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The UK’s first cruise in over a year sets sail


With most of the world still off-limits to British travelers, MSC Cruises is launching the first of many planned UK summer “staycation sailings” that promise to introduce UK travelers to the joys of their own coastline.

The MSC Virtuosa is setting sail from the English port of Southampton Thursday, embarking on a four-night jaunt around the British Isles featuring a single stopoff — on the rugged island of Portland in Dorset, in England’s southwest.

MSC Cruises is one of several cruise lines who’ve swapped out international itineraries for UK-only sailings this summer, hoping British travelers desperate to escape after months of lockdown will be tempted by promises of seaside views and all the amenities of a cruise ship.

MSC Virtuosa is the cruise line’s flag ship vessel, comprising 19 decks of entertainment and leisure facilities, including restaurants, a theater, a “robotic bartender” and an aquapark.

Viability test

MSC’s voyage, which is being seen as a test of the viability of holidays at sea in the wake of last year’s pandemic shut down, is only open to UK residents, but the cruise line has opted to allow non-vaccinated guests on board.

This is in contrast to other operators, including Royal Caribbean, Virgin Voyages, Disney and P&O, which have said only vaccinated passengers can board their planned UK summer staycation sailings.

Instead, MSC requires non-vaccinated guests to test negative for Covid via a PCR or lateral flow test within 72 hours of embarkation. Guests will also be swabbed before boarding, and required to fill out a health questionnaire and undergo a temperature check.

On board, social distancing is mandatory and face masks are required in public areas. The cruise line has been running sailings on and off in Italy since August 2020 with these guidelines in place and reckons these are sufficient.

Guests also must have Covid-19 travel insurance.

Last fall, SeaDream 1 — the first cruise ship to operate in the Caribbean in the wake of the pandemic — hit the headlines when there was a Covid outbreak on board.

While the ship tested passengers before boarding, the use of masks on the voyage was reportedly far less stringent.

MSC Virtuosa will operate three- and four-night cruises regularly from Southampton into June, while later in the summer, the cruise line plans to expand into seven-night sailings, with calls at cities including Liverpool and Belfast.

The UK’s Department of Transport has stipulated that cruise ships must limit sailings to a maximum of 1,000 passengers — or 50% capacity, whichever is lower — until June 21.

On a vessel, travelers must follow the same UK Covid guidance as on land — groups of more than six people or two households are not permitted to mix indoors.

The official guidance also says cruise lines can operate out of UK ports, but only for UK-based sailings.

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