So said experts during Monday's 'Engaging Local Communities in Expedition Cruising' session, kicking off a day focused on expedition and sustainable cruising at Seatrade Cruise Global 2.0 Power Week, taking place online Oct. 11-15.
'Don't assume' things will be as before
'Don't assume things will be as they were' before the pandemic, Pamela Le Noury, head of expedition operations, Noble Caledonia, said. 'It's like being on your first date after all this time, even if you've been a regular visitor for 20 years.'
Though governments may have given the green light to return, some communities may be a little nervous to receive cruise ships so it's vital to keep the lines of communication open.
Noble Caledonia passengers used to visit supermarkets, churches and schools but that may — probably — not be possible now, Le Noury said. It's important to talk with the community to find out what's acceptable, and guides with their longstanding relationships can be bridges to the community. 'Those are the people you can ask: Is it still OK to go to the local church or should we stay away from that?'
'You have to give back to the community'
The absence of visitors has given a chance to look at the wishes and needs of communities, according to Eva-Britt Kornfeldt, manager, Svalbard Cruise Network. Sustainable and regenerative tourism are trends. There are higher expectations for environmental and social matters. 'You have to give back to the community,' she said.
Kornfeldt advised cruise operators to ask the community their needs, such as help with cleaning litter from the beaches or other projects. It would be well-received to invite locals on board to understand what a cruise ship is like or to host a lecture in a local hotel to explain what cruising is about and how townspeople might contribute their skills, perhaps as polar bear guards, guides or lecturers.
'It's very important we build trust among the locals,' agreed Elías Bj. Gíslason, director, Akuryeri, Icelandic Tourist Board. 'We have to be much more respectful of the health care capacity — if something goes wrong, what is the capacity of where the ship is at any time?' And operators should communicate their protocols to not just the national authorities but also to communities via harbor masters and local media.
The pandemic, Gíslason noted, showed operators and destinations that travel can't be taken for granted. It was an eye-opener for many locals to experience the lost economic impact without ships and for governments to miss tourism-generated tax revenues.
COVID-19 is 'something we have to live with,' pointed out moderator Edda Falk, communications manager, Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators. There will be cases on ships, as in schools.
Truth and transparency
If something should go wrong, truth and transparency are needed, Gíslason stressed.
Most expedition operators are requiring crew and passengers be fully vaccinated, testing before travel, at embarkation and during the cruise, Le Noury said. Some ships are even testing daily. If a community is less vaccinated, it might request everyone be tested before going ashore.
According to Gíslason, Iceland's vaccination rate is very high — above 80% — so there's less concern there about risk from visitors.
And Kornfeldt said everyone over 18 in Longyearbyen has been vaccinated, and Svalbard has been able to keep COVID out. 'We just have to keep it that way,' she said. Asked if the vaccination requirement for visitors will continue, Kornfeldt said it's up to the public health officials and the governor of Svalbard to decide.
Dreams for 2022
Falk asked the panel about their dream scenario for the future.
Gíslason hopes the 2022 season would equal 2019's. He'd like to see that all operators have communicated their protocols to not just the officials but also to the locals, and that travel restrictions could be lifted.
Kornfeldt would like operators to get organized — she suggested a working group involving the lines, ports and local travel trade — to involve the community and create jobs and opportunities for local suppliers and to spread out calls so ships don't all turn around on the same day.
Le Noury's dream for 2022 is 'that we do visit local communities.' Many expedition operators started this year by visiting only wildlife areas. It was 'heartwarming' when Noble Caledonia arrived in some places and the ship popped up in local Facebook pages with a positive response.
'Many small communities were eager to have us back and to engage,' Le Noury said.
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