With the UK’s ocean cruise sector kept from sailing for almost 10 months, Tom Parry hears from UK Chamber of Shipping chief executive Bob Sanguinetti on why a swift restart is vital.
“If we want the UK cruise sector to have a fighting chance of a successful 2021, we need the green light now,” the UK Chamber of Shipping’s chief Bob Sanguinetti tells me.
After navigating the most turbulent of seas in 2020, the UK’s ocean cruise sector has entered the New Year treading water.
Months of hard work have led to new safety and operational protocols being developed, with hopes of a phased restart on the horizon after the government advised against all ocean cruising in July. Although as yet, the industry remains in limbo, awaiting Westminster’s go-ahead, when TTG went to press.
For maritime trade association the UK Chamber of Shipping, which alongside Clia has represented industry interests to government and strived towards its resumption – most notably publishing a restart framework in October – it is a decision that must come swiftly.
As Sanguinetti presses, a slower return risks further harm to businesses desperate to rebuild. “We’ve made it very clear that the cruise industry is ready,” he tells me resolutely in mid-December.
“We’ve taken all necessary measures and more, and we’ve created a very safe, very transparent environment. If we want the UK cruise sector to have a fighting chance of a successful season in 2021, it will likely take three months to start up again, so we need to start that process now.”
As a former Royal Navy commodore, Sanguinetti is familiar with overcoming tough challenges. His sights are set firmly on the Foreign Office’s (FCDO) “woefully out of date” advice against ocean cruising hanging frustratingly over the industry.
“We’ve moved on tremendously [since July] – it’s unfair the industry is singled out. There is no medical or scientific reason whatsoever why it should be cruise-specific,” he argues.
The government’s hesitancy, he fears, could endanger UK cruise longer term, when lines are planning future deployment. Italy, Germany and other European countries have already allowed cruising to resume, while in Asia sailings have restarted from Singapore.
“There’s always a risk that the UK might lose out,” considers Sanguinetti. “If cruise companies feel it’s easier doing business elsewhere because those governments are being more supportive in helping them go through this resumption, they might vote with their feet.”
In June, while standing at the lectern of a Downing Street press briefing, prime minister Boris Johnson declared cruising to be “a great British industry” which “we will support in any way we can”.
Sanguinetti implores the government to make good on those remarks and offer a pathway to restarting, to help a sector worth £10 billion to the UK economy and which employs 88,000 people, as emphasised in a New Year’s letter to the chancellor from the Chamber and Clia.
A major breakthrough was October’s restart framework published in partnership with Clia. The two organisations have worked “very, very closely together”, with each bringing different perspectives to the table.
“It means we get the best level of engagement across all the departments in government that we need – it’s been gratifying to see how well that’s been working,” Sanguinetti adds.
Detailed in the document are a number of focuses – from voyage planning to guest experience and medical action strategy – to help Clia members get ready to return in a Covid-secure way.
Clia has also taken the guidance further – with a pledge for pre-embarkation testing of all passengers and crew.
This approach from lines, Sanguinetti believes, gives the industry “more oversight than any other travel and tourism sector” into mitigating the risks of Covid, and allows both customers and authorities to see what methods are being put in place.
“I think it’s one of the most Covid-safe environments that you will find,” he says. “With a cruise ship, you have that clarity and oversight of the measures that are being taken.”
When the resumption does come – with a spring restart hoped for – what will it look like?
A phased return, agreed by government and industry, would likely see lines begin with ex-UK itineraries in British waters, followed by short cruises from the UK to Europe and, at a later date, voyages further afield.
Sanguinetti sees the phased approach “playing out over a number of months” and giving lines the chance to monitor how protocols are working and adapt them if needed.
The restart is also vital on a wider national level, he believes. The UK looking to forge its post-Brexit future, combined with recovery from the pandemic, means a buoyant cruise sector is a vital economic tool.
“Shipping across all sectors – and in particular the cruise sector – is a significant contributor to the UK economy. It’s in everyone’s interest that it’s allowed to remobilise itself and continue making those contributions,” Sanguinetti says.
“There is also a need for the country to feel good about itself and for people to feel better and happier as we overcome the pandemic.
“[Cruising] is a great British industry, and I strongly urge the government to lean into it, give it support, give it a statement of confidence and give it the clarity it needs.”