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Virgin Voyages' McAlpin implores shoreside operators to be ‘aggressive’ in preventing coronavirus spread, Celestyal Cruises’ Theophilides agrees

Virgin Voyages President and CEO Tom McAlpin said safe 'bubbles' can be crated on board ships, but support of shoreside operators is needed to keep COVID off vessels
Virgin Voyages President and CEO Tom McAlpin implored shoreside operators to be ‘aggressive’ in preventing coronavirus spread, Celestyal Cruises CEO Chris Theophilides agreed and urged less dependency on technology.

The comments were made at a panel discussion at the International Cruise Summit hosted in Madrid December 1-2 and moderated by Olga Piqueras, MD, Intercruises Shoreside and Port Services.

McAlpin urged shoreside operators to be ‘aggressive’ in their attitude towards preventing the spread of COVID-19 on board cruise ships, adding ‘we can create [safe] bubbles on board the ships,' but ‘we can’t do this alone’ when it comes to keeping the virus off vessels. 

The entreaty was supported by Theophilides, who pointed to the significance of the ‘human touch’ for ensuring safety measures on board vessels are ‘replicated off the ship — port side and excursions — [and] not just point to technology for everything.’   

Impact on itineraries

‘Turnaround ports will need more space, it will take more time with staggered embarkation [and] certain destinations will not be able to service more than one vessel at one time’ in particular those with ‘limited shore infrastructure,’ continued Theophilides, noting that this will be a ‘natural hindrance.’

MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato said it is ‘important to understand what governments will be looking for’ in terms of coronavirus testing and health certificates, prompting Theophilides to assert that ‘adjusting to five different port protocol interpretations is almost impossible.’   


Royal Caribbean President and CEO Michael Bayley said he believes the COVID-19 vaccines will be ‘massively game changing’: ‘everyone’s had a crappy summer… In 2021, people are going to go big on vacation.’ He added that quick demand will mean hasty preparations for cruise lines.

Onorato remarked, ‘vaccines will create excitement and a good mood, and rushing to book cruises,’ but said they will ‘take time to distribute.’ He also raised the question of how to respond to those who do not want to get vaccinated.

‘2022 will be back to normal; 2021 we won’t see full normality,’ he asserted. ‘For sure, there will be more destinations asking for cruises to be back… but 100% normal is 2022.’

Piqueras took the opportunity to add that, to her, ‘testing is very important’ because of the risk of other emerging pathogens. 


So said Onorato, ‘Our concern is about thousands and thousands of people without a job for one year… Our crew are eager to be back. I, personally, feel very bad for this and the situation… No one has received more tests than the crew.’

On whether being a crew member will shake off its appeal in the age of coronavirus, Bayley emphasised that ‘It’s an extremely adventurous lifestyle… travelling with all these people of different cultures. It changes people’s lives massively.

‘As long as there are young people seeking adventure, there will always be crew for our ships.’

McAlpin added that Virgin Voyages has been in contact with its crew members throughout the pandemic and that they are eager to return to cruising. ‘We need them and they need jobs… It’s supply and demand. I don’t see this as a long-term problem.’

Onorato with Michael Thamm, CEO, Costa Group and Carnival Asia said the ‘logistics’ of moving crew members back on to cruise vessels will be tough; Piqueras summarised: ‘Logistics to bring crew will be a challenge, but not as much as a challenge to get them home.’

‘I could never imagine [the past nine months] could happen to us, to the world,’ said Thamm. ‘The pause phase was easier. We’re in the resumption phase [which] is much better than working in the shutdown phase, I can tell you. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.’

The air component

With 60% of Celestyal’s passengers traditionally flying in, Theophilides added, ‘We’re not in the resumption phase… We took the decision to resume in March 2021… We felt that was a natural place to start.

‘We’re monitoring and in discussions with airline partners to kick off as strongly as possible in March.’

He said the pause will continue to give the company time to ‘fine tune’ its position and monitor its source markets.

Thamm said his biggest wish was to ‘always remind ourselves we are one industry’. He cited the inability for non-COVID sufferers to receive shoreside medical aid owing to fear of the virus, saying, ‘humanity fell apart sometimes.’

Onorato counted ‘effort and sacrifice from everyone in 2021’ as his greatest wish, with Bayley offering, ‘We’re only as strong as our weakest link… We really need to communicate with each other and collaborate. I wish for communication and collaboration.’

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