The Scottish Government has moved all of Scotland into level zero – meaning domestic cruise at Scottish ports and harbours, including Orkney, can resume.
The cruise industry was brought to a standstill as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic with the last liner to call into Orkney in February 2020 – almost a year and a half ago.
Since then extensive collaborative working has been ongoing for when the day will dawn for the resumption of cruise in Orkney – a vital part of the tourism sector and many associated businesses in the islands.
Orkney Islands Council’s Head of Marine Services, Transportation and Harbour Master Jim Buck confirmed that the first cruise ship to call into local waters is scheduled for Friday 30 July.
The Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas is due to visit Kirkwall as part of a seven-night cruise on a round trip from Southampton.
While Mr Buck said this is very much welcomed by many within the industry, he stressed that he recognises that this will be of concern to others.
“While the visit of any vessel is never confirmed until they actually arrive, we expect the visit of the Anthem of the Seas to be the first in Orkney since February 2020. This is a large ship, capable of carrying 4,180 passengers – however the actual numbers on board will be considerably reduced to allow compliance of distancing and for the safety of all.
“The Scottish Government had decided that it will be up to the cruise line itself to risk assess their own circumstances re the numbers of passengers which can be safely carried while adhering to the 1m social distancing required in Scotland until 9 August at the earliest.
“The vessel itself will follow stringent health and safety onboard protocols which have been put in place over many months in collaboration with the Scottish Government and Health Protection Scotland. They will sail with a fully vaccinated crew and only UK residents over 18 who are fully vaccinated and those under 18 who have negative test results. Royal Caribbean will require proof of vaccination.
“Royal Caribbean has partnered with expert medical and scientific minds to guide them in the development of comprehensive protocols to protect everyone. And they're working with local health authorities in homeport countries to ensure guests meet current inbound travel requirements.
“Other enhancements to the pre-boarding, onboard and post-cruise experience include – 100 per cent fresh, filtered air and continuous fresh air replacement; medical grade cleaning standards; upgraded medical facilities; reduced contact through use of the Royal app on your phone; and staggered boarding and disembarkation times.”
Mr Buck is now also able to confirm that there will be further cruise liners calling into Orkney from August onwards.
“We do have bookings for further cruise ship calls into the county during August, September and October – however, we cannot confirm at this time, how many of those will go ahead.
“All passengers be required to wear face coverings on board in communal areas and maintain the 1m distancing. Cruise ships each have their own Covid management plans, audited by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, including a comprehensive testing programme for passengers and crew and enhanced onboard medical facilities.”
Royal Caribbean has advised that they are looking at “bubble” excursions for the 30 July calling. Onwards it is difficult to be specific whether it will be necessary to continue with tours in this manner given the Scottish Government’s relaxation on restrictions – and, again, this will be evaluated and determined by the liner operators and Port Health authorities.
Marine Services has led two full-scale exercises to test resumption plans with teams from all areas of the harbour and local community who would be involved when a cruise ship makes a port visit.
In line with European and UK Government guidance for the safe return of cruise, the exercises were designed to rigorously test the plans in place for a ship’s visit under Level 0 Covid restrictions.
They included a physical test of planned passenger management at Hatston Pier, including additional safety barriers, which will be in place to ensure the required social distancing. This new barrier system will allow cruise line staff to direct passengers ashore and on to specially co-ordinated buses.
New signage will advise passengers and crew on measures in place at that time. All guidelines will be strictly adhered to with all passengers – unless medically exempt - required to wear face coverings.
“As they return to sea, everyone’s health and safety remains the top priority – this is in all our interests. We know that outbreaks can happen for any number of reasons, as has been shown lately in the county – and that is why extensive measures will be carried out by the operators themselves and by ourselves here to try and ensure this resumes as safely as possible for everyone.
“Over the last year, the cruise sector has worked tirelessly with the Scottish and UK Governments and industry partners to develop and strengthen health and safety measures which now exceed those of any other travel sector and are the result of extensive collaboration.
“Cruise visits are important for the Orkney economy. But the health and wellbeing of our local communities is our overriding priority as we’ve carefully developed robust plans for the safe return of cruise ships to our islands.
“We have and will continue to follow guidance from the Scottish Government and health professionals. This is another step on the road to recovery and the new normal and signals hope for moving forward and out of the pandemic.”