The outlook facing the local cruise industry is strong despite the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID variant and concerns raised in international media, according to Stephen Xuereb, CEO of Valletta Cruise Port.

Stephen Xuereb

Speaking to from his vantage point as as expert on the industry, Mr Xuereb, who has worked in the cruise industry since 2002, emphasised that despite perceptions to the contrary, the COVID situation on cruise ships remains stable and as such, no planned calls to the country’s port have been cancelled.

He explained that the outlook of the industry in the last half of this year has only improved and that passenger numbers show strong consumer sentiment and that people still want to travel.

While the passenger numbers have been restrained by capacity limits introduced to mitigate the possible spread of COVID onboard ships, he pointed out that the number of ships calling in Malta has been “as expected.”

Rather than decreasing over the Christmas period as the Omicron variant took hold in many parts of the world, Mr Xuereb emphasised in fact, passenger numbers on board ships calling in Malta increased drastically.

“This shows that consumer confidence in the cruise industry is improving,” he said, adding that “people want to travel again.”

Confirming that the local industry does not yet seem to have been hit by the new variant, he stated that the port has not yet seen any cancellations.

Addressing the perceived risks facing cruise passengers, the CEO explained that cruise ships are controlled environments with relevant and stringent protocols in place.

There have been positive COVID cases on cruise ships, Mr Xuereb acknowledged, but these are promptly reported. Part of the perception that cruises are unsafe in the pandemic comes from the visibility of the industry, and how onboard outbreaks have been reported in some media outlets, he posits.

“When you talk about a ship operating at significantly reduced capacity, and when you record a couple of cases, it’s no different from what’s being recorded in cities, aside from the fact that cruise ships are controlled environments, requiring vaccinations and regular testing for passengers.”

CDC advises against cruising, even for vaccinated passengers regardless of vaccine status

Asked about a recent warning by the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC), that cruises should be avoided regardless of vaccination status, he pointed to a statement by the Cruise Liners International Association (CLIA).

The statement insists that the warning by the CDC is “perplexing” considering that cases identified on board ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population on board – and far fewer than on land.

Additionally, the CLIA states that cruise ships offer the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus, offering science-backed measures like testing and vaccination at levels “far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incidence rates than land.”

A notable statistic cited in the statement is that in the “US alone, the cruise industry administers nearly 10 million tests per week—21 times the rate of testing in the United States.”

The CDC warning, Mr Xuereb commented, has not yet sparked an observable impact on passenger numbers.

Outbreak response

In recent weeks, there have been a number of cases where passengers abroad cruise ships abroad have been denied disembarking, including one recent example in Lisbon, where passengers were only able to disembark after five days moored in the port, due to a COVID outbreak among staff.

One passenger on board the ship, cited by Reuters, commented: “We’re living in this situation and it can always happen. Of course it’s not nice, we imagined something else.”

Asked about the response should a ship be set to call in Malta experienced positive COVID cases, Mr Xuereb explained that ships need to present a clean bill of health to local health authorities and that if there is an outbreak, the authorities can decide whether or not to allow passengers to disembark.

Till now, there have been no “major incidents” involving ships calling in Malta, he added.

Hopes for 2022

Looking to the rest of the year, Mr Xuereb painted an optimistic outlook for the cruise industry. He pointed out that Q1 is always expected to be a quiet period for the industry, and that winter has always brought COVID outbreaks.

As winter rescinds in Q2, he hopes for a good season, “better than what we’ve had in previous years.”

Concluding, Mr Xuereb added that the cruise industry’s response to the outbreak has been fast and decisive.

“Cruises returned in August 2020 with new protocols, and while numbers were lower than normal, the fact we were able to resume with passengers at all is testament to how seriously we have taken the issue.”


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