“We’re supposed to be on the P&O Azura now, going around the Baltic,” mourns Craig Hanlon.
His wife, Tracey, is sanguine: “This is the next best thing.”
The couple, from Kenilworth in Warwickshire, married on a cruise a decade ago. They were hoping to celebrate their 10th anniversary afloat. But not like this.
The Hanlons departed from the quayside at Poole in Dorset at 6.30pm aboard the pleasure boat Solent Scene, for an evening voyage around a cruise-ship parking lot. A further 46 people paid £15 each for the two-hour trip around the bay.
Even before the vessel leaves one of the world’s largest natural harbours and sails out into the English Channel, the targets are clearly visible: the smooth horizon is disrupted by the ghostly shapes of three huge ships.
The vast majority of the 270 cruise vessels that were in service worldwide before the coronavirus crisis began are immobile.
Before the pandemic, they were the star performers in travel, the industry of human happiness. Efficiently and affordably, they took holidaymakers around the sights of the world.
Over the past five months, the travel industry has suffered dreadfully as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – and the worst-affected part has been cruising.
Today, almost all are frozen in time and space, with the added ignominy of becoming novelty tourist attractions.
Solent Scene pauses for the Sandbank chain ferry to clank across from the Isle of Purbeck. For some would-be cruisers, that five-minute voyage is likely to be the limit of their maritime experience this summer – exchanging the high seas for the low hills of Dorset.
As the boat bobs towards the idle assets, what passes for an entertainment deck on Solent Scene is several degrees short of the all-singing-and-dancing extravaganzas that would ordinarily be getting under way around this time of the evening aboard the ships. We cruise voyeurs are simply invited to buy pints of local beer in plastic glasses.
The trip gets close to the trio of vessels standing in their monumental emptiness. But not too close.
“Security warning: keep 50 metres away.”
Arcadia, P&O’s adults-only ship, is moored within sight of the beach at Bournemouth, with a sign warning smaller pleasure craft to keep a respectful distance.
Right now, Arcadia and her sister ships in the P&O Cruises fleet should be shuttling around Europe, plying the Mediterranean and the Baltic with thousands of passengers and crew on board.
Instead, they are being cared for by a skeleton crew in offshore moorings in various parts of the globe. Arcadia‘s planned world cruise at the start of 2021 has just been cancelled – and the adjacent ship in Poole Bay, Aurora, will no longer be enjoying a “Caribbean & South America Adventure” in the New Year.
The planned passenger numbers for these two P&O ships combined do not come close to the figures for the final member of the trio. She is one of the flagships of the world’s cruise fleet: Allure of the Seas.
“I think there’s like a park on the ship, there’s a carousel, there’s theatres, bars, restaurants, three or four swimming pools,” says Craig as we approach the vessel that should be carrying around 6,000 passengers, looked after by 2,200 crew.
“It’s a resort,” he concludes – with a zipwire and ice-skating rink adding to the nautical allure of a vessel described by its owner, Royal Caribbean, as “the most awarded ship in the world”.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Allure and her equally gigantic sister ships symbolised the way cruise firms had finessed a mass-market model that brought together thousands of passengers and crew from across the world.
Holidaymakers sleep, eat and party in an inevitably confined space, while visiting a sequence of destinations in different countries.
The pandemic has hit every aspect of the extremely complex logistics of cruise operations, with a labyrinth of restrictions on the movement of people and vessels. Cruising has also acquired an image problem, with some ships becoming pariahs as the crisis engulfed the world.
Diamond Princess became a coronavirus hotspot in her own right while being held in quarantine in Yokohama Japan. Six months on, several countries – including the UK – warn their citizens not to board cruise ships.
Tracey and Craig Hanlon are annoyed by the indefinite Foreign Office warning against ocean cruising anywhere in the world.
“It’s quite upsetting,” says Tracey. “The standards of cleanliness on the ships are top-notch. They’re tirelessly cleaning.”
Craig adds: “With what happened on the Princess cruise when the Covid started has given the cruise lines a bad name.
“I hope people will be confident in cruising. It is a nice way to holiday.”
But the couple do not themselves expect to be back on board a cruise ship for three more years.
“Because of all the restrictions that would be in place, it wouldn’t be something we’d be happy to do,” says Tracey.
“We’re not sure about what’s going to be happening with the face masks,” says Craig. “You dress up on an evening on a cruise ship. I’m not sure it’s really going work with a face mask.”
Tracey adds: “You’re spending a couple of hours putting on your make-up, to then cover it up?”
Cruising must make more than cosmetic changes before it restarts at scale. There are likely to be fewer ships, visiting fewer countries and with fewer people on them. And given the cruel arithmetic of Covid-19, those passengers may well be significantly younger.
Pleasure cruises around the ghost ships may help fill them in time. One potential customer is Oswald Darikwa, a 46-year-old nurse from Birmingham, who is aboard Solent Scene as part of a summer tour of the UK.
As the setting sun adds a ripple of gold and crimson to Arcadia, he concludes: “This is fantastic. l will definitely go an a cruise.”