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Back on deck

11 September 2021
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The Viking Venus entering Valletta’s Grand Harbour. The ship has been cruising there this northern summer.
The Viking Venus entering Valletta’s Grand Harbour. The ship has been cruising there this northern summer.

Pre-pandemic, the growth of the cruise industry saw ships and their international guests descend on an increasing number of ports, rivers, lakes and fiords around the world. From Italy and the Greek Isles to Scandinavia, the Caribbean, Asia and even Antarctica, these floating hotels on picturesque waterways offered an appealing travel option.

While Covid-19 may have taken the wind out of the sails for vessels, operators have used the downtime to renovate, replace and revamp their ships and the packages on offer.

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Jeff Leckey, the general manager of cruises for House of Travel, is excited about the future of the industry. “The cruise lines have not slowed down. Many operators have embarked on building newer, more environmentally friendly ships and a lot took the opportunity to retire older, less efficient ships during the shutdown. Right now there is a great opportunity for guests to enjoy brand new ships with some fantastic, innovative on-board features.”

Jeff acknowledges there are limited opportunities in New Zealand currently; however, the rest of the world is gearing up for the 2022 season. “Ocean cruises are now operating again in the UK, Europe, Iceland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Alaska and the largest cruise market, the Caribbean. River cruises are slowly re-starting in Europe on regional rivers and also in the USA on the likes of the Mississippi,” he says.

Michelle Black, managing director for Viking Cruises, reiterates Jeff’s enthusiasm for the new style of cruise holiday on offer. “The future for cruising is bright and we firmly believe there will be no safer way to travel. Viking has a number of exciting new products on the horizon that will take our guests to new frontiers,” says Michelle.

Then and now facts on cruises
EXPANDING HORIZONS

Viking started out in 1997 with four river ships; 24 years on, they’re the world’s largest river cruise line with a fleet of 70 throughout Europe and Russia. New ships are launching on the Nile, Mekong and Mississippi in 2022.

Their first ocean ship, the Viking Star, launched in 2015. Since then, they have grown to become the world’s largest small ship cruise line offering experiences on rivers, oceans and lakes; they even visit the polar regions.

“It’s very exciting times for Viking. The innovation in cruising and the diversity of options appeals to guests. Demand has never been greater, with guests wanting to experience what they love so much about cruising: unpacking once, exceptional service and the friendships formed on board with other like-minded travellers,” says Michelle.

“Our guests are culturally curious, well-travelled and interested in immersing themselves in their destination through its history, landscapes, culture and, of course, food.”

Both Michelle and Jeff are optimistic that demand for ocean cruises will grow, especially given what we’re seeing overseas explains Michelle. “Viking restarted operations in May for UK guests, with cruises sailing around England. In June, we welcomed US guests back on board in Bermuda and Iceland. This month, we will also launch additional ‘Welcome Back’ sailings in the Mediterranean with three ocean ships homeported in Valletta, Malta – and we will restart our European river operations with select itineraries in Portugal, France and along the Rhine,” she says.

Jeff is confident that the industry will re-establish itself back to pre-Covid levels and House of Travel is gearing up for the anticipated demand. “Cruise bookings are now open for the majority of 2022 and 2023 sailings, with some lines even opening up for 2024, due to huge pent-up demand to cruise. We have seen some world cruises completely sell out on the first day of sale. Even local cruises, such as the Oceania circumnavigation of Australia in December 2023, sold out in just two days,” says Jeff.

Sanitation robots are employed in the Viking Venus kitchen.
Sanitation robots are employed in the Viking Venus kitchen.
SAFETY FIRST

Operators have introduced well-researched, comprehensive health and safety protocols to ensure the safety of guests and crew. “No part of the travel-and-tourism industry has done as much as the cruise lines to ensure a safe re-start,” says Jeff.

New protocols include:

  • Contactless boarding.
  • Enhanced medical services, including non-invasive saliva PCR tests for all guests and crew.
  • On-board laboratories.
  • Better use of technology to allow bookings and contact tracing in restaurants and shows, and for on-shore excursions.
  • Staff service has replaced the traditional buffets (which some cruise lines had already introduced pre-pandemic).
  • Most cruise lines have fully vaccinated crew.
  • In many of the countries that have re-started, guests must be fully vaccinated.
  • Viking is engaging artificial intelligence, with sanitation robots treating surfaces in public areas, and every ship has been fitted with new air purification technology.
GET ON BOARD – QUICK

When asked if she anticipates demand for bookings to increase, Michelle is unequivocal in her response.

“Absolutely! There is an element of demand exceeding supply at present. We are booking quite far ahead, with the majority of bookings for travel in 2023. Our 2022 ocean season is almost sold out. Australian and New Zealand guests need to remember that we are feeding into global stock levels, and the rest of the world is travelling and booking. Hesitancy will mean people miss out on their preferred options when we are able to travel freely again.”

Jeff has similar advice for those considering future holiday options.

“With the whole world competing for space on these future cruise holidays, it has never been more important for Kiwis to book early to secure their choice of itinerary and room preference. There are some fantastic early booking incentives, including promotions with low deposits, free drinks packages and free on-board spending money, plus there are flexible booking conditions from a lot of cruise lines.”

a small ship is cruising in endicott arm
Source: Getty Images.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 107 DAYS

Christchurch couple Alice and Murray love to cruise, and not even an intrepid adventure pre-Covid-19 has dulled their love of holidaying by boat. In 2020, they were partway through a 45-day cruise when Covid-19 hit. There followed 19 days straight sailing as they were refused entry into several Indian Ocean ports. Finally, the ship turned around and went full steam ahead for Freemantle. From there, the couple flew to Melbourne and home to Christchurch on the last plane out, arriving just 24 hours before New Zealand went into lockdown.

Alice and Murray, both in their mid-80s, were not bothered by the experience. “It was very relaxing actually. I am an avid reader and there was a very good on-board gym. Alice loves to walk so she did a lot of that around the ship,” says Murray.

Long-time intrepid travellers – they have trekked to Base Camp, visited Cuba and walked a portion of the Camino trail – Murray admits he once vowed and declared he would never go on a cruise. That changed in 2014 when Alice urged him to give it a go. Their first experience on a Princess Line cruise from Vancouver to Alaska concluded with an eight-day tramp. Since then the couple have enjoyed many cruises, usually in conjunction with overland excursions and activities. The vessels have ranged in capacity from 600 to 4000 guests.

They have already secured a cabin on their next adventure; in May 2022, the adventurous couple depart Auckland for a 107-day around-the-world cruise. “Can’t wait,” says Murray.

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