With tests, vaccinations and isolation areas, cruise ship companies are hoping for smoother sailing this travel season after fears over COVID-stricken ships rocked the industry last year.

Cruise companies have lost tens of billions of dollars while hundreds of thousands of people have lost jobs as countries banned ships from their ports.

The industry’s woes started in February last year when the Diamond Princess and its 4,000 passengers spent weeks in quarantine in port in Japan as coronavirus infections on board climbed, reaching 700.

While cruises may have to wait until July to use ports in Florida, ships have been gingerly returning to sea in other markets, with strict health protocols to avoid a repeat of last year’s misfortunes.

The Costa Smeralda was only a quarter full, with 1,500 passengers.

Italian cruise line Costa Cruises set sail on Saturday for the first time in more than four months, with its flagship vessel setting sail from Savona. The Italian government had banned cruises in December.

The Costa Smeralda was only a quarter full, with 1,500 passengers.

All passengers and crew were first tested for coronavirus and mask-wearing was mandatory for the trip. The 1,300 crew were quarantined for 14 days before reporting for duty.

Other ships were setting sail from Barcelona and the southern French city of Marseille.

Costa’s rival MSC returned to sea much earlier, in August. 

Since then, Patrick Pourbaix, director general of MSC France, says the company has carried “more than 60,000 passengers on around 30 cruises, worry-free”.

Passengers wait the results of the COVID-19 test before embarking on board of the Costa Smeralda. Photo: AFPPassengers wait the results of the COVID-19 test before embarking on board of the Costa Smeralda. Photo: AFP

New normal 

The cruise industry has been smashed by the COVID crisis, suffering a shortfall of $77 billion and shedding 518,000 jobs between just mid-March and September last year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Before the pandemic, cruises companies had enjoyed a decade of strong growth, peaking in 2019 with 29.7 million passengers, more than half from North America, according to the CLIA.

“It’s a sector which will not return to normal activity until 2025,” said Didier Arino, director general of French consultancy Protourisme.

For now, the new normal is vaccines, tests and masks.

US operator Norwegian Cruise Line will run three of its 17 vessels from Greece and in the Caribbean this summer, with passengers who are “fully vaccinated” at least two weeks before departure.

“It’s not one or the other. It’s vaccines plus the safety protocols,” said CEO Harry Sommer.

Guests will be tested before they get on the ship and before they disembark, while sanitation protocols on board will include “medical-grade air filtration and enhanced medical resources”, Sommer said.

In Britain, the ministry of transport has given the green light for cruises – albeit restricted to domestic waters – to resume from May 17.

But capacity has been restricted to 50 per cent, or a maximum of 1,000 passengers, all of whom must be UK-based.

On-board gatherings will also be restricted to groups of a maximum six people.

“Whilst there is still uncertainty about holidays abroad this summer, we are delighted to be able to offer our guests the ultimate escape here in the UK with the reassurance that we will take care of everything,” said P&O Cruises president Paul Ludlow in a statement.

P&O will also only accept fully vaccinated passengers.

In the US, cruise ships may be able to resume sailing from ports in Florida in mid-July after a year-long shutdown, according to new guidelines from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At least 98 per cent of the crew and 95 per cent of passengers will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for ships to set sail.

Costa’s rival MSC returned to sea much earlier, in August.

People watch the departure of Italian operator MSC Cruises new cruise ship MSC Virtuosa for the port of Le Havre and her inaugural journey, at the “Chantiers de l'Atlantique” shipyard in Saint-Nazaire on March 30, 2021. Photo: AFPPeople watch the departure of Italian operator MSC Cruises new cruise ship MSC Virtuosa for the port of Le Havre and her inaugural journey, at the “Chantiers de l'Atlantique” shipyard in Saint-Nazaire on March 30, 2021. Photo: AFP

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