By Orville Williams
While no firm date has been set for the return of cruise tourism across popular destinations, including the Caribbean, local health officials are working to improve existing health and safety protocols and putting new measures in place – moves that will be consequential to the arrival of cruise vessels and visitors in St John’s ports.
In mid-March last year, global cruise operations were brought to a screeching halt due to the spread of the coronavirus, with a ‘no sail’ order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That order has been extended on several occasions and was only replaced last November, with a conditional sailing order that would guide the gradual resumption of cruise tourism.
However, included in the first phase of the conditional sailing order is the requirement for Covid-19 testing and “additional safeguards” for crew members. Subsequent phases are expected to include simulated voyages to test the ability of cruise ship operators to mitigate Covid-19 risk, certification for ships that meet specific requirements and a structured return to ‘regular’ cruise ship passenger voyages, with adequate considerations for mitigating Covid-19 risk.
It appears local health officials are working under the same or similar guidelines in preparation for the return of cruise ships, based on this week’s post-Cabinet report.
According to the report, examinations were done and approaches proposed for the training and vaccination of taxi drivers, tour operators, store owners and sales staff, and restaurants operators who are likely to interact with the disembarking cruise passengers.
Additionally, the report noted that cruise operators are interested to keep passengers of different ships separated when more than one is docked at any time. To achieve this, the likely solution will be to incorporate approved “safe” transportation, along with having the passengers occupying separate parts of the public beach and ensuring that beach vendors – including sea sports operators and lounge chair renters – do not “act as vectors.” The report added that these vendors “may have to be vaccinated” toward this end.
Despite the need for such stringent measures though, officials do not appear to be worried of any implications on the actual cruise arrivals. In fact, General Manager of Antigua Cruise Port Dona Regis-Prosper, told Observer that interest remains high.
“There is huge, pent-up demand. Every single cruise line has said there is, especially for the Caribbean – the Caribbean is the number one cruise destination and has been for years, so that has not changed.
“The demand is there, but persons also want to be safe as well. So, once persons have that confidence that the protocols are working onboard the vessel, [on] embarkation and in the destination, during the course of this year we will definitely be able to see – as a first initial restart to the industry – cruise ships coming back to Antigua.
“Our main focus now is to ensure that we get the protocols right and we’re able to first and foremost, protect residents in Antigua, especially those frontline persons. So, we’re taking guidance from the Ministry [of Health].”
The Mount St John’s Medical Center also came under discussion in Cabinet, regarding a potential fixed contractual agreement with cruise operators, “in the event a passenger falls ill and requires hospitalization that is beyond the capacity of the ship’s sick bay.”
Similar agreements were discussed for the operators and a receiving hotel, also in the event the partner of a sick passenger wishes to remain in Antigua for the duration of their partner’s hospital stay.
The post-Cabinet report said further, a proposal was made to implement a voluntary insurance programme that passengers may access when purchasing their travel packages.
Amid the ever-changing situation, Regis-Prosper assured that discussions continue on a regular basis with the cruise operators, who she says are also seeking to ensure that their passengers will be safe when they visit their destinations.
“We’re constantly talking with [the cruise operators], in terms of what their expectations are of the destinations, what are some of the things that we are doing in the destination to keep passengers safe. Also, in terms of that initial return, providing any marketing support and any public relations support as it relates to the confidence in the destination – to ensure that persons understand and appreciate that the destination is safe.
“One of the requirements of the CDC is to ensure that there are protocols in place to deal with a potential case or a confirmed case, so these are the things that the cruise lines want to be assured are in place.”
Meanwhile, passengers looking to board cruise vessels from the US will be required to have a negative Covid-19 PCR test for arrival into Antigua as a destination stop. This, in addition to the requirement in their home country for passengers to be vaccinated as a condition of boarding.
Regis-Prosper also spoke on the issue of vaccinations within the cruise tourism industry, expressing delight with the move from the cruise operators themselves to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations for travelers.
“Several of the cruise lines have said that they are requiring passengers to be vaccinated…[and] from a lay perspective like myself, a vaccinated passenger is better than a non-vaccinated passenger, so we’re very pleased that the cruise lines are stepping forward and saying that [their] passengers need to be vaccinated, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
Though the majority of international cruise lines still remain anchored due to the restrictions in the US, some are still operating in Europe and Asia, albeit at a limited number of ports and with strict regulations.
AIDA Cruises is operating in the Canary Islands and requires Covid-19 testing prior to departure, Royal Caribbean is offering ‘cruises to nowhere’ for Singaporeans who are Covid-19-free for 180 days and MSC Cruises offers week-long cruises around Italy for Italians, with a Covid-19 testing requirement.
While the passenger load and opportunity for public interaction is significantly reduced for these and other similar cruises, there have been some reports of Covid-19 outbreaks among passengers, particularly on ships that have been travelling to the Canary Islands.