CruiseCross-border cruising on table with Singapore-Penang-Phuket itinerary being planned, according to updates at CruiseWorld Asia 2021.

Cruising to nowhere is getting somewhere

Cruising to nowhere getting somewhere, as domestic cruises resume in Malaysia Dec 22
Cruising to nowhere getting somewhere, as domestic cruises resume in Malaysia Dec 22 Photo Credit: Star Cruises, Genting Cruise Lines

It is ironic that even though air travel in Asia is going nowhere, the only sector that seems to be going somewhere even though it is mostly to nowhere, is cruising.

On December 22, domestic cruises from Penang, Malaysia, will resume, making it the fourth country in Asia to operate “cruises to nowhere”, after Singapore, which celebrates one year of domestic cruising, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Genting Cruise Lines will operate the Star Pisces with five departures a week, offering a series of roundtrip itineraries from Penang including a two-night “Langkawi Escape”.

All in, Genting Cruise Lines, which is operating in these four markets, have carried around 400,000 passengers and at this week’s CruiseWorld Asia 2021, organised by TravelWeekly Asia, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales for the group, Michael Goh gave it a “10” when he spoke about how cruises had resumed and operated during the pandemic.

Hats off to everyone, he said, for making it happen – from government bodies such as Singapore Tourism Board, port authorities, cruise line employees and all partners.

And while the Omricon variant has thrown air travel into another tizzy – Singapore’s Vaccinated Travel Lanes remain open but come with a lot more rules and tests – it doesn’t seem to have thrown cruising into a frenzy, with bookings holding, if not soaring, as travellers, nervous about ever-changing rules across borders, switch from flight to cruise.

Both Dream Cruises and Royal Caribbean, operating in Singapore, are reported to be fully booked for the holiday season.

The fact that cruises have been operating safely through the pandemic, without any major incidents, is giving the industry a level of confidence that has permeated through to consumers. The fact that passengers are all vaccinated and tested, and safety protocols followed, also gives an extra level of comfort.

You can tell it was no easy feat to get the go-ahead for cruises to resume in Malaysia. Captain Mohamad Alim Bin Ahmed, Under Secretary, Maritime Division of the Ministry of Transport, speaking from London, said that “before any decision can be made, lots of discussions have to be held, with layers of committees”.

Plus, “the rules keep changing, according to the situation, so we have to carefully monitor it”, he said.

“We have embarked on the Vaccinated Travel Lane with Singapore for air and land – numbers are still limited – but there is movement. Now, domestic cruises will start in Malaysia, and we are looking forward to it. It was not easy to achieve.”

At the Penang Port, CEO Dato Sasedharan Vasudevan said processes and facilities were being ramped up for safe reopening – such as opening up new zones and looking at passenger flows. “Everytime we had a plan that we thought would work, the rules kept changing.”

The good news is, it will be taking lessons from the Singapore playbook, “no need to reinvent the wheel”, said Dato Sasedharan. “We are going through the same anxiety that Singapore has gone through.”

He also said there were plans to open a Singapore-Penang-Phuket cruise bubble, hopefully in the first quarter of 2022.

“Let’s take this first step, then see what other steps we can take,” added Captain Halim.

In Indonesia, Rahardian Zebedianto, department head of passenger & RoRo service, Indonesian port authority Pelindo, which operates 116 commercial ports in 32 provinces, said the country was looking at cruise resumption, using Benoa Port in Bali as a pilot, in the first quarter of 2022.

There is recognition by port authorities that there needs to be alignment of protocols for cruise customers so that the same confusion that now plagues air travellers does not happen when cross-border cruises resume, with all parties saying they were in discussion on this topic.

Annie Chang, Director, Cruise, Policy & Planning Group, Singapore Tourism Board, called the Omricon variant “an inconvenient interruption to our reopening plans”.

“But it’s shown us that this not going to go away anytime soon and we can also move very fast in managing the emergence of new variants. It’s also proven that lockdowns are not sustainable and there needs to be a balance between health concerns and economic tradeoffs. We have BAU (Business As Usual) plans in place – we can’t wait to pull them out of the drawer.”

She said that while it has been encouraging to see such healthy bookings, even though they were at 50% of capacity, there is recognition that the current version of cruising with its attendant safety restrictions and capacity management should be reviewed in the near future, especially with the resumption of cross-border cruises.

Meanwhile, across the seas, Harry Sommer, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line said it plans to have its full fleet of 17 ships operating by first quarter of next year. “Fingers crossed,” he told the CruiseWorld Asia audience, “we have our last ship, Norwegian Sun, ready to start out of Tokyo on 30 March and are waiting for the go-ahead.”

As with air travel, cruising in Asia lags behind the US and Europe where cruise lines have resumed since summer. Sommer said it’s carried 200,000 guests since July and “there’ve been no serious outbreak, no hospitalisation, among crew and customers”.

“We were full for summer, we are on our way back and we are hopeful for the first quarter. We are all in,” he said.

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