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Travel & Leisure

Japan's cruise ships set sail amid sea of COVID worries

Safety measures sink onboard fun while ports prove less than welcoming

Bookings have been rolling in for weekend and New Year's tours on the Asuka II.

TOKYO -- With Japan's tourism picking up thanks to a government-subsidized travel campaign, large cruise ships resumed operations on Nov. 2.

But despite onboard measures to eradicate or vastly reduce any threat of COVID-19 contamination -- based on the misfortune of the virus-infected Diamond Princess stranded for weeks off the port of Yokohama earlier in the year -- issues still remain for eager passengers waiting to cruise.

During a late October test voyage to confirm onboard safety protocols, a reassuring "No temperature abnormalities" message was heard throughout the liner Asuka II, operated by NYK Cruises. Anyone who entered a restaurant, theater or other public space had their temperature checked and location logged via their chip-installed room key. After two days, the constant refrain was barely noticeable.

The measure offers passengers a sense of security and makes contact tracing easier, but the crew still felt slightly nervous about their first voyage after a 10-month hiatus.

In the back of everyone's mind is the Diamond Princess. The cruise industry has worked with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to establish new safety guidelines, but it is difficult to gauge how well they will work in luring back passengers to pre-pandemic numbers. An interim report released in September included measures like thorough disinfection, capacity limits and shorter tours. But each company will prepare its own safety manual based on the report.

The companies' measures are more stringent than those found in other sectors of the tourism and transportation industries. "We put the highest priority on resuming operations," said NYK Cruises President Fukashi Sakamoto. "We have implemented safety measures aimed more at putting guests at ease than increasing revenue."

The effort has not been lost on a travel agency manager, who lauded the company by saying "Wow, [you're] going this far?"

An automated system checks temperatures when passengers enter public spaces on the Asuka II, matching the results and location to their room key.

But issues remain.

One is the interval between PCR testing and embarkation. A week before a cruise, passengers receive a test kit sent via regular mail. The saliva used in the test is then dispatched to a test center, after which results are returned in about three days. Fine. But unless passengers isolate at home between their test and boarding, the risk of infection remains.

In Italy, Costa Crociere tests passengers' temperature, performs a moderate health checkup, then checks for antibodies at the terminal. If any health questions arise, the company performs a PCR test on the spot. Asuka II has a resident doctor who can conduct PCR tests on anyone not feeling well during the voyage, but there is no system to test immediately before boarding.

For airline travel, Narita Airport will be able to provide PCR test results in as little as two hours from December. "Airports overseas have started offering PCR tests that deliver results in 30 to 40 minutes," said Masato Takamatsu, an expert on industry guidelines and head of Tourism Resilience Japan. "Ships should also be testing passengers before they board."

Safety measures for sea travel need to be coordinated with ports. According to a representative for the Port of Yokohama about PCR tests: "We could conduct testing at the port if the cruise lines request it, but there may not be enough space for staff and passengers awaiting results."

The city appears reluctant to get involved, as many citizens oppose using public funds for cruise ships.

Ports also differ in their policies regarding travel during the pandemic. Yokohama and Kobe have cooperated in resuming operations, while the port of Hakata in the city of Fukuoka -- the second most popular port of call in 2019 -- has been more reluctant.

In June, the city decided to ban cruise ships into Hakata until a proven vaccine or treatment was developed. This cautious stance is likely to affect decisions at other locations, despite the port's benefit to the city.

The port of Nagasaki received the fourth-most cruise ships in 2019. Nagasaki Prefecture, which manages the port, may revise laws in order to more readily accept cruise ships. The plan calls for flexible guidelines governing docked vessels, depending on the number of infections in the prefecture and the status of medical facilities.

Still, safety measures and onboard entertainment -- a huge part of the cruise experience -- are diametrically opposed. Before the coronavirus, the Asuka II would host live jazz at sunset and hold ballroom dances. Now, its dance floor is covered with desks and chairs.

Restaurants are similarly affected. Friends and even family members cannot sit at the same table unless they share the same cabin. Solo travelers will basically dine and listen to music alone, unable to mingle at bars or other onboard social areas while having to endure stricter measures than on land.

Friends and family cannot eat at the same table, except for roommates on the Asuka II.

"The best part of cruises used to be getting to know people on board, drinking and dancing and whatever," said Saburo Tanaka, a senior researcher at Waterfront Vitalization and Environment Research Foundation, who was on board the test voyage. "Now we have to find other ways to spend our time."

Kazutoshi Kujime, a manager at NYK Cruises, is sympathetic. "We understand the inconvenience this is causing," he said. "We can do things like install acrylic panels [between seats] so it's closer to the original experience people felt sharing a table." He said the company would ease safety measures as the pandemic eases.

In the near term, company profits will be sorely constrained by the limited number of passengers. So far, only domestic cruise ships, including the Asuka II and Nippon Maru, have resumed operation. They are unlikely to be joined soon by foreign ships, which have to make at least one stop at a foreign port for tours that start and end in Japan, making a true revival for the industry a long way off.

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