Ship forecast: when can SA cruise fans expect to get back on board?
Confidence is high that cruises will be back in November, with several ships planning to ply the waters around SA, Namibia and Mozambique
It seems that many cruise lovers in Europe and the US are increasingly getting back to the gangway, but South Africans are still wondering when they'll get to return to the seas. Many would have been disappointed late last month to learn that MSC Cruises - with itineraries along the South African coast and to Mozambique and Namibia - had cancelled its remaining local sailings for the 2020/21 season after failing to get the green light from the government.
The company had been hoping to salvage at least the end of the season - meant to run from November 2020 until mid-April 2021 - but is now confident it will be able to proceed with its next season, starting this November.
Though the entire travel industry has suffered, cruising has perhaps been hardest hit by the pandemic, especially in SA. Airlines, hotels and tour operators have been allowed to get back to work, but cruise operators are still waiting.
MSC has been in talks with the relevant authorities since March 2020 and in December underwent an on-board inspection of its "rigorous and robust" safety protocols by the authorities. In a statement, MSC said that "while authorities indicated that they were satisfied with the protocol MSC Cruises had presented", the company was still not given approval to resume.
Ross Volk, the MD of MSC in SA, said the company appreciated its interaction with the government but was disappointed by the decision, particularly since MSC — the first major cruise liner to return to service in the Mediterranean last year — had demonstrated in Europe that it is possible to set sail safely and responsibly. It has safely carried more than 40,000 guests since August 2020.
"There are a range of proven measures — based upon our first-hand experience — that can be done effectively before vaccines become readily available," Volk said. Most important of these is "rigorous and timely Covid-19 testing of all guests and crew prior to embarkation".
The company is now also testing guests prior to disembarkation and regularly tests its staff on board.
Volk told the Sunday Times that the cruise industry had learnt a lot from the early days of Covid-19 and that the steps being taken to return to cruising were unprecedented in the tourism sector.
"We are optimistic for the future about cruise holidays in SA for the 2021/22 season, which is scheduled to commence in November 2021," Volk said.
"A cruise on one of our vessels or any others governed by similar protocols is possibly the safest holiday a guest could take right now and in the near future."
Volk added: "We've seen that South Africans are eager to travel based on the strong advance trends. He said the company's "exciting promotions with our early-booking special offers" had led to a spike in guest demand.
"We are also confident that people are motivated to travel as the industry progressively reopens since we will all need a holiday after this experience."
MSC Cruises will in fact be bringing two ships to SA's shores for the 2021/2022 season, the first time that two different class ships (the Lirica and Musica) will be deployed in the country simultaneously.
The MSC Lirica will be home ported in Cape Town, while the MSC Musica will be home ported in Durban. They will offer more than 14 different itineraries with cruises ranging in length from two to 14 nights.
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Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) is also planning to make South African cruise history with its first local round-trip from Cape Town this year. The Norwegian Jade will be touring with an 11-night itinerary and seven ports of call — including Luderitz and Walvis Bay in Namibia, and Richards Bay and Mossel Bay in SA — with its first departure set for December 21.
Before that, the Jade will be sailing from Dubai on December 3 to Cape Town (arriving December 18) with stops in the Seychelles, Mauritius, the Maldives and Madagascar, among others.
Nick Wilkinson, NCL's regional vice-president for business development in the Middle East and Africa, said Covid had been unprecedented but that he was confident in the industry's ability to bounce back better and stronger.
Loyal customers, he said, were undeterred and the company had seen particularly encouraging interest from first-time cruisers. Wilkinson guessed this was related to the value-for-money that cruising offers and the company's flexible cancellation policies.
"The South African market has proven to be very resilient," Wilkinson said. "Throughout this whole pandemic, South Africans have been booking week in, week out for a year-plus in advance for their next vacation."
Wilkinson said the local itinerary mentioned above was "particularly resonating with the South African market. In this type of situation, the customer wants to choose the closest-to-home cruise fares". The Dubai-Cape Town cruise is also resonating as "it takes your most popular vacation spots into the itinerary".
Contrary to this "staying-close-to-home" trend, Wilkinson said they had also seen a big uptake in booking bucket-list itineraries.
Because people haven't been on holiday this year so far, or last year, they're choosing some of the unique and really extraordinary itineraries
"It's as if because people haven't been on holiday this year so far, or last year, they're choosing some of the unique and really extraordinary itineraries we have." These include cruises to Japan, throughout Asia and to Antarctica.
Last month, Oceania Cruises announced that its Around the World in 180 Days voyage, with 96 ports, 33 countries and four continents, had sold out within one day of bookings becoming available. A third of the bookings came from first-time guests.
"Despite the challenges the world faces today, travellers are clearly bullish on the future and are embracing these new opportunities to travel the world and create lifelong memories," president and CEO of Oceania Cruises Bob Binder said in a statement.
According to Blessing Manale, the head of communications in the department of tourism, the ministry was working on big ideas around cruise tourism even before Covid-19 hit, and is eager to engage in talks with the sector.
He said the decisions around reopening the cruise industry in SA had been made by the cabinet on the advice of the minister of transport and the South African Maritime Safety Authority.
While it seems cruise ships will remain docked for the last part of the 2020/21 cruise season, Manale said they were confident that cruises would be operational again by November 2021.