While the Delta variant of Covid-19 continues to swirl, many travel companies are cautiously churning back to business, albeit with modified protocols. Cruises are no exception, and Viking enlisted Vice Admiral Raquel Bono as its chief medical officer to guide its health and safety protocols as it returns to sailing.
With all six of its ocean vessels sailing again and 44 of its 75 river ships back in operation, the cruise line needed the backing of a proven health leader to guide and review its protocols. Dr. Bono brings many years of experience as a board-certified trauma surgeon and retired Vice Admiral of the United States Navy Medical Corps. During the pandemic, she led Washington State’s medical and healthcare systems and now serves as the principal of RCB Consulting.
Bono explains why sailing with Viking this year is safer than ever, and why some may say it’s even safer than dining out in your own community.
What changes has Viking made to its safety protocols?
Viking was the first to call off its sailings in March of 2020, and now, it is the first to have its entire fleet of six ocean ships back in operation again. During the downturn, the privately held company did not shy away from making big investments on board to assure it was ready for a return to cruising.
The company installed full PCR testing labs on each of its ocean ships and secured partnerships with land-based labs for each of its river ships. This assures that the daily (complimentary) testing of guests can return prompt results. As of now, Viking is the only cruise line to have PCR test labs on all of its ocean ships. Passengers are tested when they board and each day of their cruise.
Modifications to the air filtration systems have helped to reduce airborne pathogens by 99.9%, according to a scientific review, and the use of ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights and electrostatic air filters adds to that level of safety. Staff also perform regular tests on handrails and elevator buttons to check for germs and assure proper cleaning.
On Viking ships, passengers must wear a mask whenever they are moving around although while seated eating or drinking, they can remove their mask. Unsurprisingly, guests seem to have no problem complying because they are used to doing the same in their own communities. They are excited to be back out in the world that they are willing to make these small sacrifices.
When it comes to tours, Viking is unusual in that it always offers a free tour to passengers in every port. In most ports for the time-being, no matter what people choose, however, they must remain with a Viking-approved tour rather than explore solo.
Why are you so sure of guest safety aboard?
It comes down to reliable testing. I have been on board various Viking ships to monitor the process. We test all staff and guests on a daily basis using saliva PCR tests. These are less obtrusive than the nasal test, but provide the same level of safety assurance.
PCR testing is more sensitive than rapid antigen tests, and with our own onboard lab, we can get results on our own schedule at any time. This means we have better control. It also means that we can provide all of our guests with any return test documentation they need to re-enter their home country. All of these tests are included in the cruise price.
The company can conduct 300 tests per hour. This is no easy feat, either. Viking spends as much on Covid-19 testing as they do on fuel for various itineraries, but it is necessary to assure guests and crew of onboard safety.
What if a guest tests positive onboard?
Guests submit a saliva-based test in their stateroom each morning and have their temperature checked once a day.
But,like on land, there is always the possibility that someone will test positive. But, this is why we test before passengers board our ships as well as each day to catch it early while the viral load is low. This means we catch it early and isolate the passenger as well as any people they may have come in contact with immediately. While not ideal, it keeps other passengers safe and controls any potential spread.
On the ship, we isolate passengers in their cabin and assure their comfort by providing meals, any medical assistance and other comforts that they may need. Once we reach a port, they are cared for in a hotel at Viking’s expense with all meals covered. We have a dedicated hotel at each port for this purpose, and these guest rooms offer a balcony in the rare instance someone needs to quarantine.
Our crew spent two months training for these situations, and third-party auditors came aboard before we restarted sailing to approve that all possible precautions are taking place.
Are Viking cruises full?
Viking is limiting onboard capacity based on the rules of each country that ships visit so this allows for even more space on board. People are eager to travel again, but we are shorter lead times when it comes to booking since travelers are making travel decisions closer to departure. This also varies based on the itinerary as rules can change quickly. Viking’s travel team is experienced at dealing with changes as they happen.
Bookings for next year look very good. Reservation rates are 40% higher than this same point in 2018 for the 2019 sailing season.
Since Viking’s ships are small to begin with (the largest ocean ship carries a maximum of 930 passengers), the crowded experience that some people tend to associate with cruising is not there. Also, Viking does not have any children aboard, which means that everyone aboard is fully vaccinated.
What do you say to someone concerned about cruising?
As the only cruise line to have a full PCR testing lab on each of its ocean ships, our daily testing of staff and crew provides added comfort. Also, Viking’s policy for full vaccinations of everyone onboard adds to the reassurance. There are no exceptions to the 100% vaccination policy.
Travelers should be willing to make a few minor adjustments so that they can travel now. Interestingly, customer satisfaction scores are higher now than they were at this same point in 2019, which says something about peoples’ eagerness to travel and willingness to do what it takes to experience it.
Were there any recent fleet updates?
During 2020, the company had no plans for new ocean ship deliveries (even before the pandemic). But, the company did take delivery of four new river ships on the Seine, and after seven years it has been able to secure docking very close to the Eiffel Tower, which is pretty special. Also in the works is Viking’s first expedition ship that will be delivered by the end of the year with its first cruise in early 2022.
During the pandemic, Viking launched its own online TV channel, Viking.TV, which is hosted by the company’s executive vice president Karine Hagen. It offers daily programming focused on “good news” and inspiring or uplifting interviews and travel-related content. It was a unique way to stay connected with customers last year and has proven so popular that the line is considering continuing it.
Is it safer to cruise than to dine in a restaurant on land?
I know we are safer because of the changes we have made on board. On land, some environments are more conducive to spread because people are not wearing masks or may not be fully vaccinated. Our program is designed to raise the level of safety above that of many places ashore like your average restaurant or movie theater.
As Viking’s Chairman Torstein Hagen often says, the company has done all the right things to assure guest safety for those ready to set sail.