When the mighty MSC Virtuosa, which can carry 6,000 passengers when full, departed from Southampton a few weeks ago, it not only signalled the official return to cruise around the world but also shone a beacon of hope.
It was a symbolic stride towards normalcy, and the start of green shoots for the rest of the cruise industry.
Now, the major lines are rolling out new cruise itineraries in Europe, America, Alaska and beyond. They have had to juggle relocating their elegant seafaring vessels and organising new routes to comply with government standards.
Nowhere has required more juggling, however, than Australia, where the government has yet to hold meaningful talks with the cruise lines on the many amazing new health protocols and safety features they’ve implemented.
Last week, however, one of the biggest cruise lines put down a marker. Royal Caribbean announced Ovation of the Seas, a Quantum class behemoth at 168,666 tonnes, 18 decks and room for 5,000, would be sailing from Sydney on December 13 for a short season until March.
Was it an act of bravado, or does Royal Caribbean know something? The government’s ban on foreign flagged vessels with over 99 passengers is still in place.
In fact, the line maintains it is a show of faith in our vaccine rollout. It believes by Christmas we’ll be over 70 per cent double-jabbed, and Australia’s 1.3 million cruise fans – the highest per capita anywhere in the world – will be rushing up the gang planks to sail again.
Ovation won’t be alone. P&O Australia, which claims the mantel as our home-grown line because it started here decades ago, also has sailings in December.
Ships have been sailing out of Singapore for almost a year, and now lines are moving to Hong Kong and China. Australia is certainly looking like an odd man out – perhaps understandably, given the industry’s chequered history in the early days of the pandemic.
But that was then, and much has changed. There is certainly hope that, once we have vaccines aplenty and numbers are low, the government will allow at least local sailings with full vaccinated Australians and crew.
Indeed, it hasn’t been all bad news for the Australian cruise market. Homegrown lines such as APT and Coral Expeditions have been sailing in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. APT’s boutique Caledonian Sky has embarked on a number of voyages and intends to operate its full Kimberley season until September this year.
Coral Expeditions has already opened 2023 bookings for its April to September season in the Kimberley.
“As we continue to see travel uncertainty, particularly across international borders, we want to provide confidence and early planning opportunities for our guests and travel industry partners,” said Jeff Gillies, Coral Expedition’s commercial director.
Next year, 10 fresh Kimberley cruises aboard the new Coral Geographer have been scheduled during the popular period from April to June. Cruising the Kimberley will continue to be the “hot destination” in 2022, according to Mr Gillies.
“This iconic cruise is a true bucket list for any Australian adventurer and we will have three purpose-built expedition ships operating in the Kimberley in 2022 and 2023. Our expedition team have been exploring the region for three decades. In the vast expanses of the Kimberley, there is no substitute for experience,” added Mr Gillies.
The main beneficiary of Australia’s continued halt on international cruise ships has been Asia, which was the first region to see cruise return with Dream Cruises’ World Dream starting late in 2020 on short round-trip cruises from Singapore. Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas soon followed in December.
Because of our delays, Quantum will continue sailing from Singapore into 2022 and Spectrum of the Seas will sail out of Hong Kong.
Dream Cruises has sent the Explorer Dream to Taiwan to sail island-hopping itineraries of two and three nights calling at Penghu, Matsu and Kinmen.
But all eyes have been on the Northern Hemisphere with cruise lines scrambling to salvage Europe’s summer season. With the first ships off the docks and more to come, it seems that cruising has had a successful start.
The summer United Kingdom 2021 program has seen a number of lines offering short ‘staycation’ cruises with lines, including Cunard, Royal Caribbean, Virgin Voyages, Princess and Viking, slowly and gingerly starting their resumption program.
It was another first – the Viking Venus, the newest ship from the deluxe cruise line embarked on her first voyage in May, but it was also a first for the line. Aside from offering trips in Southampton, Viking is also looking to restart its operations in Northern Europe and Scandinavia later this year.
There are also voyages now starting in the Mediterranean where balmy weather makes it a popular destination for the local market and fly-cruisers.
Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas has started operating seven-night itineraries to the Greek Isles from a homeport on idyllic Cyprus. Jewel will visit Athens, Rhodes, Crete, Mykonos and Santorini.
And Norwegian Cruise Line also returned to the Greek Islands with Norwegian Jade offering new seven-day itineraries from Athens. This will be followed by Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Gem in the Caribbean in August. Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are expected to restart sailings in August.
It’s a testament to the will of cruisers with lines reporting strong booking trends and uptake.
P&O Cruises UK had put all cabins for sale for a new 40-night winter sun Caribbean cruise on the Aurora which sold out in just six hours on its first day of sale.
In addition, Aurora’s 12-night Portugal & the Canary Islands itinerary, which also went on sale on July 6, had 80 per cent of cabins sold on the first day of booking.
P&O Cruises president Paul Ludlow said: “This is an exceptional response which clearly demonstrates the desire from our guests for international cruising.
“Just over a week ago Britannia started the series of UK coastal breaks, which has received superb feedback from our guests, while excitement continues to build ahead of Iona’s maiden voyage in a month’s time.
“This, coupled with the overwhelming sales for Aurora’s new 2022 winter sun holidays, underpins the incredible demand for travel we are seeing as normality returns.”
Across the Atlantic, there are also positive signs of American ocean cruising returning to normal.
Currently, there are negotiations in place to start an Alaska cruise season, with Royal Caribbean revealing it will send Serenade of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas for cruises in the Last Frontier.
While Alaskan itineraries were typically around 14 days, the lines have committed to seven-night sailings bringing in tourism to towns like Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Icy Strait Point.
The marvellous Celebrity Edge was the first ship to sail out of an American port in 15 months. Celebrity Cruises said at least 95 per cent of those boarding the Celebrity Edge have been vaccinated against coronavirus in line with the health requirements from the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The $1 billion vessel was led by Captain Kate McCue, who in 2015 became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship, and has drawn a following of more than one million on TikTok and 250,000 on Instagram.
And some of the excited passengers boarding Celebrity Edge even donned special T-shirts for the occasion.