Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. But to those working in, and who are reliant on, the UK cruise sector, that phrase couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s clear MSC Virtuosa, which restarted from Southampton on Thursday (20 May), hasn’t just come to take 1,000 guests around the UK coast on its maiden voyage – it’s brought a wave of hope for an entire industry that despite being suspended has been on a journey over the past 15 months.
The excitement for cruising’s return was clear from the moment I stepped off the train; my taxi driver, Bela, taking me to the port, had worked at sea with a number of lines and happily recounted his life onboard and how he was looking forward to welcoming more cruise-goers this summer.
Arriving at City Cruise Terminal, masks couldn’t hide beaming smiles from baggage handlers and port staff – at every turn, there were friendly grins and welcoming words.
Entering the terminal, I met Kim and Alfie, who looked over the necessary documents I would need to board, some old, some new.
Although they were just examining the paperwork, from Covid insurance to proof of a negative test, that feeling of getting back to business-as-usual brought a much-needed feeling of normality and comfort, they told me.
“Having ships and guests back has brought normality back to our lives,” said Kim. “We’ve really needed it, and we’re so glad it’s finally come back. It just means so much to so many people.”
When the industry voluntarily suspended operations last March, a day like this seemed a far-flung hope as society grappled with rising infection rates and ships lay dormant. But brands diligently got to work enhancing their protocols to be ready to come back, someday.
Stressing the importance of cruising to the UK, last year Clia released telling statistics, revealing 88,000 jobs are tied to the fate of cruising. This restart isn’t just about providing holidays, but also protecting livelihoods.
“Welcome onboard, sir.” Another common phrase before the pandemic, but it felt like I was hearing it for the first time stepping on to Virtuosa. After being lucky enough to visit ships regularly during the past few years working at TTG, it felt like I, too, was experiencing that warm familiarity just like many of the guests I spoke to, and saw enjoying themselves throughout the day.
Whether it was Liz and Tony from Wakefield or Steph, a Southampton local, each had deeply missed life at sea. “This is just amazing – we haven’t cruised for so long and I can’t tell you how brilliant it is to be back,” beamed Steph.
And of course, it was a feeling shared by MSC Cruises UK and Ireland managing director Antonio Paradiso who, speaking during TTG’s cruise seminar on Thursday (20 May), described his emotions seeing Virtuosa arriving in Southampton last week and getting ready to restart.
“It’s been emotional for so many reasons," he said. "Virtuosa has been a message of hope for everyone in the cruise and travel industry. After so many months of bad news, it feels like things are finally changing. We have to open a new chapter as an industry and bounce back together."
Cruising has always meant so much to so many. Here’s hoping its welcome return will make many more think that way too.