Italians are warm people but we have put aside, for a while, the handshakes and hugs that are our dearest habits. We are on the MSC Grandiosa, the major first cruise ship to depart since lockdown began in Europe.
It’s 16 August 2020, the day after an Italian ministerial decree that allowed cruises to restart, and the Grandiosa has already set sail from Genoa.
“I have been on board since 25 January,” says one of the Grandisoa crew with an air of frustration and homesickness. “I have seen the ship stop and then leave again. I have never disembarked and, day by day, I have watched the world change.”
A porthole into the ship’s playroom. MSC Grandiosa aims to be a bubble from infection
“It was a sigh of relief for all of us,” she says. “After months of being stopped in the waters of the Mediterranean and the illusion of restarting business, this was slow in coming.”
The stranded ship has become home for other crew who, like her, spend much of their lives at sea. Docked at Civitavecchia port near Rome, the boat was kept functioning throughout the Covid-19 pandemic by its stranded crew.
Passengers are asked to leave at least one deckchair between themselves and others on the sundeck
Masks are mandatory in all public areas of the ship
The halt in cruise traffic during lockdown dramatically cut emissions from the ships, but port pollution has nevertheless reached worrying levels, especially in Mediterranean docks. A report by the European Federation for Transport and Environment, a coalition of organisations engaged in the fight against air pollution, claims that in 2017, 203 luxury cruise ships in Europe consumed about 3,267 kilotonnes of fuel, emitting 10,286 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide, 155 kilotonnes of nitrogen oxides, 62 kilotonnes of sulphur oxides and 10 kilotonnes of particulate matter.
Lockdown cut those emissions, and hit the cruise ship industry’s bottom line. Carnival Corporation, one of the world’s largest leisure travel companies, reported closing the second quarter of 2020 with a net loss of $4.3bn dollars (£3.25bn).
One of the many pools. The average age of passengers has remained roughly the same since before the pandemic: most are 50+
Minigolf, dance classes and cinemas go on as usual, though all now adhere to physical distancing and mask requirements
The play areas are now closed every two hours in order for them to be sanitised.
Now, as the industry slowly restarts, there is a new prototype for cruise holidays.
“Incessant checks mark each day,” explains a Grandiosa crew member. “Mandatory swabs tests are carried out before boarding the ship, and hand sanitisation. Face masks are worn even in outdoor play activities. The maximum number of passengers that can be accommodated has been reduced from 5,000 to 1,500, but there has been an increase in national [Italian] tourism.”
The deckchairs, too, are sanitised regularly
The indoor soccer pitch has been converted into a Covid-19 swab testing area
The new rules are designed to allow passengers to enjoy their holidays in peace, as if the virus belonged to another life. You can even hear the odd joyful shout, muffled by masks. Whether the virus can be contained on board is another matter. Last week in the Caribbean, five passengers tested positive on board a cruise ship.
The restart of cruising has only been made possible by the creation of an onboard bubble – a floating island of dreams, hopes and spent savings; young people on honeymoons alongside families and retired couples. The health emergency has reminded much of the world that the ability to go on holiday is not a given.
“On board, it really feels like living in an idyllic place, where there is nothing to fear except that the swab test will hurt,” says one of the passengers.
Our habits may have changed, but for now it appears that cruising – its pleasures and its environmental damage alike – will continue.
Onboard the Grandiosa in Palermo, Sicily, the evening before leaving for Malta
Every second table in the casino is now closed