Ritz-Carlton Yacht CEO says without vaccine, cruise ships are adrift

A straightforward set of best practices isn’t enough to get ships back out to sea

By NIKKI EKSTEIN

LAST week, the cruise industry seemed to crest a wave in its pandemic saga, with major companies such as Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd announcing long-in-the-making protocols to safely resume operations.

Their new policies encompass 74 points that will sound familiar to anyone monitoring the travel industry’s best practices: Both crew and guests will be required to take Covid-19 tests and wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible, sanitation and ventilation methods will be improved and contingency plans will be implemented to treat and quarantine sick passengers. Both cruise lines are now accepting reservations for a limited number of sailings as soon as November.

A rendering of the luxury living room on a Ritz-Carlton yacht. Cruise lines are now accepting reservations for a limited number of sailings

But a straightforward set of best practices isn’t enough to get ships back out to sea, says Doug Prothero (picture), CEO of Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, speaking to Bloomberg from the Spanish shipyard where his company’s maiden vessel, Evrima, is nearing completion. The luxury cruise brand was slated to see its first departures in 2020, but has deferred those plans until next April due to construction delays.

“Things are going to normalise when there’s a vaccine,” says Prothero, in a departure from his industry colleagues. To be fair, he has less urgency to get business moving: His ships won’t be ready to leave the shipyard until the spring, at which point Prothero is optimistic that a vaccine will be rolling out. (Experts say it’s more likely the end of 2021 to cover 20% of the world’s population.) But with an estimated US$300 million (RM1.25 billion) tied up in building the company’s three 298-passenger yachts, misreading the forecast could be costly.

To date, no cruise executive has ruled out the possibility of sailing before a vaccine’s adoption. But many have wondered behind closed-doors whether it’s possible to conduct a voyage safely under any other circumstances.

In August, cruise industry veteran and ex-Azamara CEO Larry Pimentel commented in a webinar that on any ship that sails pre-vaccine, “You have to assume someone on board will have Covid-19…so you’ll need a hospital section”.

Meanwhile, two companies that promised safety guarantees before resuming small- ship cruises this summer — Hurtigruten and Ponant — barely left their home ports before turning up confirmed Covid-19 cases on their vessels.

An artist’s impression of Evrima. The luxury cruise was slated to see its 1st departures in 2020, but has deferred those plans until next April

To Prothero, the question is less about public health than logistics. “People are learning to live with it in the community. Think about what’s happening everywhere else and you’ll see what’s going to happen in leisure,” he says. “As the broader community finds safe ways to live around it, more things will happen.”

He says the cruise industry has a long history of working with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on viral outbreak prevention and that Ritz-Carlton’s yachts were already planned to have one of the highest square-foot-per-passenger ratios at sea.

But unlike other fleets, such as Norwegian, which is installing top-of-the-line air filtration systems, or Princess, which is offering touchless payment systems on board, Prothero says his designs didn’t need to be tweaked to facilitate social distancing or better cater to Covid-19-cautious passengers. “Best practices are a moving target,” he explains.

What’s certain, he says, is you need air travel to resume for cruise passengers to get on board. And for air travel to resume, borders need to reopen. (Ritz-Carlton is primarily selling itineraries in the US and Canada, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean — all regions where border restrictions continue to present challenges.)

“When that happens, it’s because freedom of movement is happening,” Prothero says. If there’s freedom of movement, the urgency of distancing will have theoretically subsided. “When [air travel] is in place, I think everything else will be ready to follow,” he adds. — Bloomberg