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MSC Cruises this month commemorated being back at sea for twelve months following the entire industry’s shutdown in March 2020 as a result of the global pandemic. On 16 August last year, MSC Grandiosa departed Genoa for a seven-night voyage in the West Mediterranean to become the first major cruise line to resume operations for international sailings. Gianni Onorato, MSC Cruises’ CEO, talks through some of the challenges, learnings and highlights during a remarkable 12 months

So, let’s go back to that very special day, 16 August 2020. What’s your recollection?

It was an incredible day. MSC Grandiosa sailed away from Genoa at about 7pm for her first voyage after months of painstaking work to devise and develop a health and safety protocol that would enable us to sail again in a safe and responsible way. In order for us to do this, we needed approvals from a range of local, regional and international bodies.

The eyes of the world were upon us on that momentous day and the atmosphere on board the ship was fantastic among the guests and the crew, as well as those ashore who were involved in her first voyage.

I was on board that first sailing and it was a relief to be able to return to what we do best; providing memorable cruise holidays. But it was the first step in a very long journey. I believe that we helped set the course for the cruise industry’s resumption of operations as our protocol set the standard but we also saw the protocol adopted by other parts of the travel and hospitality sectors.

Twelve months on, what have you learned?

Voyage-by-voyage and day-by-day we put into practice the health measures we had identified, we gathered data from every cruise we operated and our knowledge increased, which allowed us to return more ships to sea. The health and safety protocol that we implemented 12 months ago is the same one we are operating under today. The fundamental principles have remained the same and this is testament to the expertise that went into developing these measures. Of course, the protocol was designed to adapt and mirror the situation ashore so last winter when governments were introducing more restrictive measures, we strengthened our measures on board. Equally, as we moved into summer this year the measures ashore were relaxed in many countries and we were able to do so on board with certain aspects of the protocol.

You now have 10 ships back at sea and next month MSC Divina is due in the Caribbean. Is there any other stand out moment for you as more vessels progressively returned to water following that first sailing of MSC Grandiosa?

The British government back in May opened up its waters for domestic cruising. This was a pivotal point for us and possibly more so than when MSC Grandiosa sailed one year ago from Genoa.

Every major cruise line was eager to start operations in this traditional market of seasoned cruise customers and under a strict regime of rules and regulations. We took the decision to deploy our newest ship to this market to show our commitment to British guests and we couldn’t have been prouder than when MSC Virtuosa took the honour of being the first deep sea ocean vessel to sail in British waters in more than a year.

We have not traditionally offered domestic cruises in the UK even though we offer a strong programme in the summer with a ship based in Southampton for the whole season offering itineraries in Northern Europe and some in the Mediterranean.

But we found a great opportunity this summer to work with new ports of call such as Portland and Liverpool in England, as well as Greenock in Scotland.
And it wasn’t just with port and public health authorities it was with new tour operators and tourist boards so we could quickly devise safe and secure protected shore excursions.

All that incredibly hard work paid off. MSC Virtuosa has been a tremendous success for us in the UK and perhaps this has paved the way for future domestic sailings in British waters.

Beyond the safe return to maritime operations what else has been going on?

The past 12 months have, I believe, demonstrated our steadfast resolve to never lose sight of our approach towards sustainable growth.

Two new ships joined our fleet this year - MSC Virtuosa in February and MSC Seashore last month, significant achievements given a backdrop of an evolving pandemic that forced so many other lines to put ships up for sale and, sad-to-say, sail vessels for one final journey to the scrapyard.

We are very proud of our recently announced long-term commitment to operate Red Sea cruises from the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, a new area that has great potential both as a destination and a future source market as the Kingdom is putting great emphasis and resources in developing its overall tourism infrastructure.
And during the year we also announced further investments in ports all around the world with developments of new cruise terminals in Miami, one that is bound to become a landmark in the world’s capital of cruising, as well as Barcelona, Spain and Ancona, Italy, plus later this year we will open a new facility in Durban, South Africa. We also signed a joint venture with the Palumbo Group to operate the Palumbo Malta shipyard.

And if all of this wasn’t quite enough for our future development while much of the industry was in a state of status quo we launched our new luxury brand Explora Journeys in June with the steel cutting for the first of four ships at the Fincantieri shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy with sales set to open next month for the inaugural voyages in 2023 for this new-to-us world of specialist, luxury sailings.

That’s a lot of activity in the past year. How do you believe you’ve achieved so much?

Our achievements in the past 12 months could not have been made possible without the dedication of our employees both on board and ashore, as well as the support of their families and loved ones. Their commitment, spirit, endeavour and loyalty, I believe, is what sets us apart.

And I have to also praise and thank the incredibly hard-working travel trade. It has been a very difficult time for them and we could not be in the position we are today without their boundless and professional enthusiasm to be very willing and able partners.

So having reflected upon the past 12 months what do you conclude?

In spite of the pandemic ashore we have laid down many new markers in the past 12 months for the future. And our proposed growth must be done - and will be done - in a carefully-managed approach towards the protection of the environment on which our fleet of ships operate, an essential component of the DNA we inherited on day one of the business thanks to our maritime heritage.

This was recently demonstrated most vividly when we announced our determination to look closely at the design and construction of what could well be the world’s first ocean-going hydrogen-powered cruise ship.

And we have pledged our commitment to have net carbon neutral operations by 2050 and we’re well on track to achieve the cruise industry’s decarbonisation target of a 40 per cent improvement by 2030 compared to 2008.

These bold strides are all crucial for the decarbonisation of cruising and shipping.

And this will be the future.