Gulf cruise ships prepare to set sail amid fightback against pandemic

The industry, one of the worst hit, is not expected to be at full steam until late 2022 at least

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As cruise ships prepare to return to the seas after an enforced 14-month break due to the pandemic, one of the hardest hit industries is facing a challenging future.

While many staff will return to work, life on board is set to be very different and that will reflect in salaries and the number of cruise ships operating.

Recruitment firms for major cruise liners said profits were down 70 per cent on pre-pandemic levels and fear it could take another year for the industry to recover.

“At the moment we have a very limited number of openings as we are mostly trying to deploy our returning crew who have been sitting at home,” said Mathew Dymtchev, director of operations at Odyssey International Maritime and Hotel Management.

People are still nervous about what the travel restrictions will be and what happens if someone gets covid on board.
Vivek Menon, Deira Travel

“The companies that I am working with are gradually reopening from August 1, but are unlikely to be fully operational until September 2022.

“We are supplying crew for about 50 ships but with the travel restrictions, vaccination and different safety protocols for new crew, recovery will take some time.

“From our research around 85 per cent of these people are ready to come back to work, but that does not mean they will all do so.”

Staff joining cruise ships face strict new safety protocols.

Changes to the layout on board to incorporate social distancing measures have also been implemented at substantial cost.

'Oosterdam' crew members receive a dose of the Janssen Covid-19 vaccine.

Odyssey supplies crew to ships operated by global travel firms, including Oceania Cruises, Virgin Voyages, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Thompson Cruises, Princess Cruises and Cunard.

While most businesses in the Gulf have returned to some kind of normality, tourism continues to feel the strain and suffer from the pandemic’s fallout.

Based on a market-wide survey of more than 1,000 professionals in the region, 52 per cent said their organisation was in ‘business as usual’ or ‘growth’ phases of operation.

Of those still recovering, 28 per cent expected their operations to be back to pre-pandemic levels or beyond in the next 12 months, suggesting 80 per cent of organisations will be back on their feet, if not growing, by 2022.

The cruise ship industry, however, is likely to continue to suffer for some time, Mr Dymtchev said.

“It has been difficult, to say the least, and it will take far longer to recover and be much harder than any of us thought,” he said.

“The gravity of the situation was vastly underestimated by the industry as a whole.

“This time last year we thought we would be back within three months but it has been a much extended period of intermission.”

The US Centres for Disease updated guidance for resumption of cruise operations in May.

It included mandatory masks and regular disinfection. Trial voyages were also completed ahead of relaunching passenger cruises.

European ports imposing different safety protocols for new crew joining vessels has complicated recruitment further.

A cruise ship is docked at harbour due to a Covid-19 case on board in Singapore. Reuters

“If we send someone from Dubai fully vaccinated to join a crew in Southampton it will take a month of preparation in advance,” said Mr Dymchev, who established the SOS Crew Charity Foundation during the pandemic to support out-of-work staff.

“If someone is arriving in Venice, Italy they use also quarantine for seven days and have a PCR test, or for 14 days if they are unvaccinated. That makes things complicated and expensive.”

Despite international travel resuming as border restrictions ease, the cruise liner industry remains uncertain.

The first five post-pandemic voyages onboard the Cunard-run Queen Elizabeth liner were cancelled after crew members tested positive for Covid-19.

Cases were identified on new crew joining the ship in June as it was preparing to begin short-term voyages around the UK.

Royal Caribbean cruises resumed in June after a year-long suspension but also recorded two cases of the virus onboard its Celebrity Millennium vessel.

The global industry was worth around $150 billion prior to the pandemic and supported more than 1.2 million jobs worldwide.

Profits have now been considerably reduced due to falling demand and quiet schedules.

Travel agent Vivek Menon said 30 per cent of bookings were for cruise ships before Covid-19.

Several onboard outbreaks plunged the industry into crisis in early 2020, with the Diamond Princess one of the worst hit.

The 18-deck ship operated by Princess Cruises was in dock in Yokohama, Japan, when the virus spread through passengers on board, infecting more than 600 and claiming at least nine lives.

Meanwhile, a Genting Cruise Lines' ship on a "cruise to nowhere" returned to Singapore on Wednesday after a passenger, 40, was suspected to have Covid-19, the city state’s tourism board reported. The nearly 3,000 passengers and crew on board have been confined to their cabins, with contactless meals delivered.

Although Dubai’s new cruise terminal has already welcomed several super-sized liners into port this year, travel agents said the industry would need time to recover.

“Covid has been a nightmare for the cruise ship sector,” said Vivek Menon, a booking agent for Deira Travel.

“Prior to Covid, about 30 per cent of our total bookings were for cruise ships travelling all over the world.

"Now fewer than five per cent of all our travel enquiries are for these kinds of holidays so it has had a huge impact.

“People are still nervous about what the travel restrictions will be and what happens if someone gets Covid on board.

“There is a lot more nervousness about these kinds of holidays.”

Updated: July 16, 2021, 4:13 AM