“A smooth sea never made a good sailor,” goes the saying, but the global cruise industry would probably have preferred calmer waters over the past 18 months, as the Covid-19 pandemic left hundreds of floating hotels lying quietly at anchor, their crews sent ashore.
But the tide appears to be turning for the cruise industry. Worldwide, major operators such as Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean are slowly ramping up operations, and in August nearly 200 cruise ships set sail worldwide.
This November, Ross Volk, MD of MSC Cruises South Africa, is hoping to add one more to that tally, with the MSC Musica blowing its horn long and loud as it steams out of Durban Harbour.
After the second wave of Covid-19 put paid to the 2020-21 season for MSC Cruises’ local sailings, “we remain optimistic and confident for the future of cruise holidays in SA, including the upcoming 2021-22 season,” says Volk. “We’ve seen that South Africans are eager to travel based on strong advance booking trends evidenced by the spike in consumer demand for our early booking special offers.”
Over the past decade South Africans have certainly taken to cruise holidays like the proverbial duck to water, with MSC Cruises SA enjoying double-digit growth as local travellers enjoy a taste of holidays on the highseas, without the cost of a long-haul airfare.
2020 should have been a watershed year for the local operation, with a second ship — the MSC Opera — joining the stalwart MSC Musica to sail 60 departures from home ports in Durban and Cape Town. But it was not to be, as the pandemic took the wind out of the sails of global cruising.
While MSC Cruises SA is still waiting for final government approval, Volk is bullish about the coming summer season, which is due to kick off in late-November: “We have worked in close collaboration with the relevant authorities in SA for approval of our comprehensive health and safety protocol designed for the wellbeing of guests, crew and the communities we serve and we look forward to receive the go ahead so we can start to implement the restart of cruising.”
If they get the green light, the MSC Musica will be based in Durban for a schedule of 30 sailings, with three-, four- and seven-night voyages around SA and to Portuguese Island, Mozambique. A 14-night voyage will take in both Madagascar and Mauritius, before the MSC Musica moves south to sail out of Cape Town, as far north as Walvis Bay in Namibia.
But the face of cruising has changed irrevocably, and those lining up at the gangway this summer will encounter a cruise holiday like none before, from the socially distanced sun loungers to reduced capacity at theatre shows. Help-yourself buffets? Those are gone too, though the staff will still serve up all you can eat. Passengers may only leave the ship on accredited excursions or to MSC-exclusive shore destinations, and masks are required in many parts of the ship.
And while all crew aboard MSC ships are fullyvaccinated, there’s no demand for passengers to be jabbed up.
But, if you’re not, you’ll have to present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of embarkation. In addition, MSC Cruises are proposing that all passengers undergo a rapid-antigen at the cruise terminal before boarding.
“We believe that vaccinations should coexist with testing systems and other health and safety measures and should be seen as an advanced extension of responsible travel,” says Volk.
It’s a contentious issue globally, with many leading cruise brands (such as NCL) insisting that all passengers are fully vaccinated. That’s not surprising, given the calamitous outbreaks that occurred on some ships last year. It’s perhaps why the US's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently that travellers who are not fully vaccinated, and anyone at high risk of severe complications from Covid-19, should avoid taking cruises altogether.
Vaccinated or not, South Africans are already clamouring for a berth when — or if — the MSC Musica sets sail this summer. All aboard? Well, that’s up to you.