After a nearly three-month shut-down Hurtigruten aims for a gradual restart of operations between Bergen and Kirkenes on June 16th. The first vessel back in service will be the MS Finnmarken departing northward from Bergen. Since restrictions for international travelers currently remain in place, voyages will likely be limited to domestic travelers initially.
"Gradually restarting operations within Norwegian waters are natural first steps towards a normalization for us. The size and scale of our step-by-step restart is dependent on national and international travel restrictions, government support and other external factors outside of our control. But we are eager to welcome guests on board our ships again," said Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam.
Hurtigruten has implemented a number of measures to ensure the safety of guests, including strict hygiene protocols and reduced guest capacity to allow social distancing. The use of onboard facilities, such as saunas, pools and gyms may be limited and curtailed shore excursions.
Passengers will have their temperature taken before being allowed on board and will have to fill out a health questionnaire confirming passengers have not traveled abroad in at least 10 days. A number of cabins will be reserved for self-isolation in case guests develop symptoms and need to be isolated. The company did not release any information about if the wearing of masks would become mandatory on board.
"We are two months into what is a truly extraordinary situation. In one way or another, the consequences of the pandemic impact us all," noted Skjeldam. "There is still a lot of uncertainty in what the next weeks and months will bring. However, we do see international restrictions gradually being lifted. Step by step, the pandemic is being brought under control. Businesses are re-opening and everyday life is slowly getting back to a degree of normality."
Challenging financial situation
The world’s major cruise operators have been hit hard financially by ceasing operations for several months. Royal Caribbean International, a major cruise line, forecasted a loss of several billion dollars for the first half of 2020 as cruise tourism has been shut down since the middle of March. the company has already borrowed more than $5bn with interest payments amounting to $500m for 2020 alone.
Hurtigruten also faces a tenuous financial situation with its credit rating severely downgraded. Given the uncertain future, the company decided to defer the conversion of three of its vessels from diesel to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Originally the company had intended to convert six of its coastal steamers to the cleaner fuel in order to comply with new requirements by the Norwegian government to reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent. Conversions were to be conducted by Kongsberg Maritime, which confirms that Hurtigruten cancelled three of the orders.
The company has also been looking to secure state financial aid similar to airline companies in Norway and around the world. However, in light of dramatic decline in revenue Hurtigruten’s credit rating has been downgraded significantly rendering it ineligible for emergency aid offered by the government which is only directed at companies with good credit ratings.
“It’s a paradox that we, who were operating incredibly well at the beginning of the year, now aren’t worthy enough to receive help,” Skjeldam told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).
Minimum service along coastal route
Global cruise ship tourism came to an abrupt halt in the middle of March in light of the rapid spread of Covid-19. Currently 13 of the company’s 16 vessels are laid up.
Due to Hurtigruten’s special role as not only an international cruise operator but also the company behind Norway’s coastal cruises transporting people, vehicles and vital supplies to communities along Norway’s coastline, the company never ceased operation fully. Two ships continue to travel according to an amended domestic schedule delivering mail, medical supplies and general goods.
A third vessel, the MS Roald Amundsen, is expected back in Bergen on May 28 after a nearly two-month voyage from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic where it departed on March 26.
Summer cruises in Alaska and Svalbard in question
Meanwhile, hope is dwindling for a normal summer cruise ship season, vital to local economies, in Svalbard and Alaska.
International visitors are barred from Svalbard until at least August 20th, according to a newly updated directive by the Norwegian government. This means guests from abroad can not use the archipelago’s airport at the beginning and end of voyages.
The closure also affects the international MOSAiC expedition and its Polarstern icebreaker, which had originally planned to use Svalbard as a staging ground to exchange crew and staff during its year-long mission. Instead two relief vessels have been dispatched from Germany to meet up with the Polarstern off the coast of the archipelago.
Similarly, a number of voyages during Alaska’s busy summer cruise season have been cancelled. Hurtigruten also cancelled its Alaskan voyages as well as the transit through Canada’s Northwest Passage.
While Carnival Cruises, the world’s largest cruise line, expects to resume operations with eight vessels on August 8 – less than a quarter of its fleet. The company has cancelled all Alaska-voyages of the Carnival Spirit for 2020, including repositioning to Australia in October. Alaska usually sees more than 1.3 million cruise passengers per year.