Marialuisa Iaccarino, Head of Shore Excursions at MSC Cruises, has overseen the introduction of numerous new and memorable tours for guests at ports and destinations around the world in her 20 years at the Company. But she faced her greatest challenge in 2020 when the global cruise industry shut down in March as a result of the pandemic on land and she was tasked with implementing a new form of shore excursions devised by MSC Cruises for when its ships returned to the sea – protected ‘social bubble’ visits.
Why did you introduce, what are commonly referred to as ‘social bubble’ protected shore excursions?
As we developed our health and safety protocol last year to resume our operations in a responsible way, we looked at every step of the journey that a potential guest would take from the moment that a cruise booking was made right through to their return back home.
Going ashore is a really important and enjoyable aspect of a cruise holiday and we wanted to ensure that we had measures in place to protect our guests during a shore excursion but also the communities where we visit. From that fundamental philosophy we devised the concept of a protected excursion.
Interestingly, this wasn’t something that was required of us by the authorities in Europe but something we created ourselves at MSC Cruises as we really wanted to have an added level of protection for the wellbeing of everybody concerned with our proposed voyages.
A ship is a controlled environment and we knew that it was within our gift to manage the entire health and safety measures on board. But if our guests went ashore to places that were not closely controlled and without the right hygiene and sanitisation measures in place, we were potentially putting them at risk and we might even face the problem of having the virus brought back on board.
In order to make these excursions a reality, we had contact each and every tour operator, transfer provider and individual attractions to properly vet and put in place the right health and safety measures. It was painstaking work but worth it to enable our guests to go ashore safely.
So, what constitutes a protected shore excursion?
First and foremost, it’s worth saying that all of our shore excursions - for now - are MSC Cruises organised visits with the same high standards of health and safety as on board. Of course, we hope that this will change in the future as the pandemic evolves ashore and local health situations improve.
When guests leave a ship to make a protected shore visit they undergo a temperature check before disembarkation and we arrange staggered departure times and provide dedicated gangways to avoid congestion.
Buses and coaches used for excursions are thoroughly cleaned and sanitised after every use and specific seats are assigned at the time of booking with seats left between families and groups to allow for social distancing.
Tour guides and drivers all follow the same, strict protocol to keep guests safe - for example they have their temperature checked before they start their work and all wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and regularly sanitise their hands. Naturally, they have all been health screened previously and provided negative results to COVID-19 tests.
At the attractions we visit, we plan in advance to reserve areas for our own guests and make sure that they follow social distancing guidelines, wear their facemasks and sanitise their hands regularly.
Finally, guests all have their temperature checked when they return to the ship after their tour.
With many restrictions in place ashore is it fair to assume that the number and choice of protected shore excursions available for guests is much reduced compared to pre-COVID-19 times?
The numbers, actually, are very similar as we believe that shore excursions are an integral part of a cruise holiday. For example, when we resumed our sailing operation in August last year with MSC Grandiosa we offered 56 different shore excursions at five separate destinations.
What has been the reaction from your guests to your protected shore excursions?
The protected shore excursions have proved to be very popular, much in demand and many were completely sold out.
Guests have come back to the ship from these shore excursions happy and clearly not afraid to go ashore, and they were reassured by the same high standards towards health and safety undertaken by our tour operators and tour guides that are onboard the ship.
This has been very rewarding to us at MSC Cruises. When we introduced protected shore excursions there was no precedent that we could benchmark ourselves against and when we first announced them before we set sail there were a handful of commentators around the world who doubted whether guests would choose the land tours.
How do you ensure that guests comply with the rules that you set for shore excursion? And what happens if someone steps out of line and leaves your organised tour?
The tour staff are trained thoroughly that there no exceptions to the rule that anyone can leave the protected tours and this strict adherence has been warmly welcomed by guests and the communities we visit.
In total, among the more than 50,000 guests we’ve carried since we resumed our operations last August in the Mediterranean we have had to deny re-boarding to a very small number of people who broke from their protected tours.
As an illustration, we had to deny re-embarkation to a family of three who broke from their shore excursion while visiting the island of Capri off the coast of Italy.
By departing from the organised shore excursion, this family broke from the ‘social bubble’ created for them and all other guests, and therefore they could not be permitted to re-board our chartered ferry from Capri to Naples.
From booking through to when they were on board, it is made very clear that shore excursions were protected. The conditions were reiterated on board the ship, at the start of the actual excursion and during the excursion.
This example highlights that we ensure that there is no doubt in anyone’s minds of the consequences of breaking from our protected ashore excursions. Ultimately, this measure is in place to protect the health and safety of everyone on board.
Your experience to date of protected shore excursions has focused on your resumption of operations in the Mediterranean. What about ports and destinations in other parts of the world?
We have been in communication with many ports and destinations about future shore excursion opportunities for when they open up to cruising once more and we’ve shared with them our extensive experience to date with our Mediterranean sailings.
The undertaking is substantial, but we work with tour operators and suppliers that know us well and we have a great working relationship with them from the past. All of them understand the cruise industry extremely well and have witnessed our experience to date from afar.
They are all aware that they must have a health and safety protocol in place that mirrors our own and the majority of suppliers have already done just that so as and when other parts of the world where we’ve traditionally operated are able to open up, we will be ready to offer a great range of attractive excursions ashore.