Greece cruises on: the long journey back to normal

Frances Marcellin 21 December 2020 (Last Updated December 3rd, 2020 11:27)

Greece reopened six of its ports to cruise ships in August, becoming one of the first countries to ease restrictions using the standards outlined in the EU’s Health Gateways. We talked to some of the cruise companies running operations in Greece and found out if there’s evidence here of hope for the wider cruise industry’s future.

Greece cruises on: the long journey back to normal
Earlier this year Greece’s Minister of Tourism Haris Theocharis announced that from 1 August cruise ships could visit six ports in Greece.

While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to decimate the cruise industry, some of Europe’s ports opened to cruise ships during the summer.

In an announcement at the end of July, Greece’s Minister of Tourism Haris Theocharis announced that from 1 August cruise ships could visit six ports in Greece providing the industry followed EU Healthy Gateway guidelines.

“The ports of Piraeus, Rhodes, Heraklion, Volos, Corfu and Katakolo are open and cruise ships are permitted to visit any or all of the ports,” said Andy Harmer, Director at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) UK & Ireland. “After completing clearance at the first Greek port, the cruise ships will be able to proceed to any of the other ports.”

The cruise lines and ships that are or will be planning to cruise in Greece are Variety Cruises with Galileo; Costa Cruises with Costa Diadema and Costa Deliziosa; MSC Cruises with MSC Magnifica; and TUI Cruises with Mein Schiff 6.

Cruises in a bubble with TUI Cruises

At the end of July, TUI Cruises started up operations in and out of German ports without shore excursions. On 13 September, the cruise line started cruising in Greece with Mein Schiff 6.

“Existing structures and already very strict measures to prevent the spread of viral diseases have been further tightened.”

“Within our itineraries in Greece, our homeport is Heraklion in Crete and we have stops in the ports of Piraeus and Corfu where we offer shore excursions, all offered by TUI Cruises and organised in groups,” says Wybcke Meier, CEO of TUI Cruises. “The concept for our cruises to Greece is ‘cruises in a bubble’, meaning that we chartered aircraft for our guests only, taking the guests from the airport directly to the ship and only offering shore leave in organised groups.”

The company is offering seven-day-cruises to Greece until November and December 2020 but there will be an itinerary change with the ship calling at Rhodes instead of Corfu.

Mein Schiff. Credit: TUI Cruises.

Heraklion is the capital of Crete and, under usual circumstances, the port can handle more than 10,000 passengers and crew members each day. At the moment, health requirements at the terminal include digital and staggered check-ins, distancing and hygiene measures, a mandatory health questionnaire, a pre-cruise PCR test and daily temperature checks for guests and crew. 

The company has also reduced capacity on board to 60%, with only balcony cabins and suites being used. 

Meier says that each ship has always had its own onboard hospital with trained personnel, but adds that current measures have been checked to meet the medical standards of “renowned institutions”, such as the German Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the World Health Organization (WHO) and Greek authorities’ guidelines.

“Existing structures and already very strict measures to prevent the spread of viral diseases have been further tightened and adapted to the current situation,” he adds.

Main Schiff in Corfu. Credit: TUI Cruises.

Costa Cruises: from Italy to Greece

Costa Cruises started cruising in Italy from 6 September – after reworking its itineraries to March 2021 – but from 10 October Costa Deliziosa started one-week cruises from Trieste to Greece. The ship will stop at the ports of Pireus, Katakolon and Heraklion.

“We are continuously monitoring the overall epidemiological situation development in order to plan our cruises and our itineraries to ensure a rigorous, coordinated and complete application of health protocols,” says a spokesperson for Costa Cruises. 

“We are continuously monitoring the overall epidemiological situation development in order to plan our cruises.”

The Costa Cruises team has stressed that guests’ embarkation is aligned with the “Costa Safety Protocol which contains new operational measures in response to the Covid-19 situation”, and that it is, in some cases, even stricter than the protocols defined by the Italian and European authorities.

Guests will have to go through the following before they would be allowed to step on board: “Staggered entrance times by virtue of online check-in, temperature checks for guests, a health questionnaire and antigen rapid swab test, with the possibility of an additional molecular swab test for any suspected cases.”

If all goes according to plan, in 2021 Costa Deliziosa, Costa Diadema, Costa Luminosa and Costa Magica will all offer itineraries in the East Mediterranean, which will also include calls at Greek ports.

Celestyal Cruises reminds of Greece’s need for air travel services

Celestyal Crystal and Celestyal Olympia. Credit: Celestyal Cruises.

Celestyal Cruises – which is based in Greece and specialises in Greek island and East Med itineraries – suspended operations earlier on in the year. The cruise line is planning a start date of March 2021. CEO Chris Theophilides explains that this was also related to the impact of coronavirus on the company’s key long-haul markets, such as North and South America and Australia.

“It will take time to return to normality and for cruise lines to return to homeporting in Greece.”

“While we have suspended our operations, all of our ships are docked in the port of Piraeus and are under safe manning operation,” says Theophilides, adding that the crew were mostly repatriated ahead of airport shutdowns.

During this time, the company has acquired a new ship, Celestyal Experience, which Theophilides says will be instrumental in helping the company rebound from next year.

Although Celestyal is not cruising yet, Theophilides feels optimistic that the successful restart of summer operations in Greece is a hopeful sign for the cruise industry.

“A handful of cruise operators that primarily embark in Italy are successfully calling in Greek ports and this is a very positive sign for the future,” he says. “However, it will take time to return to normality and for cruise lines to return to homeporting in Greece, which is largely dependent on airlift.”

MSC Magnifica to start cruising in Greece

Recently, MSC Cruises announced that MSC Magnifica will be cruising in Greece from 19 October. The ship will homeport in Genoa and, after calling at various ports in Italy and Malta, it will stop in Piraeus and Katakolon.

“MSC Cruises has implemented many new protocols to maintain a Covid-free environment on board.”

The cruise line doesn’t typically call at East Mediterranean ports in the winter. Piraeus and Katakolon are usually part of the company’s summer operations, but the East and West Med itinerary was specifically designed for the pandemic period. 

The cruise line also has MSC Grandiosa currently operating seven-night cruises in Italy at Genoa, Civitavecchia, Naples and Palermo, as well as in Valletta, Malta.

MSC Magnifica. Credit: MSC Cruises.

MSC Cruises has implemented many new protocols to maintain a Covid-free environment on board. These include testing and screening of guests and crew before embarkation, improved sanitation and cleaning procedures, face masks in public areas, ventilation with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), track and trace technology on board and accompanied excursions only, which maintains a “social bubble” for guests.

Vago says testing is key to the future of cruising

While speaking at the recent virtual G20 Summit, Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises, stressed that he felt the core element of the plan was the testing. This followed a statement from CLIA on 6 October that declared its ocean cruise line members carrying more than 250 passengers would require a negative test for embarkation.

“There can be no doubt that testing is the key.”

“We are now in the midst of our eighth sailing with a second vessel due to restart later this month with a longer itinerary, and we have safely carried 16,000,” he explained. 

“Throughout, we have been rigorous in the implementation of our protocol and have had to deny embarkation to well over 100 guests for testing positive, travelling with someone who tested positive, not having the correct medical paperwork or for infractions of our protocol.”

Citing data that showed 80% of people infected with Covid are mild or asymptomatic, Vago stressed that “there can be no doubt that testing is the key”. 

In fact, a recent study from Mundy Cruising showed that, at least in the luxury sector, cruise customers want that too, with 56% of respondents responding positively to the idea of pre-embarkation testing.

Vago went on to express how he believes that, if testing and similar protocols are maintained, cruise ships could be considered “possibly amongst the safest holidays anywhere in the world”.