Two cruise lines have been given the green light to offer cruises to nowhere from Singapore starting next month, giving locals what is likely to be their only option for a year-end overseas holiday.
Genting Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International will be part of a "safe cruise" pilot scheme that will cater only to Singapore residents, at a reduced capacity of 50 per cent, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) announced yesterday.
The round-trip cruises will not have ports of call, and feature strict screening and safety measures to prevent the on-board spread of the coronavirus.
All passengers will have to be tested for Covid-19 prior to boarding as part of the STB's CruiseSafe programme, jointly developed by global classification body DNV GL.
They will also have to comply with safe management measures, such as mask-wearing and safe distancing of 1m between groups. The travel group size is also subject to prevailing laws on group sizes.
Cruise lines must be audited and receive CruiseSafe certification to sail out of Singapore, the STB said.
Mandatory measures include testing of passengers and crew, ensuring fresh air throughout the ship and emergency response plans for incidents related to Covid-19.
Ship crew arriving from overseas will be subject to isolation and testing requirements both in their home country and here.
Regular on-board inspections will be conducted, and cruise lines found to be non-compliant will face penalties including fines, suspension of sailings and having their CruiseSafe certifications revoked, the STB said.
Cruise ships have not been allowed to call here since March 13, when the Republic joined a number of countries in closing its ports to these vessels over fears that they may carry infected passengers.
The Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off the coast of Japan in February, served as a cautionary tale of the coronavirus' rapid spread, with more than 700 passengers and crew members found ill.
Infectious disease experts say the likelihood of an outbreak on board Singapore's planned cruises is low, given the stringent measures and lack of ports of call, though there is no guarantee that testing will eliminate the possibility of an infected person embarking.
Ms Annie Chang, STB's cruise director, told The Straits Times that with the appropriate measures in place, such cruises are no less safe than other activities that have resumed in Singapore.
Contingency plans are in place in the event of an infection or outbreak, she said. These include isolating infected passengers and their close contacts, ceasing on-board activities and having the ship return to Singapore.
The tourism board said that Singapore is one of the first countries in the world to develop and implement a mandatory audit and certification programme for cruise lines, adding that it aims to set a benchmark for the future of cruising in the South-east Asian region as the lead coordinator for cruises in Asean.
The Government will monitor the outcomes of the pilot trips carefully in the coming months before deciding on the next steps for cruises, STB said.
Observers said the resumption of cruises from Singapore and its certification programme are a step forward for the cruise industry, which has been largely on pause for more than six months.
Ms Kelly Craighead, president and chief executive of the Cruise Lines International Association, said that it supports a measured and carefully managed resumption of local cruise itineraries that work within international border restrictions, such as those announced in Singapore.
"We have seen a very limited and carefully controlled resumption of cruise operations in some areas, most notably in Europe and parts of Asia. The successes of these operations, together with the extensive health measures that support them, will help inform the cruise industry's global response to Covid-19," she said.