Cruising and COVID-19: First cruise ships set sail for first time since coronavirus outbreak

Competition may not be fierce, but the race to start cruising again has begun.

Explorer Dream, part of the Malaysian-owned Dream Cruises fleet owned by the giant Genting Group, is set to depart on Sunday on a "Taiwan Island-Hopping" itinerary. But any start of the cruise season in Australia in September is still awash with uncertainty.

These early days of cruising's comeback will hardly be smooth sailing for passengers with somewhat draconian, if understandable, safety measures to confront.

Genting claims to be the first international cruise company to restart operations and it certainly led the way in being the first to release extensive health and hygiene protocols earlier this year, designed to address safety concerns in wake of the pandemic that has grievously undermined confidence in cruising.

These include stringent health screening procedures and guidelines during embarkation and disembarkation, social distancing measures on board, enhanced sanitisation, disinfection and hygiene practices for guest cabins and crew member quarters, public areas and recreational facilities, and safe food and beverage handling procedures.

"We appreciate the support and trust from our guests and industry partners in Taiwan, where our island-hopping itineraries have been met with an overwhelming market response, with sold-out sailings in July and August," said Mr Kent Zhu, president of Genting Cruise Lines.

"We look forward to welcoming our guests on board our inaugural sailing on July 26, where they will be able to enjoy a safe and inspirational journey at sea with total peace of mind."

But the Norway-based Hurtigruten, albeit a small ships-based cruise line, may well have beaten Genting to the start line. In June, it became the first of the ocean-going cruise lines to resume cruises with four of its ships operating Norwegian coastal voyages between Bergen and Kirkene. It plans to have more than a dozen of its vessels sailing by September.

Norway, like Australia before its recent Victorian setback, is considered one of the "first mover" nations to contain COVID-19.

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Cruising in Germany, another relatively successful COVID-19 country, is also set to tentatively resume. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises plans to restart ocean cruising this month from the German port of Hamburg but only citizens of Austria, Switzerland and Germany itself will be allowed to join voyages under strict guidelines.

The German-based Nicko Cruises was also poised to resume river cruises on the Danube earlier this week with six to eight-day trips between Passau, Germany and Budapest, Hungary.

Before embarking on a Nicko ship, passengers must complete a strict questionnaire on their "behaviour during the pandemic". They will be asked if they have taken a COVID-19 test in the past 14 days and if they've been in contact with an infected person. Guests will have their temperatures checked with and special safety rules applying for shore excursions.

At Dream Cruises, Kent Zhu, president of the parent Genting Cruise Lines, said it had implemented a new role of "infection control officer" in the wake of the pandemic.

Earlier this week, P&O Cruises announced it would not resume operations across Australia and New Zealand until at least October 29 in response to the "impact of the global pandemic on the way we travel and holiday".

Sture Myrmell, president of P&O Cruises in Australia, said while everyone hoped sailings would resume soon, it had "become increasingly clear that more time was needed for society to reinstate many modes of travel and community gatherings".

The Australian cruise season usually runs been September and April, when lines traditionally relocate passenger ships from the northern hemisphere to take advantage of a cruise market which enjoyed the highest market penetration in the world before the pandemic.

Mr Myrmell said: "We will continue to use this time to liaise with authorities, public health experts and others in the industry to develop enhanced public health measures for when the time is right to resume sailing."

The cruise industry in Australia will be nervously awaiting the findings of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess, which saw the deaths of 22 passengers. The Special Commission of Inquiry is due to deliver its findings on August 14.

Those overseas cruise lines that are resuming operations on a limited basis provide insights into just how challenging and complex it will be for cruising to resume in Australia where the industry is still mired in controversy and litigation.

Upon completion of quarantine on land, the crew of Explorer Dream were required to test negative for COVID-19 before being returned on board where they underwent an additional seven-day "self-health monitoring period" to complete a "comprehensive preventive 21 days of isolation in total", prior to the sailing this weekend.

See also: Sold for $870k: The saga of a cursed $35 million, five-star cruise ship

See also: Cruising returns to Australia, but not on the ocean

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