded, since the best scenario is to prevent viruses getting onto ships in the first place. Though that can never be guaranteed, cruise lines have become strict about reducing the likelihood.
Future passengers should expect specific time slots for embarkation and longer processing times as temperature checks and swabs are conducted. Most cruise companies guarantee a refund to passengers refused embarkation on health grounds.
The more than 60 cruise lines that are CLIA members are testing all passengers and crew before boarding. Among the mandatory protocols are health declarations, temperature checks and, if necessary, further medical reviews.
The Healthy Sail Panel has similar guidelines, as well as detailed recommendations on how crew should be assessed and quarantined prior to starting work, and how their ongoing health is assessed thereafter.
Some companies, such as Hapag-Lloyd, require passengers to produce a health certificate, while others such as Dream Cruises require them for passengers over 70. However, these are unlikely to become widespread, since health certificates aren't a guarantee of passenger health at the moment of embarkation.
STEP TWO: KEEP IT CLEAN
Regent Seven Seas Cruises will use hospital-grade disinfectants and fogging. Photo: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Temperature checks throughout a cruise, especially as passengers return to the vessel, will be routine, and there will be much more handwashing.
Hand sanitiser has always been widely available on cruise ships, but its use will be more forcefully requested by crew in places such as restaurant entrances. Deeper and more regular sanitisation will become the norm.
Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for example, will use hospital-grade disinfectants and fogging, and frequent touchpoints on ships will be sterilised every hour, and more frequently during high-traffic times.
The Australian-operated Coral Expeditions, which recently resumed cruising in Queensland waters with Australian crews, has removed all frequently handled items such as brochures and menus.
The key to safety is detection, which requires fast, accurate testing even on board. In an industry first, Viking has just announced it has installed a laboratory on Viking Star with the capacity to saliva-test all passengers and crew daily if necessary. If trials go well, such laboratories will certainly appear on other ships.
Some cruise lines have learned to respond quickly, openly and efficiently to outbreaks. Although SeaDream and Paul Gauguin Cruises had single passengers testing COVID-19 positive on cruises in July and August, swiftly enacted protocols prevented the virus's spread.
Ponant had a more serious outbreak two weeks ago that saw 17 cases aboard the ship Jacques Cartier but passengers were speedily disembarked in Marseille. Ponant has run over 60 other cruises since July without incident.
STEP THREE: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
Bionic Bar on Royal Caribbean ships. Photo: Dan Welldon Photography
Social distancing remains the best way to combat coronavirus so cruise ships will likely sail with fewer passengers until a vaccine emerges. MSC Grandiosa, which in August became the first megaship to sail in the COVID-19 era, carried 70 per cent of regular passenger numbers.
Hapag-Lloyd is operating on a 60 per cent occupancy basis while Ponant is at around 50 per cent. The Healthy Sail Panel has recommended passenger numbers be adjusted but is yet to define a percentage.
Cruise lines currently operating have also reduced the number of passengers allowed at any one time in ship-board venues such as restaurants, theatres, spas and pool decks, and restricted social gatherings.
CLIA members have mandated the wearing of masks where social distancing can't be maintained, and crew will wear masks whenever working in food-service areas.
We may well see a drift back to old-fashioned cruise dining, with set dining times and assigned tables to prevent overcrowding. The buffet, if it survives, will no longer be self-service.
Will there be virus-resistant robots serving drinks at ship bars? Perhaps – the robotic bartenders in the Bionic Bar on Royal Caribbean ships, introduced some years ago, are looking prophetic.
Touchless technology that avoids fingers on buttons and face-to-face contact with staff has also been anticipated by wristband or medallion devices already seen on big ships.
This September, Royal Caribbean Group made further upgrades to its app, allowing for electronic check-in and mustering, and automatic control of cabin blinds, switches and televisions. We'll see much more of this soon, and on smaller ships.
STEP FOUR: BEING SURE OF THE SHORE THING
In some ways, managing itineraries will be the cruise industry's biggest challenge. Logistics, paperwork and excursions aren't easily managed at short notice, which makes nimble responses to rapidly changing border restrictions, port demands and local COVID-19 outbreaks difficult.
The solution for the moment is for cruise ships to confine themselves to single countries or particular regions, perhaps extending their range to various bubbles such as a potential Australia, New Zealand and Singapore bubble. Australia is in a good position to satisfy domestic cruise enthusiasts, as Coral Expeditions has shown.
"The success in stemming community transmission here provides an opportunity for a carefully staged and safe re-entry of cruise ships to offer local cruising within Australia, carrying Australian residents only," says CLIA's Joel Katz.
Don't expect long, complicated international cruises any time soon, nor cruise ships returning to ports in places such as South America - a gateway to Antarctica - that proved unhelpful or hostile during the COVID crisis.
On the other hand, cruise lines may start offering more staycation-style "cruises to nowhere". German cruise companies TUI and Hapag-Lloyd trialled voyages with no port calls from Hamburg earlier this year with some success, and no-port Royal Caribbean cruises out of Singapore are seeing heavy demand.
STEP FIVE: PLAYING IT BY THE BOOK
Ponant is offering future one-to-one cruise credits to anyone who cancels Photo: Christophe Dugied
It would be far easier for customers if an industry-wide code was introduced, but that, due to the nature of the industry, is unlikely to happen. Instead, potential passengers are left with a confusing range of proposals and conditions.
Companies such as Seabourn and Ponant are offering future one-to-one cruise credits to anyone who cancels. Others such as Celebrity Cruises allow passengers to postpone their cruise to the same itinerary at a later date.
Yet others such as Crystal Cruises are taking bookings on a no-money-down basis, though deposits will still be required long before the cruise departs.
What's more, these policies and their booking dates are constantly changing as cruise lines try to anticipate future demand and sailing conditions. Too many are cluttered with small print, and few offer a return of actual money in the event of unforeseen COVID-19 conditions, with Aurora Expeditions a notable exception.
Still, the future cruise credits on offer have become more generous, and cancellation windows are now as close to departure as 48 hours on lines such as Azamara, Celebrity, Silversea and Oceania.
SEA FOR YOURSELF: HOW TO BAG A FUTURE CRUISE BARGAIN
OCEANIA'S COPENHAGEN TO OSLO
Book before December 31, 2020 for 50 per cent off deposits on this Baltic cruise that includes two nights in St Petersburg, departing June 17, 2022. The package offers pre-paid gratuities, complimentary shore excursions and complimentary beverage package or shipboard credit. See oceaniacruises.com
REGENT'S HOLIDAY DOWN UNDER
Book before November 30, 2020 on this 16-night Explorer cruise departing Sydney on December 20, 2021 and save up to 25 per cent. The excursion-inclusive cruise visits three Tasmanian and several classic New Zealand ports before finishing in Auckland. See rssc.com
VIKING'S ARCTIC ADVENTURE
Viking is set to launch two new expedition ships in 2022, Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris. Photo: Supplied
Book on a 13-day, mid-2022 journey return from Tromsø in Norway before November 30, 2020 and save up to $2000 a couple. The cruise on new expedition ship Viking Polaris visits the polar-bear-rich Svalbard Islands. See vikingcruises.com.au
CELEBRITY'S SOUTH PACIFIC CRUISE
Fares are currently reduced from $2504 a person to $1807 a person on this nine-night return cruise from Sydney, which departs on April 6, 2022 and visits Isle of Pines, Noumea and Lifou in New Caledonia, and Vanuatu's Mystery Island. See celebritycruises.com
SILVERSEA'S SINGAPORE TO HONG KONG
Reserve this 11-day Vietnam-focused itinerary (or any other voyage) before 14 December 2020 for $1500 reduced deposit and $1000 in shipboard credit, plus a further 10 per cent discount if you pay in full. See silversea.com
ROUGH SEAS: FIVE MORE CHALLENGES TO NAVIGATE
After a disastrous year, the cruise industry in Australia will still need to win back the full confidence of governments and the public and better emphasise cruise tourism's $5 billion contribution to the national economy including in regional areas.
The stark difference in treatment between crew and passengers during COVID-19 outbreaks highlighted the at-times poor consideration for cruise-ship workers by some lines.
One section of the cruise business has been so focused on upsizing that some ships now carry nearly 9000 passengers and crew. It's unlikely that the cruise public, and for that matter, governments will remain quite so enamoured of megaships.
This isn't just a case of ship size but of shore-excursion organisation and port scheduling – plus poor tourism management by certain port towns. It has to improve, especially in precious and fragile places like Venice.
FLAGS OF CONVENIENCE
COVID-19 has exposed the cruise industry registration of ships in often obscure tax-haven nations. These "flags of convenience" as they're known, are designed to circumvent taxes and labour laws.