FIFI PETERS: Just looking at the cruise industry, the port of Mossel Bay’s cruise season for the current financial calendar officially opened over the past weekend with the arrival of the maiden voyage of the MSC Orchestra cruise liner. The ship is said to have carried 1 000 passengers and 925 crew members.
To discuss the outlook for the cruise industry here in South Africa, I’m joined by Ross Volk, the managing director of MSC Cruises South Africa. Ross, thanks so much for your time. Was it smooth sailing this weekend with the arrival of the MSC Orchestra?
ROSS VOLK: Good afternoon, Ms Peters. Thanks so much the opportunity. Relatively so. Obviously, with all the Covid protocols there are some challenges, and with the wind in Cape Town there were some delays with the vessel coming into port. But overall things ran smoothly and it went quite well.
FIFI PETERS: I understand that the particular ship left Mossel Bay the following day for Port Elizabeth [Gqeberha]. Was that all in order? How many passengers and crew members were on that particular [trip]?
ROSS VOLK: We had 900 passengers and just over 900 crew on board for the voyage that went from Cape Town through Mossel Bay to Port Elizabeth. The weather in Mossel Bay unfortunately was a little poor, so we couldn’t berth. But it proceeded to berth in Port Elizabeth on January 15.
FIFI PETERS: I’m not au fait with ship talk. What do we mean when we say ‘berth’?
ROSS VOLK: To berth is to dock in the harbour.
FIFI PETERS: All right. These passengers – can you profile them for us? Who are they, where they from, [and their] ages?
ROSS VOLK: I think it’s difficult. Cruising is such a prevalent or relevant holiday to many people. They come from a wide-ranging demographic, a wide age group. This particular cruise had a jazz theme, so there were people who were sort of afficionados of the jazz community in Cape Town. Many of them came on board to celebrate the first cruise in two years, so from all walks of life across a broad spectrum of age groups. It was wonderful to see, because it encompasses what South Africa’s about – looking at everything and living in harmony together.
FIFI PETERS: It’s incredible that you mentioned this first cruise in two years, just speaking to really the disruption that the pandemic has brought for your industry, essentially bringing things to a standstill. But as you and I have this conversation right now, would you say that you’ve sailed past the toughest headwinds in the past two years, and perhaps that the worst is over?
ROSS VOLK: I think it’s been difficult across the board for all tourist sectors, and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that Covid has had a massive impact on all industries. It’s something that we didn’t anticipate, and we’ve responded to by creating protocols that have the health and safety of guests, crew and the communities that we serve at heart. It’s something that we are tremendously proud of, having been the forerunner in this process to have commenced cruising in the Mediterranean on August 16, 2020. We’ve run since then through very difficult times. I think that’s the resilience of the tourism sector and, in particular, the cruise industry.
FIFI PETERS: Ross, take us through those protocols that you’ve now had to put in place from a safety perspective for all on board. What do they look like and how much have they cost you?
ROSS VOLK: I think they’ve impacted the industry as they’ve impacted international travel in general. So 48 hours prior to embarkation you’re required to take a PCR test that has to be negative for [all] on board. We’ve introduced, as a result of Omicron, an additional antigen test at the port, which is at MSC’s cost for all guests on board. There are mask-wearing regulations, social distancing and capacity restrictions in the theatre and the dining hall. There is cleaning of surfaces that are a frequently touched within every hour. Once a day the vessel gets deep-cleaned, and 100% fresh air is being cycled through the vessel, so there’s no recycling of air.
And then we’ve strengthened the medical staff on board. Previously you would have had two doctors. Now you’ve got three. We’ve six nurses and a medical facility that’s able to accommodate more people and allow for the treatment of passengers showing any symptoms, as well as onboard isolation facilities where, should someone show symptoms and need to be isolated, they are away from the rest of the passengers and then pose no further danger from a spreading perspective.
FIFI PETERS: Just further on the topic of Covid-19 and the preparations around sailing while adhering to the protocols, what about restrictions? Are there presently any restrictions in terms of border restrictions that are affecting any current routes or desired routes?
ROSS VOLK: The current restrictions in place mainly pertain to the PCR test [prior to] arrival. So, for example, Namibia requires currently a PCR test with 72-hour validity from date of sample taken, which does make it a bit prohibitive in arriving in the port, but we’re working with the authorities to try and amend that.
Mozambique has followed a very proactive and constructive approach towards cruising, and has sort of worked collaboratively with the South African government along the lines of trying to make it easy access into Mozambique.
And then obviously we have the restrictions imposed by the South African government on returning residents requiring a 72-hour PCR [test] if you’ve been outside the country. But overall the sort of consultations we’ve had with the governments have been very pragmatic and very practical and I must mention that they’ve been quite willing to accept discussions, and are very proactive in their approach
FIFI PETERS: And bookings? What is the booking pipeline looking like presently?
ROSS VOLK: I think the booking timeline has changed in terms of a shortening. People are a little more cautious of, let’s say, the knee-jerk reactions that happened in November when we identified Omicron and the world kind of locked us down. I think South Africans are taking a very short-term view on their holiday plans, so they’re no longer planning long in advance. We’re seeing a resilience. As I said, I think people want to get out of their houses and they want to experience what the cruise has to offer, and they’re wanting to get on board. But I think they’re withholding that timeframe from six to nine months. They used to book a year in advance, and are now down to a couple of months, and in some cases a couple of weeks as a result of the need for flexibility in terms of this.
FIFI PETERS: Right now we’re all talking about the increase that we have seen in prices from the price of coffee to the price of electronics and fuel – practically everything as a result of the supply-chain disruptions that the pandemic introduced. Just from a pricing perspective as MSC, we are well aware that perhaps fuel is something that features quite prominently in your cost line. How does current pricing compare to two years ago, before the pandemic started?
ROSS VOLK: I think everything goes up because of the supply-chain challenges. But from an MSC perspective, we’ve looked to try and ensure that our pricing reflects the value proposition that we have, and which enables people to enjoy what we believe to be the most value-benefitted holiday if you think about entertainment being included, if you think about your food all-inclusive and your accommodation, and you’re only having to unpack once. So we’re not looking to operate in an environment where we are out of touch with what the reality is on shore. Our pricing reflects that in order to ensure that we attract the guests on board and that they have a meaningful and pleasant holiday.
FIFI PETERS: Just lastly, the outlook for your industry and when you see a return to ‘normal’ being referenced to pre-pandemic years?
ROSS VOLK: I think the entire tourism sector, but cruising in particular, will take some time to return to normal. I anticipate that probably at the end of 2022 and into 2023 we’ll see a resurgence and some kind of positive trend. That’s obviously dependent on the evolution of the pandemic ashore. Omicron we couldn’t have predicted. I was quite bullish and positive about the cruise season that we are currently experiencing, but Omicron kind of threw a spanner in the works in that regard.
But I think if we see the sort of loosening of regulations globally and in particular in South Africa, I feel confident and positive about the return to some form of normalcy at the end of 2022 and into 2023.
FIFI PETERS: All right, Ross, thanks so much for your time. We’ll leave it there, sir. Ross Volk, the managing director of MSC Cruises South Africa.