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Cruising is still canceled, but here’s what travelers can expect when it returns

From covid-19 tests during embarkation to the end of buffet dining, cruises will be a different experience.

(Washington Post illustration)

Once upon a time the American cruise industry was projected to rake in $31.5 billion worth of revenue in 2020 — more than double what it netted a decade ago. Indeed, the period between 2010 and 2019 must have felt like a fairy tale for commercial seafaring: an era of unprecedented growth. Then came the pandemic.

On March 14, the CDC issued its first industry-wide no-sail order. It barred any new passengers from boarding ships in U.S. waters and has since been extended through the end of September. If you’ve made any maritime plans immediately thereafter, prepare to chart a new course. It will almost certainly be further prolonged. The cruise industry itself has canceled U.S. cruises past the order’s date, until at least Oct. 31.

Yet at some point in the future, cruising will probably become popular again — even if it won’t exist exactly as travelers remember. Like so many other aspects of life, it will fall under that ominous umbrella of “the new normal.” Here’s how to navigate the uncertain waters ahead, with insight from the experts.

Tests and delays during embarkation

Lines reopening throughout Europe are providing some indication to new protocols. Later this month, MSC Cruises is planning a limited restart of its Mediterranean itineraries. In a recent news conference, chief executive Gianni Onorato detailed a staggered approach to passenger boarding.

“We have equipped all the cruise terminals where there is embarkation of guests with medical stations,” he says. “Guests will be swab-tested through these medical stations. Once they've completed the swab, they can proceed for check-in.”

The entire process could take up to 90 minutes as passengers wait to receive results. Though, as testing capabilities become more advanced, there is hope the delay could be reduced by the time the American no-sail order is lifted.

Nonetheless, you’ll have to allow significantly more time for embarkation — even as most ships probably will be capping their manifest to 70 percent of capacity. Social distancing guidelines will elongate queues, as will mandatory temperature checks along the way.

“Cruise lines already have a health questionnaire that all guests fill out prior to boarding,” explains Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, the top-trafficked review site for the industry. “But it’s safe to assume that process will be far more extensive than we’ve seen in the past.”

Travelers can also expect to be equipped with an electronic wristband. This is nothing new for regulars, as the gadget has been widely used in the industry for years to enable room entry and facilitate on-board purchases. Now it will be retrofit to serve the vital function of contact tracing in the event of an infection.

Less communal dining, more entertainment

The days of self-service dining are over, at least for now. In its place, a contactless commissary empowered by smartphone technology. QR codes on tables can be scanned to pull up digital du jour menus on a personal device, according to McDaniel. You will make your selections and savor your meal in a room that is kept well below capacity, as will be standard operating procedure in all communal gathering spaces. Mask usage will probably be enforced in most indoor environments, except within your cabin and while you are eating or drinking.

And when you’re in the mood for a show, expect more options on offer throughout the day. Costa Cruises, an Italian brand owned by Carnival Corp., issued a press statement outlining its path back to sea. In it are details for modified entertainment programming “to allow more shows during the day for smaller groups of people.”

Tightly controlled tours

Traditionally, whenever a cruise liner comes to shore along its journey, it’s an open invitation for tourists to freely explore the port of call. But you can now anticipate such excursions to be far more restrictive and regimented.

MSC, for its part, is tightly controlling these tours. They’re allowing tours only in designated groups, face masks mandated, led by local guides in full personal protective equipment. Independent sightseeing will be strictly forbidden, mitigating the risk of disease transmission between ship and shore.

Still, despite the physical constraints, the jaunt won’t feel too foreign to travelers at this point.

“Many of the policies and protocols we’re [already used to] seeing will be implemented onboard and ashore,” McDaniel says. “Things like social distancing, occupancy limits, increased sanitizing, etc.”

Nevertheless, undeterred fans

Even given the inherent risks, and the unsettling headlines, the most recent survey of Cruise Critic readers — conducted during the last week of July and the first five days of August — reveals that 73 percent are willing to book a future cruise. Nearly a third of them are actively looking. Joan Blum is one of them. Over the past eight years, she and her husband have reached 43 countries by ship.

“Planning cruise trips is a great joy in my life,” she admits, undeterred by the harrowing circumstances of their last journey. Aboard the ill-fated MS Zaandam, they ended up quarantined off the coast of Florida. “The cruise line did a wonderful job in taking care of their passengers under extremely difficult conditions. There were many very sick passengers and crew.” Ultimately four passengers died of the disease. It fueled nightmarish international headlines at the onset of the pandemic.

But rather than reconsidering cruise vacations altogether, Blum is merely shifting how she cruises, eschewing the open ocean in favor of river rides. She has one in the works with Viking River Cruise next September through the French countryside. “The ships are small — approximately 100 passengers — and sailing on a river is comforting, being you can always see land and villages along the shore,” she points out. “I really don’t know what the cruise lines are going to do in the future, but I think they might have to reconsider ‘Bigger, bigger and even bigger!’ That is just not going to work.”

Read more:

11 ways the pandemic will change travel

Cruise lines are working on their comeback. Some destinations say not so fast.

Has your travel bucket list changed during the pandemic? You’re not alone.

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