All aboard 'MSC Grandiosa': first post-Covid Mediterranean cruise sets sail from Italy

Despite coronavirus concerns and cancelled sailings, travellers still have an appetite for holidays at sea

The first major cruise ship to set sail in the Mediterranean in nearly five months has left the Italian port city of Genoa.

The MSC Grandiosa will stop at Rome, Naples and Palermo before cruising to the Maltese capital Valletta in its seven-day voyage.

On-board are about 2,500 passengers – about 70 per cent of the ship's operating capacity. All travellers were tested for Covid-19 before departing and crew members have undergone several coronavirus tests in the lead-up to the cruise. Bookings were also restricted to residents of Schengen-area countries only.

The Swiss-owned global cruise line is planning to resume operations on another of its European cruises next week. The MSC Magnifica will depart from Bari in southern Italy on Saturday, August 29, and sail to the other side of the Mediterranean, calling at Corfu, Katakolon and Athens.

Passengers wearing protective mouth and nose masks have their temperature checked as part of the health security controls by a crew member as they board the MSC Grandiosa cruise ship prior to sailing from the northwestern port city of Genoa on August 16, 2020,  following the lifting of the lockdown several months ago to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic.   The first major cruise ship to set sail in the Mediterranean was poised to depart from Genoa as Italy's struggling travel industry hopes to regain ground after a bruising coronavirus hiatus, representing a high-stakes test for the global sector in the key Mediterranean market and beyond.  / AFP / Miguel MEDINA

Both ships have implemented new health and safety protocols designed by MSC in an effort to protect travellers from the coronavirus. Cruise blogger Rosalba Scarrone, who is sailing on the MSC Grandiosa, posted footage of herself on Instagram wearing a face mask waiting to board the ship.

Her last post on Instagram was accompanied by the hashtag #firstpostcovidcruises.

New safety procedures include hospital-grade cleaning, modified activities on board and compulsory face masks in places where social distancing is not possible throughout the ship.

There are also contactless options for entering cabins or paying for facilities and all travellers will wear wristbands to help authorities with proximity and contact tracing if required. Onshore activities at ports have been changed to avoid typically crowded areas and the use of public transport.

MSC Cruises looks ready to continue resuming operations, having recently announced its winter 2020 and summer 2021 cruising programmes. Set to commence in late October, the schedule has more than "90 different itineraries across the Caribbean, Mediterranean, the Gulf, South Africa, South America and Asia – all of the regions where MSC Cruises traditionally operates", according to the cruise operator’s website.

MSC Grandiosa set sail on Sunday evening, the day before state officials in Australia apologised to the public for mishandling a Covid-19 outbreak on the Ruby Princess cruise ship earlier this year.

Virus hotbeds

Royal With Rainbow

That vessel docked in Sydney in March and a public inquiry has decided that authorities made a mistake by allowing 2,500 passengers to disembark without testing for Covid-19. This decision was taken even after suspected cases of the virus were reported on-board. The ship was ultimately linked to nearly 1,000 confirmed cases of the virus.

It somewhat mirrors the fate of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was one of the first hotbeds for the coronavirus.

Passengers travelling on the Princess Cruise's ship in Japan in February saw just how quickly the coronavirus could be transmitted when one traveller from Hong Kong tested positive for the virus after disembarking. Cutting short its itinerary, the Diamond Princess returned to port in Japan and passengers were quarantined on board. By the end of the quarantine period, 712 passengers had tested positive for the virus, while 13 deaths were recorded.

In the UAE, a suspension on cruise ships was implemented by the Federal Transport Authority in March as part of the country's efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Dubai reopened for tourism in July and, according to P&O Marinas – a DP World Company in Dubai – there is hope that the emirate will be able to resume the cruise season "by the fall." New safety protocols for the tourism industry in the region are expected to follow.

An appetite for sailing

Yet, while cruise liners have proven to be places where transmission of the Covid-19 virus can escalate quickly, travellers do not seem to have lost their appetite for the high seas.

MSC’s new sailings in Europe came after recent announcements by both Norwegian Cruises and the Royal Caribbean Group that bookings for future cruises were high.

Royal Caribbean’s chief financial officer said in July that while bookings in first quarter of 2021 were softer, the outlook was already much stronger for the second half of next year.

And public comments released by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention this week reflect this trend. More than 1,000 comments collected from public opinion have been released by the authority, and the majority of them are in favour of the resumption of cruising.

"I would feel safer on a cruise ship than on a plane. It's time to start letting the cruises start again," wrote one member of the public. Another said they would feel safe on a cruise, "especially if everyone who boards the vessel is tested for the virus ahead of time".

Other cruise fans were willing to adapt to changes on board for the sake of safety.

“Of course I would not mind wearing masks while on board and having the buffet stations manned by servers in order to limit unnecessary contact and handling of food,” wrote an anonymous contributor.

And some respondents felt that the cruise industry had been unfairly targeted. “Airports are open, planes are flying, theme parks, restaurants, bars are open and therefore cruises should be allowed to operate, too.”

However, not everyone was in favour of taking to the ocean again. One contributor wrote: “The fact that most cruises offer buffet dinning, close pool side seating and show seating, again increases the risk. Having been on many cruises I cannot see how social distancing will be enforced.”

Despite this optimism, the international cruise industry has taken huge financial losses due to the pandemic. Several cruise liners have pushed back sailings until 2021 or later.

Among them, is Virgin Voyages – Richard Branson's first foray into the world of cruising. The Scarlet Lady adults-only cruise liner was delivered to the company after three years in the making ahead of her scheduled ocean debut in 2020. That sailing has been cancelled with Virgin Voyages now saying it is "waiting for the right time to sail". However, additional dates have been added to the ship's sailing schedule for 2022.