(12:05 p.m. EDT) -- MSC Cruises announced some of the industry's most ground-breaking health and safety protocols this week, as the international cruise line eyes a return to sailings in the Mediterranean this fall.
Cruise Critic conducted a question-and-answer session with Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises. Here's what he had to say:
Cruise Critic: Where will you restart your operations?
Gianni Onorato: We are ready with a passion to get back to the sea, and we've put together a really strong new health and safety protocol for our guests and our crew. We have had great feedback from the relevant authorities on where we propose to sail, and we're waiting in eager anticipation for the final approvals. We're not quite just there yet but I'm confident this will soon happen.
Our initial plan is to resume with seven-night itineraries in the West Mediterranean with MSC Grandiosa and shortly after that a second ship will return to the East Mediterranean with MSC Magnifica, again to offer a great seven-night experience.
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The ships we will restart with are two of our most popular ships, and the Mediterranean is the region where MSC Cruise's roots are, and where we have long been market leaders.
CC: Which ports will you call in at?
GO: We hope to offer our guests the popular and traditional seven-night cruises that will call at a range of different ports. We looked at what are known as "cruises to nowhere" and thought, "No, that's not what MSC Cruises does."
Our proposal is, right now, that our flagship MSC Grandiosa, will offer seven-night cruises in the Western Mediterranean from the Italian port of Genoa calling Civitavecchia for Rome, Naples, Palermo in Sicily and Valetta in Malta before returning to Genoa.
MSC Magnifica's proposed itinerarywill offer seven-night cruises in the Eastern Mediterranean that will depart from Bari, Italy, calling at the Greek ports of Corfu, Katakolon for Olympia, Piraeus for Athens, Trieste in northern Italy and then a return to Bari.
The new planned restart itineraries in the Mediterranean were also designed in conjunction with the authorities in Italy, Greece and Malta according to the accessibility of the ports, and where we could reduce where possible, the need for guests to use public transport or flights to get to embarkation ports. We have received the final approvals from Greece and Malta and we are awaiting the final confirmation from the Italian authorities, which we hope to receive very soon.
CC: What nationalities will be onboard?
GO: Only guests who are residents in the 26 Schengen European countries will be able to cruise when we resume in the Mediterranean.
The countries are as follows: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Guests traveling from a country that is deemed "high risk" by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will need to take an RT-PCR swab test within 72 hours prior to the ship's departure. The test results will need to be presented at the terminal prior to embarkation.
The current pandemic has proven to be a dynamic situation, and if there are any restrictions for certain nationalities or countries of residence, or even particular regions in a country, we will make this clear in the booking conditions based upon ECDC guidance two weeks before the scheduled departure date of the guest's cruise.
CC: Why these two ships to start?
GO: MSC Grandiosa became the latest ship last year to join our fleet and her scheduled itinerary before the pandemic was to serve the Western Mediterannean this summer, and MSC Magnifica has a high ratio of balcony cabins, extended dining areas and the magrodome swimming pool.
I really believe they're the right ships for our restart.
We can leverage technology, if needed, to help us respond to a suspected case on board so that we can trace close contacts to avoid the further spread of the virus.
Onboard MSC Grandiosa, every guest and crew member will be provided with a complimentary MSC for Me wristband, which facilitates contact and proximity tracing.
For guests on board MSC Magnifica we will utilise cruise card transactions, reservation information for activities and camera footage for public areas to identify any possible close contacts.
CC: How full will they be?
GO: Initially we propose that we will sail at 70 percent capacity. We have chosen to do this to allow for more space for guests and facilitate social distancing while on board, and there would be approximately 10 square meters of public space per guest.
Again to ensure social distancing on board, public venue capacity will be reduced in most cases to 50 percent and activities will be modified to allow for smaller groups.
Plus, we'll ask guests to prebook services and activities so that we can manage guest numbers in a safe, responsible and effective way.
If social distancing can't be guaranteed, for example in lifts, guests would be required to wear a face mask which we'd provide daily in their cabins, plus there will be plenty of face mask stocks available at various points around the ships.
CC: Will pre-booking be essential in theaters etc.?
GO: One of the highlights of our cruises is the large-scale theatrical performances we stage, and these will continue to take place each night, with the theatre operating at 50 percent capacity. The shows, however, will be repeated over two evenings to give guests more flexibility to see each show on offer.
Theater shows will need to be pre-booked so that we can manage the number of guests for each performance and guarantee social distancing. For example, every other seat in the theater will be empty to ensure social distancing
Guests will be strongly encouraged to wear a face mask when in the venue.
CC: What's happening with Cirque at Sea?
GO: The Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows will be temporarily suspended on board MSC Grandiosa in the short term, due to the challenging travel restrictions for the international Cirque du Soleil artists.
However, alternative live entertainment will be offered in the stunning Carousel Lounge.
CC: How will you deal with big crowds, for example, before dinner service, the theater and muster drill?
GO: Restaurants, bars and lounges will see social distancing in place, and all meals and drinks will be served to guests at their table.
In the main dining room, guest flow numbers will be managed effectively for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and there will be new seating arrangements for social distancing purposes.
The buffet restaurant will offer a new service concept and a new guest flow to also ensure social distancing.
Instead of self-service, the guests will select what they would like and the food will be plated and handed to them to take back to their table to ensure the highest level of health and hygiene measures are followed.
For a contactless experience, guests will be able to access restaurant and bar menus from their personal mobile device by scanning a QR code. Our crew are trained to manage guest numbers to ensure social distancing in public areas, restaurants and the theatre.
For the safety drill, safety information will be broadcast through the ship's public announcement system and in-cabin TV so that all guests can view the safety procedure video, which will mean they avoid the traditional safety demonstrations where groups of people congregated together.
The ship's public announcement system will be used 15 minutes before the passenger safety briefing to invite guests to go to their own cabins.
Once guest cabins' corridors are confirmed as cleared by the ship's Evacuation Team Leaders, the safety briefing will be carried out verbally via the public announcement system and synchronized with the safety video displayed on the in-cabin TV.
At the end of the safety briefing, guests will be asked to enter a code on the cabin phone to confirm the briefing attendance. We have an onboard system that will trace all of the attendees to the safety briefing.
Any guests who did not witness the safety briefing will be contacted to invite them to participate in the next scheduled safety briefing.
CC: What do you think of the British government's recent travel advice that its citizens shouldn't take a cruise holiday because of health fears?
GO: There is a different level of comfort with authorities in different parts of the world with regards to cruising and travel in general and this includes the U.K.
Our approach has always been that we will work closely with the authorities in the countries where we operate and from where our guests come from to demonstrate that when the time is right for their citizens to return to sea, we'll be ready with effective health and safety measures in place that will satisfy local regulators and still offer great and enjoyable holiday options for their citizens.