Interview KRIZETTE CHU
In the first few days of the global pandemic, the news that came out from the wires seemed the stuff of surreal apocalyptic nightmares. This scenario, in particular: Cruise ship passengers from the Diamond Princesswere stranded at sea in Yokohoma, and in San Francisco, thousands of guests of the Grand Princesswaited for weeks for a go-ahead for disembarkation.
Inside the Grand Princess, passengers from 50 different countries were assumed to have been hit by the then-still mysterious, fearsome virus called novel coronavirus. Moored in a huge ship with nowhere to go, the passengers were restless, and back on dry land, imagination ran wild.
Soon, there were reports of widespread infection in the ship, with returning cruise holidaymakers bringing home more than a piece of souvenir to their hometowns.
Cruising, as an industry, took a hit. Later on, the governments took control and declared a stop to cruising, and even now, months into the pandemic, seafarers and cruise workers are still disembarking from ports all over the world as they return to their countries. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) summarily issued advice against cruising.
Will the world ever return to cruising? The forecast seems grim for many cruise line companies all over the world. The imagery of cruise ships—enclosed, in a pod, a Petri dish—as a breeding ground for virus spreading, seem like it has already sealed the future of the industry.
And yet, despite the fear, the cruise industry is fighting back to save themselves. The reality is, despite the public perception of it being unsafe, many cruise lines have been untouched by the virus even when many ships were navigating the seas when the pandemic hit. One of the companies to have emerged unscathed from what is considered the biggest blow to the industry is the Asian cruise line Genting, headquartered in Hong Kong—significant considering that the first epicenter was in Asia.
In an interview with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales of Genting Cruise Lines, talks about navigating choppy waters, and what the industry can do to save itself.
A CDC study found that the virus quickly spread through food service workers in a cruise. How will this be addressed?
We’ve implemented enhanced and effective measures to mitigate the risk among the crew, which include daily contactless temperature checks, training on identification and reporting of symptoms, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) usage, sanitization of equipment, including galleys and high frequency touchpoints. We have also suspended the self-service at F&B buffet restaurants and, instead, meals will be served by our crew who will be wearing face masks and gloves as added precautionary measures.
What will the passenger screening process be like moving forward from embarkation to disembarkation?
At GCL, stringent health screening processes and protocol prior to embarkation and disembarkation will be the new norm. For instance, mandatory preboarding health declarations and infrared temperature screening for all embarking individuals. We will also continue to work closely with local ports on the required screening processes at each destination.
Cruises also largely cater to the elderly and retirees, who are particularly vulnerable. How will this impact your market?
We maintain that cruising is for everyone. Cruises also provide family-friendly entertainment. We will continue to educate and target a wide demographic on our enhanced preventive measures to provide peace of mind for future cruisers.
Is the framework for coordination, as port to port, country to country, rules would change? What standards of commonality should be in place?
As a cruise line, there are several tiers on how measures and protocols are set. For instance, as a member of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association), we will implement and adopt measures that are of industry practice set out by CLIA. We also have been pro-actively and independently working with key bodies, such as working toward the CIP-M certification by DNV GL and getting the vote of confidence by the Asia Cruise Terminal Association (ACTA). All these measures are further guided by the local ports and authorities that may vary from port to port.
Assuming there will be fewer passengers, will this mean we are looking at a future where cruising is more expensive?
When we restart business again, the business will not be back to 100 percent. In a restaurant, we will seat fewer people, and in the theater we will leave seats empty in between. In the kids’ club, we will have to do a lot more cleaning and disinfection on our games and toys more frequently or at least twice daily. When you run a lower occupancy, your operating costs, meanwhile, will also become lower, so that will mean that you might not need so many workers on the ship and we have to manage our labor cost. And with less food being served the food cost is also lower, so we’ve got to strike a balance there.
The Singapore government has used two of your ships as temporary housing for migrant workers. What have you been able to take away from this experience?
We are proud to have paved the way and gained valuable insight that will be beneficial to both our company and the industry, as we continue to strive to enhance our overall capabilities in preventive, health, and safety measures across our fleet.
In March, the CDC warned against travel on cruise ships. What has changed from then to now, without a vaccine?
We maintain that cruise ships are no more risky than other social gatherings or holiday formats. Educating the public is key: Our ship designs enable 100 percent external fresh air to be filtered and supplied to the cabins and on board public areas—ensuring a constant and healthy flow of fresh air with no recirculation within the ship—an important feature on our cruise ships. Public areas were previously sanitized once daily and are now sanitized two to four times daily with hospital-grade disinfectants. We are offering new incentives such as our “Cruise As You Wish” program, which allows flexibility of up 48 hours cancelation before sailing to receive 100 percent future cruise credit.
We are highly optimistic that Asia will continue to be a popular destination for cruise travelers. Also, consumers will have more choices and greater convenience in traveling with more governments exploring partnerships. For instance, China is exploring to expand its “Travel Bubble” covering mainland China to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, as well as South Korea, which we hope can be similarly created by local governments within various parts of the ASEAN region.
What is the timeline for the industry to resume?
In Singapore, we hope to resume operations from August and we can start by exploring to offer “Holiday at Sea” itineraries cruising to nowhere as the ship itself is a destination, filled with on board activities, performances, and attractions. This, however, will depend on the evolving situations in the region and other various factors.
What are some of the greatest lessons that your company has learned in this experience?The cruise business is highly volatile, as we know, but at the same time, we are also highly resilient. This global challenge is indeed a crisis for many but, as we know in Chinese, crisis comprises of two words: wei ji– weirepresenting ‘danger’ and jirepresenting ‘opportunity.’ Crisis creates a humble opportunity for us to reflect, challenge traditional business models, and potentially curate new strategies to keep up. We will continue to explore opportunities for our existing fleet and also look forward to welcoming our Global Class ships with the first delivery scheduled sometime between 2021 and 2022.