The UK boss of Princess Cruises has hit back at critics, saying it’s unfair to single out his industry for criticism over coronavirus, after a torrent of negative publicity that began when one of his line’s ships was quarantined.
Tony Roberts, vice president UK and Europe, told The Telegraph: “I feel aggrieved that the cruise industry seems to have been picked on here. Cruise lines have acted with the best of intentions based on the information available at the time. When you see the media pulling apart what we did, you could equally apply that to other factors in terms of international travel that have contributed to the global spread of this virus. Cruise just feels like an easy target.”
He said there was still a huge amount to learn about the virus and its impact on social activities in future, and those lessons would be just as relevant for all types of travel, hotels, restaurants, stadiums, entertainment events and public transport.
He added: “All these are going to have to adapt to the new world. People will return to travel but when they do there will have to be new protocols in place that make it safe to do so. The cruise industry won’t determine what’s acceptable for social gathering. It will be a global issue, not a cruise one, and we’ll follow the guidance of the medical experts in doing so.
“We will have work to do in demonstrating how and why it’s safe and appropriate to do so, when the time is right, and obviously right now it isn’t, because no one is travelling and attending social gatherings, we’re all staying safe at home.”
Princess Cruises was the first cruise business to make headlines over the virus back in February when Diamond Princess was held in quarantine for nearly three weeks in Yokohama, the cruise port of Tokyo in Japan.
Roberts acknowledged how difficult it was to react to the media coverage at the time, because the cruise line was acting under the guidance and direction of the Japanese Ministry of Health.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s easy to be critical based on what we know now,” he said. “It made it very challenging because it felt like we weren’t responding to what was going on at times, when in reality everyone was working very hard to make sure we were doing everything we should have been doing under the guidance of the health experts.”
He pointed out that cruise lines took the initiative and voluntarily paused operations ahead of other industries, with Princess being one of the first to do so on March 12, on the same day the government advised those over 70 and with chronic health conditions not to travel by cruise ship.
That was before the UK government advised against all non-essential travel on March 17 and prime minister Boris Johnson placed the country in a full-scale lockdown on March 23.
Roberts flew to Miami at the start of March with a small group of UK colleagues to work on the repatriation effort. Princess Cruises has 18 ships in total, carrying a total of 50,000 passengers at any one time.
“The original plan was to be there for the whole of March,” said Roberts. “Getting everyone home took much longer and was more logistically challenging than we ever expected.”
But when the UK government advised against all non-essential travel, suddenly his team became part of the repatriation story too, as they experienced the drama of returning home as the world went into lockdown.
He says: “We booked on one of the last regular direct flights out of Miami. There were three going to London that day, and the flight before ours and the one after were cancelled. Watching that unfold was quite nerve wracking but when you consider some of the journeys people faced to get home, we had it easy.”
On Monday, Pacific Princess, the last remaining Princess ship still with a small number of passengers on board docked in Los Angeles, and now all operations have been paused.
While the Princess team continues to focus on servicing those customers affected by the suspension in operations, there’s bound to be a certain amount of future gazing going on.
Placing bets, however, is not a game Roberts is willing to play, especially while the FCO travel advice relates to an indefinite period of time.
“We’ve gone on the record with a degree of certainty,” he said. “We’ve cancelled all cruises until the end of June, we’re not running our Alaska land programme this summer, and we’ve delayed the launch of Enchanted Princess, which was due to take place in Southampton at the end of June.
“Right now the advice from the UK government is do not travel and they’ve not set an end date on that, so while that remains the same, it’s difficult for us to make any kind of prediction beyond the dates we’ve already confirmed. But that’s true of all travel right now.”
It has been suggested that the Asian market could return sooner than other regions, given countries there are further along the curve than Europe and the Americas, but Roberts doesn’t anticipate that Britons will be willing to travel a long way from home or sign up for a long voyage. “Reports that cruises might resume first in China are based purely on the progress of the virus there. We think initially Brits will want to stay closer to home and go on slightly shorter cruises.”
He’s buoyed by the support shown by passengers involved in the Diamond Princess story, such as Briton David Abel, who posted Facebook updates from the ship and then his hospital bed in Japan once he contracted the virus. “David continues to be supportive and says he is looking forward to booking another Princess cruise once this is all over. That’s one example of someone who gets cruise, who understands we’ve had advanced protocols and measures in place around hand washing and deep cleaning for a long time, and has recognised this isn’t just a cruise issue, it’s a global pandemic that has impacted all social gatherings.”
Work is being done on new industry-wide protocols that can handle the challenges of the virus, coordinated by industry body Cruise Lines International Association (Clia) with the help of medical experts. These new protocols, once established, will be heavily promoted to reassure potential new cruisers, rather than relying on deals to entice them in, said Roberts.
“Cruising already represents incredible value for money and it would be risky to rely on price as a stimulus,” he said. “There may be slightly more late availability this year and there will always be promiscuous deal seekers, but it’s a real risk for the industry to rely on price. We need to be able to effectively tell the story of why it’s appropriate to travel on a cruise. All of the good things that have always been true about cruising are still true now.”
“We’re seeing strong demand for 2021 already. Lots of people who’ve had their travel plans or changed this year have been very happy to book onto a cruise next year.
“There’s always been a group of people with plenty of reasons not to cruise, and this is another reason they can add to that, but the industry has been hugely successful and has grown significantly over the years so I feel confident we will continue to be able to do that and attract new people.”
For now, the ships may be empty apart from essential crew and the engines running on low power, but rest assured that Roberts and his team are quietly planning their cruise line’s return.
“Without a doubt, it’s the most challenging period of my 20 years in the industry.” he said. His team have been in crisis mode since the start of February and they are not out of the woods yet: “The current environment makes it quite difficult to plan, so we’re continuing to work in a very fluid environment with a high degree of uncertainty, and all of that is very challenging for the whole team. But we know we have an amazing product and loyal guests and that helps keep everyone motivated.”
He remains convinced that people will return to travel and social gatherings: “I don’t know exactly how and when but when it’s appropriate to do so, people will return to cruising. We just have to work through the current challenges and work towards that point.”
By Katherine Lawrey, The Telegraph
Re-posted on CruiseCrazies.com - Cruise News, Articles, Forums, Packing List, Ship Tracker, and more
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