Carry On Cruising: How passengers have been touring the Med all winter

Carry On Cruising: How passengers have been touring the Med all winter on Covid-secure voyages aboard MSC Grandiosa thanks to regular tests, mask mandates and deep cleans

  • Passengers have been able to get away for a seven-day cruise in Italy aboard the MSC Grandiosa all winter
  • The ship has created a ‘health bubble’ on board with strict regulations to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19
  • Grandiosa’s theatre, gym, restaurants, and pool have all remained open creating some sense of normality
  • Other cruise ship companies are hoping to copy the model and re-start holidays in the summer or autumn 

Italy may be in a strict coronavirus lockdown this Easter with travel restricted between regions and new quarantines imposed, but a few miles offshore, guests aboard the MSC Grandiosa cruise ship are shimmying to Latin music on deck and sipping cocktails by the pool.

In one of the anomalies of lockdowns that have shuttered hotels and resorts around the world, the Grandiosa has been plying the Mediterranean Sea this winter with seven-night cruises, a lonely flag-bearer of the global cruise industry.

After cruise ships were early sources of highly publicised coronavirus outbreaks, the Grandiosa has tried to chart a course through the pandemic with strict anti-virus protocols approved by Italian authorities that seek to create a ‘health bubble’ on board.

Italy may be in a strict coronavirus lockdown this Easter with travel restricted between regions and new quarantines imposed, but a few miles offshore guests are enjoying a seven-day cruise aboard the MSC Grandiosa

Smile! In one of the anomalies of the pandemic guests aboard the MSC Grandiosa cruise ship are shimmying to Latin music on deck and sipping cocktails by the pool

The Grandiosa has tried to chart a course through the pandemic with strict anti-virus protocols approved by Italian authorities that seek to create a ‘health bubble’ on board

Passengers and crew are tested before and during cruises. Mask mandates, temperature checks, contact-tracing wristbands and frequent cleaning of the ship are all designed to prevent outbreaks

Passengers and crew are tested before and during cruises. Mask mandates, temperature checks, contact-tracing wristbands and frequent cleaning of the ship are all designed to prevent outbreaks. 

Passengers from outside Italy must arrive with negative COVID-19 tests taken within 48 hours of their departures and only residents of Europe’s Schengen countries plus Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria are permitted to book under COVID-19 insurance policies.

On Wednesday, the Grandiosa left the Italian port of Civitavecchia for its weeklong Easter cruise, with 2,000 of its 6,000-passenger capacity and stops planned in Naples and Valletta, Malta, before returning to its home port in Genoa.

Passengers welcomed the semblance of normalcy brought on by the freedom to eat in a restaurant or sit poolside without a mask, even if the virus is still a present concern.

‘After a year of restrictive measures, we thought we could take a break for a week and relax,’ said Stefania Battistoni, a 39-year-old teacher and single mother who drove all night from Bolzano, in northern Italy, with her two sons and mother to board the cruise.

The pandemic has plunged global cruise ship passenger numbers from a record 30 million in 2019 to over 350,000 since July 2020, according to Cruise Lines International, the world’s largest cruise industry association representing 95 per cent of ocean-going cruise capacity.

Currently, fewer than 20 ships are operating globally, a small fraction of CLIA’s members’ fleets of 270 ships. 

The United States could be among the last cruise ship markets to reopen, possibly not until autumn and not until 2022 in Alaska. 

Two Royal Caribbean cruise lines that normally sail out of Miami opted instead to launch sailings in June from the Caribbean, where governments are eager to revive their tourism-based economies.

MSC spokeswoman Lucy Ellis said positive virus cases have cropped up on board MSC ships, particularly during the fall surge.

‘The important thing is we have never had an outbreak,’ she said. On Wednesday, the Grandiosa left the Italian port of Civitavecchia for its weeklong Easter cruise, with 2,000 of its 6,000-passenger capacity and stops planned in Naples and Valletta, Malta, before returning to its home port in Genoa.

On Wednesday, the Grandiosa left the Italian port of Civitavecchia for its weeklong Easter cruise, with 2,000 of its 6,000-passenger capacity and stops planned in Naples and Valletta, Malta, before returning to its home port in Genoa

Passengers welcomed the semblance of normalcy brought on by the freedom to eat in a restaurant or sit poolside without a mask, even if the virus is still a present concern

The Grandiosa is equipped with a medical centre with molecular and antigen testing facilities, as well as a ventilator, and extra cabins are set aside to isolate suspected virus cases. 

Each passenger must wear contact tracing wrist bands, meaning if a someone tests positive, medical personnel can identify anyone with whom they were in contact. Once the situation is clear, anyone who is positive is transferred to the shore.

According to an independent consulting firm, Bermello Ajamii & Partners, just 23 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed on ships since the industry began its tentative relaunch last summer, for a passenger infection rate of 0.006 per cent.

But cruise industry critics say the risk isn’t worth it and add that cruise companies should have taken the pandemic timeout to address the industry’s longstanding environmental and labor problems.

‘All large cruise ships burn huge volumes of the dirtiest, cheapest fuel available,’ said Jim Ace of environmental group Stand Earth, a member of the Global Cruise Activist Network. 

‘Cruise ship companies could have used the COVID shutdown to address their impacts on public health and the environment. Instead, they scrapped a few of their oldest ships and raised cash to stay alive.’

On board, though, passengers are relishing the chance to enjoy activities that have been mostly closed in Italy and much of Europe for a year: a theatre, restaurant dining, duty-free shopping and live music in bars.

The Grandiosa is equipped with a medical centre with molecular and antigen testing facilities, as well as a ventilator, and xtra cabins are set aside to isolate suspected virus cases

The Grandiosa’s theatre has remained open for performances for passengers during the pandemic (pictured, actors and dancers practice for a show)

Passengers are relishing the chance to enjoy activities that have been mostly closed in Italy and much of Europe for a year: a theatre, restaurant dining, duty-free shopping and live music in bars

The gym onboard the Grandiosa is open for use, despite most other across the continent remaining closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic

Passengers (left to right) Ilaria Gelli, Matteo Marzocchi, and Federico Marzoochi board the Grandiosa in Civitavecchia, near Rome, ready for their cruise

Passengers aboard the Grandiosa have been able to enjoy mask-free meals aboard the ship because of a self-styled ‘health bubble’ aboard the ship 

The rest of Italy is heading back into full lockdown over the Easter weekend, with shops closed and restaurants and bars open for takeout only to try to minimise holiday outbreaks, but lucky Grandiosa passengers will avoid the shutdown

The rest of Italy is heading back into full lockdown over the Easter weekend, with shops closed and restaurants and bars open for takeout only to try to minimise holiday outbreaks. 

In addition, Italy’s government imposed a five-day quarantine on people entering from other EU countries in a bid to deter Easter getaways.

‘Let’s say that after such a long time of restrictions and closures, this was a choice done for our mental health,’ said Federico Marzocchi, who joined the cruise with his wife and 10-year-old son Matteo.

The cruise industry is hoping for a gradual opening this spring.

Cruises are circulating on Spain’s Canary islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa, including the company AIDA catering to German tourists. 

Costa Cruises, which with MSC is one of Europe’s largest cruise companies, will resume cruises on May 1, with seven-night Italy-only cruises. Costa plans to begin sailing in the western Mediterranean from mid-June.

Britain is opening to cruise ships in May, with MSC and Viking launching cruises of the British Isles, among several companies offering at-sea ‘staycation’ cruises aimed at capturing one of the most important cruise markets. 

The cruise industry is hoping Greece will open in mid-May, but the country hasn’t yet announced when it will reopen tourism.

Raffaele Piontecorvo, captain of the MSC Grandiosa, has run keep the cruise ship going as one of the world’s only vessels still operating in spite of the pandemic 

Passengers are closely monitored to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 (pictured, passengers have their body temperature measured before they enter one of the ship’s restaurants)

Britain is opening to cruise ships in May, with MSC and Viking launching cruises of the British Isles, among several companies offering at-sea ‘staycation’ cruises as a copy-cat of the Grandiosa

Passengers from outside Italy must arrive with negative COVID-19 tests taken within 48 hours of their departures and only residents of Europe’s Schengen countries plus Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria are permitted to book under COVID-19 insurance policies (pictured, passengers walk through the terminal before boarding the Grandiosa)

A view of the Grandiosa, one of the only cruise ships in the world to be operating at the moment, picking up passengers ready for a seven-day cruise starting on Wednesday

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a ‘framework’ for resuming cruises in the US, but the industry says the health agency hasn’t spelled out the details that companies need to operate their ships. 

Once the CDC provides technical requirements, industry officials say it takes about 90 days to prepare a ship for sailing. 

The cruise companies complain that last autumn’s CDC framework is outdated and should be scrapped. 

They say it was issued before vaccines were available and before the restart of cruises in Europe, which they say have safely carried nearly 400,000 passengers under new COVID-19 protocols. 

They also complain that cruising is the only part of the US economy that remains shuttered by the pandemic.

The Cruise Lines International Association trade group is lobbying for an early July start to US cruising.

‘Cruisers love to cruise, and they will go where the ships are sailing,’ said Laziza Lambert, a spokeswoman for the trade group. 

‘The longer cruises are singularly prohibited from operating in the United States, the more other places in the world will benefit from the positive economic impact generated by an influx of passengers.’

Several other companies are looking to open up their cruise industries, but most face difficult regulations meaning they may not be back in business until the summer, or autumn

This cruise is taking passengers from Genoa to Civitavecchia near Rome, onwards towards Naples, Cagliari, and Malta before returning to Genoa on April 6

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