DNV speaks with Captain Håvard Ramsøy, Vice President, Marine Operations and Safety, Genting Cruise Lines, about resuming operations and lessons learnt
Our expectations have been exceeded in many ways. When we started to offer short domestic getaways around the islands in Taiwan and Singapore with Explorer Dream and World Dream last year, we immediately saw there is demand. Despite the pandemic, people still want to travel. Of course, we had to focus on the domestic markets first, because it wasn’t possible to go from country to country back then. This is changing now due to high vaccination rates, particularly in Europe and the Americas, which allows us to cruise for example from US ports to Bermuda and the Caribbean. So, all in all, it is good to see that the market is responding well.
Please share a bit about the customer feedback received so far.
The overall feedback has been very good because guests know what to expect. Everybody understands that our product is different in many ways with all the safety measures we have in place: social distancing, reduced capacity, mask-wearing, on-board tracking, sanitation, and so on. Obviously, we haven’t managed to offer our product to all regular customers yet, since we are operating at a limited capacity. And while not everybody is ready to cruise yet, some customers have come back several times during this period.
How do you rebuild confidence – also towards those customers who are still hesitant to cruise?
Communication is key! Not only towards passengers themselves, but also travel agents, the media, etc. Although the market is aware of the protocols put in place, there have been a lot of questions around it. We need to ensure our guests know about some of the limitations due to the safety measures, but at the same time are aware that we have 100% fresh air circulation, extra medical staff, and enhanced medical and testing equipment on board. Rebuilding market confidence has been extremely important by being transparent about how the cruise experience looks in times of a pandemic.
Does it help that people are meanwhile used to adhering to some kind of Covid-19 regulations?
Yes, absolutely! Our procedures are not that much different from what our customers do in their home countries. Every place in the world has Covid-19 rules in effect, and these standards are a base for everything we do on board. For example, in Singapore, the measures are outlined in the CruiseSafe certification, jointly developed by the Singapore Tourism Board and DNV. In some cruise markets like the US, we also build in various local requirements. So, in the end, we have to customize both the product and the preventive measures accordingly, because risks and country requirements are different for each location.
Can you elaborate on some of the steps of the communication you’ve taken to explain the amended cruise product?
It starts with “What can you expect on board?”, including social distancing, capacity controls and everything related to this. The whole communication process begins before boarding the ship, be it through our website, emails, text messages or social media. At the terminals, testing is staggered so passengers know exactly when to show up. It does not help to have good social distancing on board when 1,500 people are in the terminal at the same time. It is also important to have ushers who take care of passengers until they board the vessel as well as proper signage.
When our guests step over the gangway, they know well which regulations they need to comply with – all of which are also listed in the on-board app.
The emergence of the Delta variant has shown that the pandemic is far from over yet. When do you see the cruise experience returning to the old “normal” – if at all?
First of all, as I said before, the demand is coming back strongly. But fully returning to the old model where international destinations are a regular part of the cruise itinerary will take time. This can only go hand in hand with countries opening their borders for leisure travel – including the recognition of each other’s vaccination certificates.
Many external elements need to be in place before we will see a return to the old days. There will also be regional differences. For example, Covid-19 hit Asia first, and originally, we thought Asia would recover first. However, we are now seeing the exact opposite. Other parts of the world have recovered better and faster, which depends on each country’s strategy, vaccination rate, and many different factors.
Reflecting on the pilot cruises in South East Asia, what are some of the main learning points for Dream Cruises as an early mover?
The main learning point is that you need to be flexible regarding national requirements. The risk level varies from country to country and is very fluid, too. After we commenced with domestic cruises in Taiwan in July 2020, there were zero Covid-19 cases on the island for many months. Then, there was a sudden spike of infections and we had to stop operations. Hopefully we can cruise out of Taiwan again very soon. In Singapore, the scenario was different at the end of last year with a couple of cases in the country. So, we had to put in additional safety measures and barriers according to national requirements.
Also, we learned that all logistics supporting a cruise ship, from bringing in spare parts to consumables, food supply and flying in crew members, have been extremely difficult. Supply chains do not work as well as they did before the pandemic. Everything is more complex, takes longer, and you have to be well prepared. For example, if one crew member is going to sign on in Singapore, he or she must quarantine for five weeks according to current regulations – two weeks in the home country and three weeks in Singapore. And within these five weeks, multiple testing is conducted to make sure the crew member is Covid-19 negative and vaccinated. If one of our staff has to go home at short notice for any kind of emergency, a replacement cannot be made overnight. But after having adapted to these special circumstances, logistics have worked out quite smoothly for us.
You recently experienced the first Covid-positive case on board one of your Singapore cruises, which made headlines. Could you share with us how your team handled this challenging situation?
The passenger who tested positive on board was, in fact, vaccinated and tested negative at the terminal. Obviously, he was asymptomatic, so there was absolutely no way we could have caught this case even with the measures in place. How we found out was from a call by the Ministry of Health reporting that he had been in close contact with another Covid-positive case in Singapore.
We immediately isolated him and his travel partners and tested them. His PCR test result came back positive, and so we did a couple of confirmation tests. We reported these results back to the Singapore government and immediately initiated a “level red” protocol, meaning all passengers had to go to their cabins, with only the essential crew serving passengers in the cabins, while we returned to Singapore. Luckily, the cruise was not greatly impacted as it was already coming to an end, so we arrived only a couple of hours earlier at the terminal than scheduled.
When we reached Singapore, the protocol required a list of close contacts on the ship to be submitted for contact tracing, so we had that ready upon arrival for submission to the authorities. Everyone was separated such that we could disembark the Covid-positive passenger. At a certain point, the green light to disembark was given for the rest of the ship. Those in close contact with the infected passenger were isolated, disembarked last, and were placed under home surveillance according to Singapore standards.
How did DNV’s Certification in Infection Prevention for the maritime industry (CIP-M) help you in that event?
CIP-M helped us put everything into a good structure, so everybody on the ship and shore knew exactly what to do when the situation arose. We had the shipboard and the shoreside disease committees quickly come together to initiate all plans. The steps each department needed to take were well-defined and clear. For example, there is a list of essential crew. Only they are allowed to work, the rest must go back to their cabins. Thus, there were no questions or confusion among the crew or onshore team.
When we returned to port and the government confirmed through another lab test that the passenger was Covid-positive, this also proved that our equipment was accurate. The clear structure of CIP-M including all training and exercises with the team on board and shoreside helped us a lot to cope with this real situation.
Passengers might wonder how a Covid-positive passenger can slip through the safety net and pre-boarding testing. Can you outline the pros and cons of rapid vs PCR tests?
Let me first note that testing is again driven by national requirements. In Singapore, two options are available for passengers – either take a rapid test on the spot at the terminal before boarding or a PCR test up to 72 hours prior to the start of the cruise. As you said, there are pros and cons to both. If a PCR test is taken 72 hours before boarding, there is still a risk of exposure during these three days. And even though the antigen rapid test may not be as accurate, at least it is recent. Comparing the two options is difficult because neither one offers 100% accuracy. Therefore, we have our additional safety barriers in place.
In addition to new communication measures, testing procedures and safety protocols, which equipment did you change on your vessels to enhance infection prevention and mitigation?
Let’s start with the medical centre and increase in medical staff. We now have a lab with PCR testing equipment and antigen rapid testing on board, so we can mass-test at short notice, especially those in close contact with suspected cases. We brought in an extra ventilator and have a small oxygen supply in store. For positive or suspected cases there are dedicated isolation cabins.
To prevent any spread of the virus, the ventilated air is not recycled but always 100% fresh. The filters in the air-handling units have been upgraded to a better grade, with HEPA filters added in certain areas. Most of the filters installed in the new Dream-class ships are already of a very good grade and we didn’t have to change them. Additionally, we hand out contact tracing wristbands to crew and passengers to quickly identify close contacts in the event of positive Covid cases detected. We also have a wide range of different sanitizing equipment available. Regular sanitation is done during sailing and full sanitation after every cruise. If we have any suspected or positive cases, we will have additional sanitation.
To the new requirements also belongs the role of infection control officer. What does this person do?
One of the ship’s doctors is appointed with this additional role and is responsible for administration work, government reporting, contact tracing efforts and testing processes. The infection control officer reports to the staff captain who oversees the medical centre. In addition, we have also established a disease committee on board that includes the hotel director, staff captain, chief engineer and doctors. So, if there is a suspected Covid-19 case, the team will quickly meet and discuss the next course of action.
How did you upskill your medical staff and crew to cope with these new regulations and procedures?
The doctors we have in the fleet were engaged in the implementation of all safety measures from the very beginning when the CIP-M came along. They have gone through extensive training together with all other departments. This is not new to them since safety training has always been part of each crew member’s life on board a cruise ship. The training starts well before they board the vessel. While going through quarantine, we have been giving the crew training materials to study, and as soon as they join, they receive more ship-specific training depending on the role they take.
Had you conducted drills to prepare for Covid emergency situations?
We have done drills for all kinds of scenarios many times. We have even trained together with authorities in Singapore and Taiwan. Like for any other incident that can happen on board, if you don’t train how to handle a Covid case, you won’t know what to do when it happens. So, when we got the positive case, everybody knew exactly what to do. I think we managed well, which is reflected by the good passenger feedback. Afterwards, management, ship and shore teams came together and went through the whole incident. There’s always something to learn from every emergency event.
What did you learn, for example?
One of the biggest learning points is that the number of essential crew could have been higher. It was agreed with the authorities to keep it as limited as possible, so most of the crew had to return to their cabins. But the event dragged on and while we arrived in the morning, we couldn’t release everyone until the early evening. So, some people had to stay in their cabins the whole day and we had to serve three to four room-service meals with a very limited crew, who handled everything extremely well. Everybody got their food in a timely manner, but it put a lot of stress on those few crew members that were engaged in that. These are things that we will tweak to make sure that the next time, it will be a little bit easier on everyone.
You touched upon additional challenges for your crew. Is the biggest the disrupted crew change process?
First and foremost, I’d like to commend and thank the crew for being fantastic through these extremely difficult times. There have been many situations where we have not been able to tell the crew exactly when they can go home because of travel restrictions. The crew would be sitting on the ship while their family is back home. Not knowing exactly when you can return is extremely difficult. There are many challenges in getting a crew member back home. Sometimes there are travel restrictions in the country where the ship is docked. Or there is a lockdown in their home country and no flights are available.
An equally great challenge is flying the crew out to join the ships given all the quarantine requirements. Some countries where the crew is travelling from can be blacklisted by other countries for travel altogether. This does not just affect us in the cruise industry, but shipping in general. The crew logistics model has not been working, and I think IMO and governments globally have not done enough to mitigate the situation.
For example, there are still countries that don’t recognize vaccination passports and documents of other nations. In that respect, my personal opinion is that society has completely failed. Seafarers have not been treated in the right way to allow crew changes. After all, everyone on this planet depends on logistics and shipping! And nobody can expect seafarers to stay on board for 15, 18 or 20 months.
This has been one of my biggest frustrations. I’ve been working so many years on ships, so I know that as the captain you have to keep the crew healthy and motivated by showing them that we are doing whatever we can.
What have you done to still change crew?
When Covid hit and our vessels had to go into cold lay-up, we tried to repatriate all staff except the essential crew, which was quite successful. After resuming operations, we have taken some measures into our own hands. For instance, we gathered crew members from other ships into one trip and brought them back to the Philippines. When no commercial flights were available during the lockdown in crew source countries, we also organized chartered and private flights to take back or fly in crew members. We worked closely with the respective embassies, and although these processes were extremely complicated, we mostly succeeded.
Today, we still have challenges in moving crew members freely to the ships. There’s a certain percentage based on nationalities, countries, and restrictions that we have problems with. Although we will always find a solution for most of the crew, it just takes time. If we plan to deploy a new crew member today, he or she will not be on board until seven to eight weeks from now.
This situation obviously takes a mental toll on the crew. How do you help them cope with the situation?
We try to maintain good crew welfare programmes on board for our crew. Small things like free internet, good food and activities go a long way. We have to be vigilant and try to observe any signs of depression among the crew. In addition to having very good leadership on board and our ship’s medical staff, we also have a team of professionals ashore who can provide support as required. Additionally, we try to provide as much support as possible on home travel in cases of emergency as well as employment stability and predictability so the crew can also spend time with their family during their rest periods.
Are you still finding enough qualified personnel for your ships under these circumstances?
It’s a mixed situation because many crew members have been home for a very long time without being able to work – so many really want to come back to the ships. We have been able to source from our pool of crew up to now. At the same time, we know it’s a competitive industry. Every cruise line has lost staff who have found new professions and will never return to sea, while many ships around the world are starting up again right now. So, if the recovery is going to continue at this pace, meaning vaccination programmes will help cruise lines start back up quickly, the market is going to be very competitive in filling up all the ships with crews again.
How has the pandemic impacted your company’s culture overall?
The pandemic has posed the biggest threat to our industry ever, so we have certainly learned how to deal with an existentialist crisis. In an emergency, you will never encounter two situations that are exactly the same, so you have to be able to adapt yourself to new scenarios. What has been working during a particular Covid period might not work for the next one, which means you always need to have an open mind. As a company, we have come closer together in all departments. More than ever before, everybody understands they play a very important role. Whether you work in marine operations, hotel operations or corporate communications, your role is equally important for the overall business.
This team approach was apparent when we had to deal with the Covid-positive case in Singapore. We gathered for a crisis meeting at three or four o’clock in the morning and everyone was all hands on deck. There was no finger-pointing, and everybody wanted to learn and deal with this incident in the best possible way to just move on, because the pandemic-related challenges will not disappear any time soon. They are going to be here for a while, so we just have to try to improve and learn to live with them.