Cruise ships seemed to be the canary in the coalmine for COVID with many Australians first hearing about the virus thanks to highly publicised outbreaks on huge vessels.
But perhaps because they were the first tourism operators affected by the disease that stopped the world, the cruise industry has also been among the most proactive and forward-thinking in developing a set of strict protocols to ensure the safe return of this much-loved holiday option.
The Australian cruise industry used the lockdown period to do a complete bow-to-stern review of their operations and to consult with medical and science experts on how to most safely resume operations, according to Cruise Lines International Association Australasian managing director Joel Katz.
“From the outset, cruise lines knew the only possible response to the pandemic was to get the best medical advice from the experts and ensure that health and safety remained the top priority,” he said.
“To win the confidence of travellers, we had to show we had measures in place that would not only mitigate against the risks of COVID-19, but also provide detailed response plans to deal with any cases that might emerge.”
That means measures that outstrip many current protocols on land.
Australian cruise operators have testing and vaccination requirements for both crew and passengers, plus measures in place to ensure social distancing, ventilation and sanitation.
Many local cruise operators have enhanced their on-board medical facilities and all have isolation arrangements ready to be activated in the case of an infection in a passenger or crew member.
Coral Expeditions operations director Marcus Dudley said the company developed its industry-leading Sailsafe program in response to Covid. It includes mandatory vaccination of staff and passengers, pre-cruise testing and social distancing.
“Our ships are designed for small guest numbers and with plenty of space. The small community onboard ensures we can monitor changes to health and make quick response steps should cases arise. Our clientele is very responsible and the remote nature-based areas we visit ensure we have little exposure to Covid from shore excursions and communities,” Mr Dudley said.
Small ship expedition cruising was in particular demand, he said.
“Our style of small ship expedition to remote natural areas is more relevant than ever and is most definitely in hot demand. We have just completed a completely sold-out Kimberley season hosting over 4000 passengers onboard and the guests are thrilled to be back on board,” he added.
Passengers’ concerns these days are less about the health risks of Covid, and more about the prospect of having to cancel a trip due to a Covid infection.
Coral Expeditions offers a 100 per cent credit for a future cruise (subject to availability) to allay this concern.
The Cruise Lines International Association estimated the industry was worth $5 billion to the Australian economy pre-covid, and said the recovery was well and truly on, with 46 ships operating in local waters this coming summer.