Little Hajo’s eyes widen when he sees the stalls with Christmas stars, chocolate apples, sausages and mulled wine. The German boy is amazed, because this year, because of the pandemic, there were not really going to be any Christmas markets.
The mother, too, finds the activity out of the ordinary. “It seems like you have to travel to the Caribbean to be able to go to a flea market and drink mulled wine at 28 degrees Celsius,” she says.
The small fair is located on the swimming pool deck of the ship “Mein Schiff 2”. It was lovingly erected and set up by the crew on the first Sunday of Advent. Inside, in the passenger center, the lights of a gigantic Christmas tree shine brightly.
It almost looks as if there is no coronavirus pandemic aboard the ship. At least, almost not.
The cruise ship as a closed system
All passengers and crew members are vaccinated with at least two doses. In addition, they are tested during the 14-day Caribbean voyage. Without vaccination and testing, no one is allowed on board. This makes possible many things that cannot be done in the countries of origin.
That’s why the cruise business in the warm regions, where life largely takes place in the open air, is slowly getting back on track. In the run-up to Christmas in the Caribbean there are, in addition to two ships of the Tui Cruises fleet, the “Aida Luna” and some giant American cruise ships.
Stress is concentrated in the run-up to the voyage
“The biggest uncertainty was whether we would actually be able to get on the ship,” relates Marion from Nuremberg. With her husband, she had actually planned to go on an Asian cruise, which was cancelled due to entry restrictions in some of the destination countries.
The German couple then opted for the Caribbean. And they initially had a lot of pre-work and a tense wait: the original route via the West Indies and the Virgin Islands was changed because of restrictions in some ports, but it was clear that the trip was going to take place. “We just couldn’t be totally sure we would be on board.”
Anyone who wants to travel has several tasks ahead of him. He must read and process four pages of health regulations. Each passenger must take care to find out what are the internationally recognized rules for travel and have a PCR between 72 and 48 hours before arriving in Barbados or La Romana in the Dominican Republic.
And logically before the trip there is the fear of whether a negative test really means that one is healthy. The fact that on the day of departure an antigen test has to be performed is not so serious.
Once on board “Mein Schiff”, the stress is over. The hygiene regulations are still comprehensive. But the relatively strict rules that applied on board about a year ago have now clearly been relaxed. It is only mandatory to wear a mask inside the ship, with the exception of tables in bars and restaurants, and wherever it is impossible to keep the minimum distance.
Everywhere they indicate that hands must be washed or disinfected frequently. Temperature taking in the morning has been eliminated. It is done when passing through, when leaving the ship, which is only occupied at 60 to 70 percent of its capacity.
Self-service is again permitted in the buffets. In the bars you can, as before, sit at the bar. Even dancing is allowed, but outside on the pool deck.
More freedom on land
The general manager of “Mein Schiff 2”, René Peter, is satisfied: “There are many positive comments about the rules on board and so far only one passenger complained that they are too lax.” Passengers comply with the rules almost without exception. “And if one exceptionally violates them, a polite complaint is made, usually from other passengers.
Lisa Voellmert, who is in charge of shore excursions, also experienced this. A year ago, only organized excursions were permitted, with the strict instruction not to stray from the group. That changed substantially to the delight of the passengers. “We no longer have to send passengers back home because of that.”
In fact, these excursions, compared to before, are quite relaxed. Whoever goes ashore with the ship’s guides has, despite the rules, quite a lot of freedom of movement, whether in the jungle of St. Lucia, in the picturesque towns of Curaçao and Aruba, on the boats at the snorkeling spots in Tortola or on the dreamy beaches of Barbados and St. Maarten.
On individual excursions, local tour guides sometimes do not take into account that a passenger in the cab is not wearing a mask properly or even takes it off. They need to work urgently.
Check-in and check-out arrangements on most islands are relaxed. In general, on shore excursions, it is sufficient to show a ship’s identification. In Barbados they still ask for a recent coronavirus test. The team of ship’s doctor Oliver Grohs helps here. In just one hour, his staff performs almost 1,000 of the requested antigen tests in the morning. In the evening, they are certified ready for the trip to Barbados the following day.
A lot of work behind the scenes
Hardly any passengers are aware of what goes on behind the scenes on a cruise ship in times of coronavirus. Shipping lines have a hectic business when routes are changed at short notice or entire voyages are cancelled. Passengers need to be informed, comforted and, if necessary, rebooked. It is necessary to be in constant contact with the authorities to keep entry rules up to date.
For cruise ship passengers, almost everything became simpler, much more so than for the crew. “In the beginning we had among the crew a vaccination rate of eight percent,” relates shipboard doctor Grohs. “Within ten months we brought it up to 100 percent.” In any case, there is nothing public-facing that the crew members do without a mask.
In addition, contacts with passengers were restricted. For example, it is not possible to meet with the captain. If one imagines that in the event of a positive test result being detected on board, half of the crew will have to go into quarantine, one will understand these measures.