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As the first domestic cruise ships set sail again after months docked at port, Culture Trip wonders whether an uncertain summer ahead for holidaymakers could be rescued by taking a trip around home shores.
When international travel was almost entirely halted in early 2020 due to the global pandemic, the cruise industry bore the brunt of the negative media attention. Nightmare scenarios unfolded in front of a global audience, with passenger vessels labelled as “floating petri dishes” spreading the virus around the world. However, cruising is not only back, but it returns with enhanced and innovative safety protocols.
Could a domestic sea voyage perhaps fill the void left by red, amber and green lists, Covid tests and quarantine rules?
Cruise ships are a mix of hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, theatres and games arcades. You get everything in one place below deck, and outdoor pools with bars perfect for sunbathing topside. For many, this is the only way to travel, while others want an entirely different holiday experience.
Modern ships can carry thousands of passengers, but for now they can’t really go anywhere. The first proper voyage to depart from the UK after the easing of Covid restrictions in mid-May was a four-day loop in the English Channel by the MSC Virtuosa, beginning and ending in Southampton.
“The last year has been hard, and there has been a lot going on behind the scenes,” explains Antonio Paradiso, managing director of MSC Cruises UK & Ireland. “Of course it was emotional seeing the first customer walking on board. There were moments when I was fearing the worst and thinking we might not be back.”
He’s speaking from the MSC Virtuosa, the newest vessel in the large Swiss-Italian MSC fleet, with a capacity of 6,200 people. Given current government restrictions, only 1,000 passengers can board these initial sailings. Tickets – perhaps surprisingly to those not familiar with the devotion these trips can garner – sold out fast.
Crew outnumber paying passengers, with the central promenade silent until the predictable evening rush to catch a show as part of the on-site entertainment. This isn’t too off-putting to regular cruising enthusiasts; in fact, most enjoy the extra attention from staff, and the ease of finding a spot by the pool when sun breaks through the clouds off the English coast. You can also guarantee a spot at one of the many restaurants on board, which does make planning your daily activities a lot easier.
If you don’t like crowds, this could be the best time to take that first cruise you’ve been putting off booking.
“What we’ve learnt is that you have to be extremely agile. There is no international policy for Covid, and every country has their own set of rules,” Paradiso, who is just back from the first tour and heading straight onto the second, tells Culture Trip. “In the UK the rules are different to Italy, and in January  things were not looking good, but we were ready. Once step three of the UK roadmap kicked in, we wanted to be the first to show, not just the cruise industry, but the entire travel industry that we can bounce back. People have been really keen to come and cruise with us, and confidence has also come from seeing real customers go on the first few trips.”
It might take some time for first timers to acclimatise to this unique environment, but there were plenty of novices taking the plunge on the initial Virtuosa cruise. And with uncertainty and increasing costs putting off holidaymakers from their usual summer escapes, domestic cruises have emerged as a surprisingly comprehensive alternative, one which also boasts enhanced health and safety protocols. As countries change rules over entry requirements on a seemingly daily basis, a domestic holiday – be it on a cruise, or to another part of your home nation by rail, road or air – seems like a reliable option right now.
The logistics and financial implications of running a cruise ship at less than a sixth of maximum capacity might not be a long-term solution, but for now the key is getting people back on board to see if this type of trip can survive in a post-Covid environment.
Paradiso explains that the industry took a “massive hit at the start of all of this” adding: “But I think most of that criticism was unjustified. These ships are big moving assets and there is nowhere to hide for us. Covid caught everyone unprepared and has changed everything we do. The impression was that cruises brought Covid to the world, and we wanted to prove people wrong. We had the knowledge and experience to deal with this with some of the initial domestic trips we did back in Italy, and now we’re here with those learnings in the UK.”
To get on board, you need to either present a negative Covid-19 test, taken no more than 72 hours prior to embarkation, or have proof of full vaccination. You will also need travel insurance that includes Covid cover. There is a final Covid test taken in the departure lounge, and sporadic temperature checks thereafter. For any voyages of more than four days, you will have to take another test on the ship, and wear a digital wristband tracker.
With all these safety measures in place, the initial delay in getting onto the ship is offset by the relaxed atmosphere once you set sail. Large dining areas mean you can sit without getting too close to people who are not in your party, and there is plenty of space outdoors where you can really make the most of the cruise – even if the weather refuses to acknowledge the arrival of summer.
You can watch a show in the evening at one of the many variety performances held daily in the large auditoriums, or take part in one of the other favourite activities of all seasoned cruisers: the day trip. “We know how much people who go on cruises love disembarking for day trips when we stop at ports along the way,” Paradiso says when asked if the regular stops would continue. “There was never really any talk of us stopping them. They are safe, and people remain in their own bubbles when they go out.”
This particular tour stopped at the Isle of Portland in Dorset before returning to Southampton. Additional seven-night cruises from Southampton calling at Portland, Greenock and Liverpool are also available, and passengers can embark and disembark at any port of call on these trips.
The Portland stop gave an insight into what these short day trips entail in today’s circumstances, with the most important thing being the need to maintain the social bubble formed from the ship. In normal times, a visit to a picturesque seaside town such as Portland or neighbouring Weymouth would include the chance to buy souvenirs and try the local fish and chips, but for now you have to stick to pre-planned photo ops. In addition to these trips out of the UK, MSC are running domestic trips in other countries, with other cruise lines set to follow.
Cruise enthusiasts may have already booked their trips at sea, but if you’re unsure about booking your usual flight abroad, this is a holiday alternative worth considering. Prices start from £299 per person for a two-night mini-cruise, and from £799 per person for a seven-night cruise.
Paradiso is sure that multi-destination trips will return later in the year, so you should be able to visit a number of countries and cities again on one cruise. If a domestic cruise is the one holiday you can guarantee going on this year, it might just scratch that wanderlust itch that has been irritating us all.