Small ships are leading a return to cruising, writes Carolyn Beasley
As the MS Finnmarken glides between towering cliffs in Norway's Geiranger Fjord, the silence is punctuated by the blast of a ship's horn. The friendly honk comes from the currently immobile MS Nordkapp, and its skeleton crew waves and cheers jubilantly for their sister ship as she triumphantly enters the spectacular waterway.
Daniel Skeldam, CEO of cruise company Hurtigruten is onboard the freshly refurbished Finnmarken and via a live video feed, those of us watching can feel the genuine emotion in this moment. On June 16, Finnmarken had sailed from Bergen with 200 paying passengers on board, the first ocean cruise to depart since Covid-19 effectively shut down the industry.
The comeback of ocean cruising is far from business as usual, and the 127-year-old company Hurtigruten is running its ships at around 50 per cent passenger capacity, allowing genuine social distancing. Boarding is subject to enhanced health screening, with high-tech screens instantaneously testing temperatures of passengers and crew before and during the cruise. Buffets are gone, and passengers use their phones and a QR code to consult menus. Following Norwegian health authority guidelines, face masks are not mandatory.
A full-time health-and-safety officer onboard ensures compliance with the new regime, and ship sanitisation has been taken to the next level. All crew are trained to World Health Organisation and internal Hurtigruten standards.
Hurtigruten will be operating four ships on its Norwegian coastal route. To comply with international travel restrictions, passengers from different countries and regions will not be mixed. These first cruises are being offered to Norwegian and Danish passengers only, both countries with low levels of Covid-19 infections.
At the end of last month, Hurtigruten's newest ship, the hybrid-powered MS Fridtjof Nansen, commenced expedition cruises from Hamburg, exclusively for German residents. Guests will be permitted to kayak, and take small boat excursions and as travel restrictions are eased, the company will provide shore excursions on the Norwegian coast for these international visitors. In 2021 the company will offer departures for British residents, on a ship home-ported in Dover.
Although small-ship ocean cruising has deftly resumed operations, it was beaten by its little sister, river cruising. Germany was one of the first countries to cruise, with Nicko Cruises recommencing on the Rhine River on June 1. A-Rosa Cruises recommenced on June 17 in Portugal, followed closely by journeys on the Rhine and Danube, with sailings in France scheduled for early July.
In North America, escalating cases of COVID-19 have stifled efforts to revive the industry. The US Center for Disease Control has placed 'no sail' orders on ships carrying more than 250 passengers, seemingly permitting smaller ships to operate. On June 20, American Cruise Lines was due to launch the first cruise in North America since the hiatus on the Oregon and Snake Rivers. However, days before, changes in Oregon State's restrictions banned all overnight cruises, regardless of passenger capacity.
Closer to home, the New Zealand cruise industry remains on hold, with the New Zealand Cruise Association anxiously awaiting news to aid deployment of ships during 2020. A ban on cruise ships in our waters was due to expire on June 30, but on June 21 was extended indefinitely by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. For now, domestic travellers can experience the coastal splendour of favourites such as Fiordland, the Bay of Islands and Marlborough Sounds on day trips.
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Across our region, cruising is showing the first signs of recovery. French Polynesia will reopen to international tourists from Europe and the USA, (subject to a negative Covid-19 test result) from July 15, and two companies are preparing to sail. Aranui Cruises transported freight to remote islands throughout the Covid-19 crisis and recommences passenger operations from July 18. Paul Gauguin Cruises is offering cruises for locals from July 11, and international guests from July 29.
In Australia, cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers are currently banned until September 17. Meanwhile, smaller boutique ships are beginning to take to the water, navigating Australia's tricky interstate border closures as they do.
South Australian river cruiser Proud Mary resumed operations on the Murray River on June 7 for South Australians only, while the Murray Princess resumed operation on June 23.
The 36-passenger True North is the pioneer of expedition ocean cruising in Western Australia's Kimberley region, and resumed cruising last week between Broome and Wyndham. Despite the state border closure meaning only Western Australians can join the boat, founding director, Craig Howson explains that his first cruise is fully booked.
Howson thinks that travellers may remain spooked by the Covid-19 infection stories that mostly affected large ships. "I think people have long memories," he says. Howson also notes that while True North is extremely comfortable, his boat's real drawcard is the wilderness of the destinations. "I think people are going to want to get off the beaten track a bit more and avoid areas with big crowds," he says.
It's a sentiment echoed by Skeldam. "There are huge differences within 'cruising' and I am certain that small-scale travel will be back faster than mass tourism", he says.
"I believe guests will seek experiences that are different, more authentic, sustainable and even more remote than before."
Reflecting on the return to cruising, he adds: "This does not mean the crisis is over", he says. "Not for us, and definitely not for cruising in general."