MSC Cruises became the first major cruise line to return to the Mediterranean this week, setting sail with a whole host of new COVID-19 health and safety protocols that are among the most comprehensive in the industry.
Among the changes experienced by the 2,500 passengers -- all from Italy or other Schengen countries -- on MSC Grandiosa: rapid COVID-19 tests in the terminal before boarding and also when getting back on the ship; social distancing and masks onboard when necessary; no getting off the ship in port, except by ship-designated shore excursion.
Cruise Critic reached out to several passengers onboard the first sailing back for photos and comments. Here's what they said about MSC's return to the seas:
MSC Grandiosa normally carries 6,200 passengers, so the current guests have plenty of room for walking around. The line is only taking residents of Schengen countries on these first sailings back; a few people from high-risk countries outside the Schengen were turned away at boarding, the line said.
Miklos Mate, a passenger from Hungary, said that the strict health protocols and mask wearing were fine by him. "The food is just as good, the drinks are too," he told Cruise Critic. "The sun is shining. We love the sea!"
COVID-19 antigen swab tests, as well as temperature checks, are taken in the terminal, before passengers board. If a positive result comes back, the passenger is pulled aside and given a secondary screening and retested with the RT-PCR molecular COVID-19 test.
"It is reassuring that all passengers are tested before boarding," Mate said. "Maximum attention is paid to order and cleanliness. Last but not least, the passengers onboard are also very disciplined and follow the prescribed (procedures)."
While not developed specifically for COVID-19, the MSC for Me wristband the line has developed now serves a dual purpose. Besides being used to complete transactions and open doors, the wristbands can also be used for contact tracing, should a positive COVID-19 case occur.
Spanish passenger Gema Huete posted a photo on Facebook and defended its use against a commenter. "(It's) not weird," she said, noting that the bracelet will help in case symptoms occur. "They would know who you've been in contact with."
The location tracking data is erased after 14 days.
In the terminal, arrivals are staggered so there are no crowds when passengers take their tests. Unlike many American cruise lines, MSC Cruises allows passengers to embark and debark at different ports -- people on the same cruise might have joined at different ports. This prevents large crowds in one terminal; on this cruise, passengers boarded the ship in Genoa, Civitavecchia, Naples and Palermo.
Masks are required in public places, but it's not as much of a burden as you might think, Mate said. "Everyone uses the mask, obviously not when sunbathing or bathing, but yes. I think everyone realizes that this is a necessary evil now," he said. "I take on this inconvenience to protect others and myself. I think I have everything that could be needed, or even better. Everyone is very kind, very attentive to the passengers."
Signs espousing mask wearing and social distancing are visible all throughout the ship. So far, everyone is happy to follow the guidelines, Mate said.
"In order for it to work safely, it is a joint effort on the part of both passengers and the cruise company," he said. "It only works (if we do it) together."
For cruise passengers used to packed ship pools, the scene on Grandiosa, with limited and spaced-out lounge chairs, looks heavenly. Groups larger than the chair allotment could ask the staff to put chairs together, Huete said, "but always with enough security distance to the other passengers."
Numbers are restricted at the ship's indoor pool, as Italian guidelines require at least 7 square meters per person. The sauna and steam room are only open for single use, and while the thermal area is open, numbers are restricted, according to the cruise line.
One of the more controversial measures from MSC Cruises is restricting port stops to organized shore excursions only. The line is taking this very seriously, to the point where a family that left the organized group in Naples was denied boarding.
For Mate, the restrictions didn't matter, as he had been to the ports before. But it stopped one of his friends from coming. "He doesn't (want to) come to sail now because he can't get out whenever he wants and can't walk for him," he said.