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MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato takes a look back at a challenging year for the tourism sector and the cruise industry, positive measures taken at the line to adapt to an evolving pandemic ashore and looks to the future with optimism.

It’s been more than a year since the pandemic caused global tourism to grind to a halt. How do you see the future of the tourism sector and what changes will the pandemic bring to global travel?

I believe the future is bright for tourism in general and demand will bounce back quickly in the near term because of a pent up demand from people to enjoy a holiday after what has been such a challenging time. At MSC Cruises we and our global network of trade partners see promising future booking patterns in all parts of the world where we operate. However, I have no doubt that the public will remain conscious and responsible about health and safety for some time even when things return to some kind of normality so this aspect will remain crucial.

During the pandemic, there has been a continued focus on the impact of tourism on the environment. The whole industry will need to continue to assess their environmental footprint and consider how to reduce their impact, and this is something we have continued to prioritise and lead our sector in at MSC Cruises. We are focused on our continuing journey to achieve zero climate impact from our operations through investment in the development and implementation of new technologies to support our industry in this regard.

We will launch our first liquified natural gas (LNG)-powered vessel next year – MSC World Europa - which will significantly reduce emissions, and we have recently signed a major contract for the future supply of our LNG fuel to support this and our future new LNG ships.

More specifically, how do you see the future size and shape of the cruise segment within the tourism sector? Will it be a smaller industry or can it expand again?

The cruise industry has proven to be resilient over the years and I don’t think the industry will shrink per se but I do envisage a scenario where there are fewer older ships at sea as the pandemic has accelerated the end of service for some older and less environmentally conscious vessels.

And with regards to growth, I am sure we will continue to see more new ships launch in the years ahead since we expect demand to return to pre-pandemic levels rapidly after this crisis as it has done following previous crises. It is for this reason we have remained committed to our newbuild plan which will see our current fleet of 18 vessels increase to 23 ships by 2025.

We are also likely to see new segments develop and grow as well, for instance the luxury segment, which we are moving into, where smaller vessels will be required to access new destinations and where people are looking for very special voyages of discovery.

Have you had to adapt cruise itineraries in light of the pandemic ashore?

 One of the main reasons for changes to our itineraries has been due to port availability. In some countries the ports still remain close, so our summer programme is currently based on those ports that are open or are due to open very soon. We have also had to consider, of course, the evolution of the pandemic ashore and how we can best protect our guests, crew and the communities they visit. For instance, we have designed sailing itineraries to destinations that can be rapidly amended should we feel there is any potential risk towards anyone’s wellbeing. We have also introduced local cruising in some markets due to the nature of local regulations such as our first UK only cruises from May with our flagship MSC Virtuosa.

However, we still have a great number of very attractive itineraries that are in many ways the same as those we had pre-crisis. We will deploy 10 ships – more than half of our fleet - this summer with a range of great new itineraries in Europe and we have announced our partnership with Cruise Saudi to provide winter voyages to a range of select new destination in the Red Sea and the Gulf region. Booking patterns for our round the world cruises are strong and if anything, there is more demand for longer cruises than ever before as people look towards the pandemic subsiding.

Does the profile of service offerings on cruises change?

Health and safety, as it always has been, is our number one priority and none more so than in the current situation. All our cruises now, and until the pandemic subsides and the time is right, will operate under the auspices of our uniquely rigorous health and safety protocol, which we developed using internally and with input from a Blue Ribbon group of external experts.

We reviewed and redesigned every aspect of the guest experience from booking to embarkation through to life on board and disembarkation and their journey home to ensure they are protected every step of the way but still enjoy a wonderful cruise experience on board our beautiful ships.

All guests and crew go through a universal testing process before they embark and are regularly tested whilst on board. We have secure protected bubble tours ashore to select venues where we have total control for our guests and on board we have capped passenger volumes to ensure social distancing whether in the restaurants, theatre, poolside areas or during embarkation and disembarkation.

And despite all these new measures the feedback we have had from the 60,000-plus passengers who have sailed with us to date under this protocol has been fantastic. They most importantly feel safe but also thoroughly enjoy this new normal cruise experience. This all goes to show that thanks to the unique secure bubble environment we can create on board our vessels, cruising is one of, if not, the safest holiday options available.

What innovations and technologies have you utilised during the pandemic for health and safety reasons?

We have had numerous innovations introduced since the pandemic started which we will see continue in the future including track and trace technology, more contactless payment options, 100 per cent fresh air, as well as the ability to reserve activities from a cabin with less physical interaction and queuing required. But most importantly, from a health and safety perspective, we have collected huge amounts of data and gained a great deal of knowledge since we first resumed our operations last August in the Mediterranean to complement the introduction of new processes and technology that we can keep in the event of future pandemics to protect our guests, crew and communities that our ships visit.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on MSC Cruises' business?

It has been a tough year for all players in the cruise sector including MSC Cruises, but we are part of a much larger shipping and logistics conglomerate, MSC Group, with other parts of the business continuing to perform well. Our financial position is secure, and we remain confident about the future as well as committed to our multi-billion dollar newbuild programme to grow our fleet of cruise ships.

Have you been forced by the pandemic to refine your future plans?

No. We remain committed to our plans to grow our fleet despite the pandemic and continue to focus on providing the best experiences for our guests while moving closer to a zero climate impact from our operations. If anything, the crisis has shown more strongly that our original plan of developing a modern fleet to provide guests with a fantastic cruise experience on board the safest and most environmentally advanced vessels available was the right one.