TUI Cruises’ return to sailing is heartening for the whole industry

Marcus Puttich with Mein Schiff 1 and 2 in Stockholm (c) TUI CruisesOn July 24 Mein Schiff 2 set sail from Hamburg on a three-day scenic cruise to Norway. For TUI Cruises and the wider cruise industry this was a momentous occasion.

For Marcus Puttich, head of port & ground operations (nautical fleet department), and all those at the German brand working round the clock to make this happen it was an emotional moment.

Mein Schiff 1 began itineraries out of Kiel on July 31. Both ships progressed to seven-day cruises on August 7. In all cases there is a technical call to satisfy operational requirements.

The process began at the beginning of June and it took six weeks, in a joint effort with AIDA Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises (part of TUI) together with individual state authorities, health authorities and ministries and port authorities, to get official approval in July to resume sailings from both Hamburg and Kiel, and other German ports.

TUI Cruises had already prepared its own Healthy Return to Service document which it took to the German authorities who added their own rules and regulations. Puttich comments: “When we designed our Healthy Return to Service concept, we looked at the CLIA and US CDC thinking but also at RKI’s [Germany’s equivalent of the US CDC], for example 1.5m social distancing and face masks in all areas where 1.5m cannot be fulfilled. Also the EU Healthy Gateways was taken into account. This was the basis of TUI Cruises’ concept which comes close to 100 pages”.

The team has worked tirelessly and beyond its remit during normal operations to make this happen. “The product department, the ship management department, the nautical fleet department and the different crews across the fleet have worked above and beyond to provide these cruises. There has certainly been much overtime with a support I have only seen when we inaugurate a ship. It is very heartening to see them come into work and also to stand at the pier when the first ship departed,” he comments.

Like us all he is aware of the bigger picture. “It is not just our fleet which is partly out of service with thousands of crew waiting which is disheartening to see, but others also. It is, emotionally, a very stressful time for everyone in the business.”

Returning to the oceans has been planned, always in conjunction with the German authorities, in three phases. The first is for three-, four- and seven-day scenic cruises. The second includes shore excursions and the third a return to published itineraries.

Puttich comments: “We are in the phase [two] of ramping up Mein Schiff 6 for seven-day cruises out of Heraklion, Crete, calling Piraeus [Athens] and Corfu and with a scenic call in Santorini, beginning September 13.These will be the first cruises to offer shore excursions which must be booked via TUI Cruises. Guests will arrive on charter flights from Germany.”

Sharing the detail of how TUI Cruises resumed service, he outlines just what is involved, beginning with turnaround operations. A staggered check-in was implemented where passengers can book a time slot online. “We don’t allow more than 200 guests at any given time inside the terminal. We are now checking in 500 per hour.”

Capacity onboard Mein Schiff 1 and 2 was initially reduced by 50% to 1,500 from 2,900 double occupancy normally. “As the system has been working well for a month this is now being increased a little to 60%, in accordance with the German authorities.”

Passengers have to fill out a health questionnaire which is checked prior to them entering the terminal. It includes questions regarding countries that may have visited recently, whether there has been recent contact with persons with symptoms, whether the passenger has experienced any coughing/sneezing etc. “We are in the process of digitalising the questionnaire to make it quicker,” comments Puttich.

The moment passengers and crew enter the terminal, their temperature is taken and thereafter every day on the cruise (twice a day for the crew). The lanes are constructed with floor markers indicating 1.5m/2m depending on which state TUI is operating out of. Check-in now takes place with mobile handheld devices and flexiglass protection separates the guests from the crew.

Wearing face masks is compulsory inside the terminal and every check-in desk is cleaned in between checkin. “This is an extra precaution even thought the guest may not touch anything,” explains Puttich. Hand sanitiser is provided throughout the terminal.

When it comes to security, more lines are being deployed in order to avoid waiting. Boxes are sanitised in between passengers. At the gangway and inside the ship touchless checkin is organised by crew wearing face masks and behind flexiglass.

Meanwhile the luggage is taken from ground handling and disinfected before being placed on board. Passengers are encouraged to take luggage themselves in order to avoid touch points but there is still the service for those who want it. All luggage is also spaced at 1.5m as the terminals are large enough to allow for this. In the case of Kiel a new terminal was inaugurated on July 31 which, combined with the existing one, allows for plenty of space.

Initial bookings on Mein Schiff 2 were coming in at 1,500 and above with those on Mein Schiff 1 also high. Puttich tells Cruise Europe: “Over a month back into service the ratings are at an all time high which was surprising for us. A lot of our guests are very happy to return.” TUI has a very high repeat rate and has received “a lot of positive comments on social media”. Even after the ships were denied entry to Norway and had to rerouted to an alternative itinerary at short notice, “there were significant positive comments as well”.

The first short cruises involved cruising the Oslo fjord and southern Norway but were altered to sailings towards Stockholm and Turku following Covid-19 being found on Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen in July. This lead to the Norwegian Maritime Authority denying entry to cruiseships with over 100 passengers. This also meant that capacity on board could be increased from 50% to 60% due to the different jurisdictions now involved.

“The brand’s Healthy Return to Service concept gives a lot of confidence to the guests that they are safe,” adds Puttich. “We also get very good comments on having a large vessel with lower occupancy, as well as strictly enforcing the wearing of face masks on board in certain spaces.”

In the unlikely but possible event of a passenger or crew being tested positive on board (it being impossible to negate all risk in any scenario be it at sea or on land), TUI Cruises has a Covid-19 Response Plan in place which has been designed by compliance leader Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd along side the German authorities.

“So far not a single guest nor crew on an active vessel has been related to Covid-19 symptoms,” says Puttich. “Before TUI Cruises restarted, all crew had to undergo a test before embarking. They were only allowed on board with a negative test and were then placed into immediate quarantine on board for 14 days. For all September departures and beyond, TUI Cruises is enforcing negative Covid-19 test results for guests as well.”

To make the testing process easier, TUI Cruises has partnered with hospital chain Helios so that, on receiving the boarding pass, guests can present it at any hospital in the chain in order to receive a test prior to boarding. “This is mandatory for guests going on board and puts another mitigation policy in place.”

The company has also booked two levels of a hospital in Germany so that any guest or crew member tested positive can be hospitalised under TUI Cruises’s jurisdiction. AIDA and HLC are also taking part in this scheme.

Should there be an outbreak on board, there is a dedicated special quarantine area of balcony cabins set aside for anyone, whether passenger or crew, testing positive to be isolated.

TUI Cruises has also set up its own laboratories on board the ships whereby a PCR test can be implemented re not only Covid-19 but other viruses ,with the results available in 70 minutes. Thereafter Puttich explains: “Once we have isolated positive cases, we have a service provider that can medically disembark Covid cases into the hospital for treatment or get them home safely in a controlled environment so they don’t have to get on public transport.”

At this point it is important to highlight that 100% fresh, clean air is sucked in one side of the ship, distributed into public spaces and cabins and then expelled on the other side of the ship. In the hospital and quarantine areas there are also special virus filters. Puttich is keen to point out that the ships had already been designed to have 100% fresh air and filters in the hospital so the only addition is that of filters in the quarantine areas.

The above sounds as though it involved quite a bit of investment. While a number cannot be put on it, Puttich agrees and explains that additionally TUI Cruises has teamed up with MXP in respect of temperature checking together with face recognition. This allows installed cameras to detect the temperatures of more than 20 people at one time as well as identify faces against passenger numbers. There are two installations onboard, one is from MXP for individual temperature checks and the other is from FLIR which is able to monitor several temperatures at the same time.

One other investment which is not easy to calculate is that of lower passenger capacity on board vis a higher crew ratio.

Moving into phase two and shore excursions, TUI Cruises is one of only three cruiselines to be granted a permit by the Greek authorities to sail in Greece. With MSC Cruises recently postponing its itineraries, it is quite likely that TUI Cruises will be the first.

“The Greek regulations are based on the EU Healthy Gateway and consequently on TUI Cruises’ plan,” explains Puttich. In Greece TUI Cruises has a very controlled operation. Any guest boarding TUI Cruises’ own charter flights has to have a temperature test. They also have to fill in both an airline and also TUI Cruises’ questionnaire. Guests must check in online.

Discussions are still underway but luggage will most likely be handled directly from the aircraft to the vessel. Guests will be taken directly from the aircraft to the terminal in the port on shuttle buses with 60% occupancy to enable social distancing. The protocols in the terminals will be the almost the same as those in Germany. As for the transit ports, these will be similar.

Shore excursions have to be booked via TUI Cruises which was a “door opener to get approval in Greece”. The tours are all TUI Cruises-controlled and handled by Intercruises, which is part of the TUI group. Contrary to what one might expect, Puttich says that there are quite a high number of shore excursions that can be booked with plenty of variety, although less capacity. Historically having one ground handler, this is now proving of particular benefit to TUI Cruises during the pandemic.

Although TUI Cruises only started selling the Greek cruises four weeks out, they are selling “quite encouraging,” according to Puttich, who says the timeframe between booking and going on vacation, whether on land or sea, is short. He believes that the fact that the entire cruise will be operated within a TUI ‘bubble’ is an attractive proposition to potential passengers.

“It is very much a controlled environment. We are confident and satisfied with the booking curve that we have knowing that we are still three weeks out [at July 27]. With everything that is going on right now we are satisfied. The feedback is very, very encouraging from the guests.”

(TUI Cruises, Cruise Europe)