As cruise ships set sail once more, this is how COVID has changed the industry

Ceylan Yeginsu took the first cruise from a US port since the pandemic began.

Ceylan Yeginsu took the first cruise from a US port since the pandemic began. Photo: Jean Vallette/NYT

One by one, the passengers pulled down their masks and rejoiced as they cleared security and health screening to board the first cruise ship sailing out of North America since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

One woman threw her bag on the floor and started shimmying to the Caribbean calypso beat playing in the welcome hall. Another triumphantly bumped fists with a crew member before giving him a hug, while an older man stood still and gazed at the elated guests, his eyes welling up as he processed the reality of being back on a cruise, one of more than 400 he has taken in his lifetime.

“We’re back, we’re home,” a passenger yelled as she entered the vessel.

“Welcome back, ma’am,” a crew member responded with a gleaming smile. “We’ve missed you.”

For many of the 600 or so passengers embarking on the Celebrity Millennium, operated by Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises, from the Caribbean island of St. Maarten on Saturday, this was the moment they had dreamed of over the past 15 months, as cruise ships remained docked in ports, even after vaccinations rolled out in the United States and people started to travel again.

For the ship’s 650 crew members, the event was equally joyous, bringing relief after a grueling year without work or steady income.

“It was very difficult to survive at home for 14 months,” said Donald Sihombing, a 33-year-old stateroom attendant from Indonesia. “I feel very happy and lucky to be back. There are still so many people who have to wait for cruises to start in America to be able to work again.”

The major cruise lines are preparing to restart operations from US ports this summer, with Celebrity Edge poised to be the first, sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on June 26, with all crew and at least 95 per cent of passengers fully vaccinated, in accordance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But those plans could be disrupted if Florida does not exempt the cruise lines from a recently enacted state law banning businesses from requiring proof of immunisation from people seeking to use their services.

Celebrity is currently in talks with the CDC and state authorities in Florida and is optimistic that a solution will be reached in time for the sailing. Susan Lomax, the company’s associate vice president for global public relations, said it would continue to offer vaccinated voyages to ensure the health and safety of guests, crew and local communities in destinations visited.

Here are some takeaways from the first major international cruise with American passengers since 2020. The itinerary for the seven-day cruise from St. Maarten included stops in Barbados, Aruba and Curacao.

Get your paperwork in order before boarding

To board the Celebrity Millennium all adult passengers were required to fill out a health questionnaire and show proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test. In addition, St. Maarten requires visitors to present a printed copy of its own health screening document, which must be authorised ahead of time.

The check-in process starts at home, through Celebrity’s app or website, which allow you to scan your passport, fill out paperwork and book a time slot for boarding. Once all the steps are completed, the system generates an express pass designed to minimise contact and speed up boarding procedures. At the departure hall, the pass was scanned and vaccination and test certificates were reviewed by staff, then guests were allowed to enter the ship.

Expect new tech and tweaked systems

Those who cruise regularly will be familiar with the muster drill, a safety exercise that usually requires passengers to gather in a cramped muster station and watch a safety demonstration that takes 30 minutes or more. One passenger described the process as “miserable.”

This week, Celebrity debuted its new e-muster system, which allows passengers to take a tutorial on their electronic devices, showing them how to wear life vests and familiarising them with the sound of emergency signals. Once on board, passengers simply walk to their designated muster area and are given a small sticker to put on their room card to show that they have completed the process.

Upon embarkation, guests were allowed to go straight to their rooms. (Before the pandemic, they had to wait until 1 p.m.) All the rooms were stocked with hand sanitiser and face masks, and were disinfected each day.

The buffet lives (but not serve-yourself)

Some cruise fans feared that cruise buffets would be abolished in the post-pandemic era, but in the Oceanview Cafe, on the 10th deck of Celebrity Millennium, the buffet stations were in full force. The main difference was that the food was served by crew members.

When guests enter the restaurant, they must first wash their hands at the basins in the entrance – a requirement even before the pandemic. Then they can stroll from station to station pointing at what they want for the staff to portion out.

You’ll meet some happy guests

After a frustrating year of booking multiple cruises only to have them canceled or postponed, many of the guests were elated to be back on a ship, even though they were not entirely sure what to expect.

“We’ve cruised about 28 times on all different varieties of ship, but with this crazy virus, we didn’t know how this would look and feel, so we wanted to try it out and see if we felt safe,” said Squirrel Simpson, 68, an avid cruiser from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who was sitting with her husband at the pool bar sipping a mimosa.

Her verdict: “This is just incredible. It just feels like we are back in before pandemic times and we are alive again – interacting with people without masks, eating in restaurants, seeing shows. It’s a dream.”

Shore excursions differ from port to port

Usually when a cruise ship makes a port stop, guests can participate in excursions organised by the cruise company or are free to explore the destination independently for an allotted time.

Coronavirus restrictions in Barbados, the first port of call, meant that passengers were only allowed to participate in “bubble excursions” designed to limit interactions with the local population.

In the second port of call, Aruba, guests were free to travel by themselves and many leapt at the opportunity.

“It’s really cool to arrive in a new place by cruise ship and get off again and walk around like we used to,” said Marni Turner, 52, a longtime cruiser from Florida. “But it’s weird to have to put on the mask again and worry about COVID. It feels much safer and comfortable on board.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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