PARIS— With tests, vaccinations and isolation areas, cruise ship companies are hoping for smoother sailing this travel season after fears over COVID-stricken ships rocked the industry last year.
Cruise companies have lost tens of billions of dollars while hundreds of thousands of people have lost jobs as countries banned ships from their ports.
The industry's woes started in February last year when the Diamond Princess and its 4,000 passengers spent weeks in quarantine in port in Japan as coronavirus infections on board climbed, reaching 700.
While cruises may have to wait until July to use ports in Florida, ships have been gingerly returning to sea in other markets, with strict health protocols to avoid a repeat of last year's misfortunes.
Italian cruise line Costa Cruises set sail on Saturday for the first time in more than 4 months, with its flagship vessel setting sail from Savona. The Italian government had banned cruises in December.
The Costa Smeralda was only a quarter full, with 1,500 passengers.
All passengers and crew were first tested for coronavirus and mask-wearing was mandatory for the trip. The 1,300 crew were quarantined for 14 days before reporting for duty.
Other ships were setting sail from Barcelona and the southern French city of Marseille.
Costa's rival MSC returned to sea much earlier, in August.
Since then, Patrick Pourbaix, director general of MSC France, says the company has carried "more than 60,000 passengers on around 30 cruises, worry-free."
The cruise industry has been smashed by the COVID crisis, suffering a shortfall of $77 billion and shedding 518,000 jobs between just mid-March and September last year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
Before the pandemic, cruise companies had enjoyed a decade of strong growth, peaking in 2019 with 29.7 million passengers, more than half from North America, according to the CLIA.
"It's a sector which will not return to normal activity until 2025," said Didier Arino, director general of French consultancy Protourisme.
For now, the new normal is vaccines, tests and masks.
US operator Norwegian Cruise Line will run 3 of its 17 vessels from Greece and in the Caribbean this summer, with passengers who are "fully vaccinated" at least 2 weeks before departure.
"It's not one or the other. It's vaccines plus the safety protocols," said CEO Harry Sommer.
Guests will be tested before they get on the ship and before they disembark, while sanitation protocols on board will include "medical-grade air filtration and enhanced medical resources," Sommer said.
In Britain, the ministry of transport has given the green light for cruises— albeit restricted to domestic waters— to resume from May 17.
But capacity has been restricted to 50 percent, or a maximum of 1,000 passengers, all of whom must be UK-based.
On-board gatherings will also be restricted to groups of a maximum 6 people.
"Whilst there is still uncertainty about holidays abroad this summer, we are delighted to be able to offer our guests the ultimate escape here in the UK with the reassurance that we will take care of everything," said P&O Cruises president Paul Ludlow in a statement.
P&O will also only accept fully vaccinated passengers.
In the United States, cruise ships may be able to resume sailing from ports in Florida in mid-July after a year-long shutdown, according to new guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of passengers will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for ships to set sail.
While Costa and MSC do not insist on passengers being vaccinated, they have to take a COVID test before embarking, while strict social distancing will be required aboard.
The 2 firms additionally will only offer excursions within a "health bubble" keeping contact with local people to a bare minimum.
If suspected cases appear, MSC has an isolation area and medical teams aboard ships, Pourbaix said, adding that sick passengers would be taken to the first port.
Although to date few vessels and few itineraries have emerged as available for the European summer season, there is no shortage of demand.
Sommer notably indicates that Norwegian Cruise Line's 35 first cruises put on sale are already fully booked.
According to a CLIA survey, 2 out of 3 cruise passengers polled say they are ready to recover their sea legs this year.
"Cruises enjoy an unmatched level of (customer) satisfaction at around 98 percent," Arino said. "Client loyalty is very strong."