First U.K. Cruise in Fourteen Months Departs
Cruising returned to the U.K. today after a 14-month hiatus. Coordinated to the country’s efforts to relax COVID-19 restrictions which saw England’s much-beloved pubs also reopen, the government proceeded on plan with the scheduled resumption of domestic travel for residents. MSC Cruises became the first large cruise line to restore operations in what many see as a test for the U.K. and the cruise industry.
MSC’s newest and largest cruise ship officially kicked off the return of cruising departing from Southampton for a 4-night cruise which will include a stop in Portsmouth. The 181,541 gross ton MSC Virtuosa was built in France and delivered to the cruise line in February, although today marketed her first commercial voyage. With a passenger capacity of 6,334 passengers, the ship faces strict restrictions limiting its capacity to just 1,000 passengers during the first phase of the resumption of cruising from the U.K. The hope is that the government will relax the restrictions further in June.
“We are very proud that MSC Virtuosa’s first-ever sailing marks the resumption of cruising from British ports after an enforced break of more than a year and effectively heralds the next phase of restart for our industry,” said Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises.
MSC, which restarted limited cruise operations in August 2020, is working to scale up operations for the summer months recently adding a second ship to its operations in the Mediterranean and announcing plans for more ships this summer in the Mediterranean as well as cruises from Germany.
In the U.K., MSC is required to limit passengers to British residents for its cruises while the line’s other ships sailing from Italy and Germany can accept passengers from most European countries. Unlike many of the cruise lines that are planning to restart operations this summer, MSC is not requiring that all passengers be vaccinated for COVID-19. Passengers are being tested for the virus before embarkation and again mid-week on the 7-day cruises while the crew is being tested weekly. MSC also began a fleet-wide vaccination program for the crew in May and is reporting “many of MSC Virtuosa’s 1,150 crew have received COVID-19 vaccines.”
Viking is also launching a limited program of cruises from the U.K. aboard one of its smaller, luxury cruise ships, the Viking Venus after the new vessel was christened in the U.K. The cruise however is scheduled next month to reposition to the Mediterranean for the summer.
The U.K. cruise market is expected to grow quickly starting in June as the major British cruise lines and several of the international brands also plan to resume sailing. P&O Cruises is preparing to return its large cruise ships to service as well as Cunard Line and later in the summer will be joined by another Carnival Corporation brand Princess Cruises. The U.K.’s Marella Cruises, Fred. Olsen, and Saga are also resuming cruises. Among the international brands will be Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, and Disney, plus Virgin Voyages plans to operate its first commercial voyages all sailing from the U.K. this summer.
Current restrictions mean that the cruises can only stop at U.K. ports or cruise in international waters. The cruise lines are hopeful that the travel restrictions will be relaxed further so that they might add port calls as the summer cruise season progresses. Despite the restrictions and broad competition, many of the cruise lines reported strong sales with voyages selling out.