In Singapore, a Cruise to Nowhere on the World Dream
ABOARD THE WORLD DREAM, ON THE STREET OF MALACCA – The drinks were virgin and the distancing was social as the Dream Boys strippers stormed the stage. Masks by the pool were mandatory. Hand disinfection stations were within reach of the slot machines.
In a vision of the future of the global cruise industry, passengers aboard the World Dream cruise ship wore small pink contact tracking pods that monitored their locations and recorded the names of everyone they met.
“We on board the World Dream are doing our best to keep your cruise with us healthy.” Robert Bodin, the ship’s captain, told his 1,400 passengers as they set sail, in departure from his usual invitation to relax and enjoy the voyage.
Singapore, along with several countries in Europe as well as Japan, has made the cruise business a lifeline. With many ships idling around the world, the city-state has encouraged travel on a limited and highly controlled basis.
To find out how this was possible, I booked a three day trip on the World Dream. Friends and colleagues wondered why I wanted to continue doing what some of them called “floating petri dish”. Their fears were not unfounded. US health officials are suggesting people avoid cruise lines and have said operators need to set a framework for the cruise restart. Most of the major cruise lines in the US have announced that they will not resume operations until 2021. A week before I set sail, a Caribbean liner from Barbados had to turn back after five people tested positive for the coronavirus.
I contacted infectious disease experts to inquire about the risks.
“When I first saw your email, I thought, ‘Bad idea,'” said Dr. Edward Ryan, director of global infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital. Even so, he and others told me that the restrictions on Singapore made cruises look safe.
“When I look at what they do,” said Dr. Ryan, “You are effectively creating a sensible bubble.”
The demand is still there. Genting Cruise Lines, the operator of the World Dream, said it received 6,000 bookings in five days. Bookings for Royal Caribbean, which is preparing to sail from Singapore this month, were six times higher than what the company would normally receive in October, the cruise line said.
The World Dream has almost everything it did before the coronavirus outbreak, Genting said, including a zip line, two pools, a casino, 11 restaurants and cafes, and various shows. Only the karaoke room was closed as per Singapore government guidelines.
In Singapore, passengers are required to take a coronavirus test before boarding. Instead of Hong Kong, Okinawa or some other sunny destination, the ship would only dock in Singapore. The capacity was halved to 1,700 guests.
Under Singapore’s guidelines, the cruise lines improved their air filters and enforced social distancing. They asked passengers to wear the contact tracing devices that are connected to Singaporean surveillance systems. They conducted exercises to find out what to do if a passenger shows symptoms: testing, contact tracing, isolating infected people, asking passengers to return to their cabins and sail home.
Royal Caribbean plans to take out Covid-19 insurance for every passenger that will cover costs of up to $ 19,000 if the guest is infected, said Angie Stephen, the line’s chief executive officer in the Asia-Pacific region.
The measures have increased costs by around 40 percent, said Michael Goh, Head of International Sales at Genting Cruise Lines, at a press conference. But they cruise “one of the safest holidays around this time,” he said.
Genting is playing to its health endeavors. “Ride with Confidence,” says World Dream’s website, which introduces the ventilation systems (“100 percent external fresh air”) and food hygiene practices. (“Self-service in buffet restaurants is suspended.”)
Regina Setar, 38, a part-time security officer, said she investigated the measures before escorting her 70-year-old mother on board. Her mother has diabetes and recently had a knee operation. However, she was “cooped up at home and seen all the news about Covid”. They paid about $ 300 for a balcony room.
“I’m not taking any chances,” said Ms. Setar. “I wouldn’t want to. My father would kill me if something happened. “
Probably the biggest reason I felt safe on the cruise was that when I boarded the ship, Singapore had seven days with no coronavirus cases.
I had to do a quick antigen test performed by a medical worker who gently flicked a short swab around my nostrils. It wasn’t as invasive as the long swabs used for so-called PCR tests, the standard method for detecting the coronavirus. Antigen tests are easy to do for large populations of people, but experts warn that they may not infect everyone who is infected.
So Genting is taking other steps. According to the Singapore rules, 40 “cruise ambassadors” in dark blue polo shirts were sent to ensure that the guests kept their distance from one another. You get used to hearing them say, “Please stand three feet apart.”
Almost all passengers adhere to it, “but there is always 1 percent,” said Zulkifli bin Ibrahim, a cruise ambassador. One passenger, Mr Zulkifli said, yelled at him after reminding the passenger to wear a mask after swimming.
The meals test the distance limits. Guests stood on stickers three feet apart, creating long lines in the buffet areas. They called out their food choices to the cooks, who used gloves and tongs to fill the plates.
At dinner, an elderly woman, her mask pulled under her chin, peered at the offerings on the buffet table. A cruise ambassador came up to her in despair: “Aunt, aunt! Your mask! “
The casino was a big draw. Dozens of gray-haired passengers sat at the rows of slot machines, also three feet apart. There were several tables for mahjong. A group of elderly women wearing masks mixed tiles.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one worried about the risks. A cough would make me wonder if the woman two tables away from me was a germ vector.
Even so, passengers seemed grateful for the chance to go elsewhere for the first time since the eruption, even if “somewhere else” was a cruise ship sailing in the middle of the water.
“It’s been ages since I traveled!” said Doris Yeo, a sales assistant and cruise enthusiast, who laughed at two restaurant tables with nine other people, mostly family members. Her relatives joined in, she said, because “they really love to play.”
“It’s all under one roof,” she said. “It’s just perfect.”
The next day I slipped into the theater for the show “Verry Christmas”, an acrobatic performance with a Christmas theme. A drag queen in a blonde wig, fur stole and sequin dress sang “Santa Baby” to a group of Santa Clauses. The masked audience howled and roared.
On the last night of the cruise, I attended the Dream Boys burlesque show for men in a Chinese restaurant. It has been dubbed “Ladies Night” where your fantasies really come to life. The room appeared to be full, even though the audience was seated at a row of round tables at least three feet apart. Since the show started after 10:30 p.m., no alcohol was served as per Singapore’s Covid-19 restrictions.
The dancers’ routines – a military performance with presumably fake weapons and another performance with captains hats and little else – were answered with emergency calls that were barely muffled even by masks. The audience clapped and cheered at the curtain, and a woman shouted: “Encore!”
Fun and relaxation require planning for a Covid-19 cruise. Shows must be booked in advance. Swimmers have to do the same – the main pool allows 26 swimmers at a time, and they can only swim for an hour.
With a little planning, Raymond Lim and his wife managed to swim, go in the hot tub, and take ballroom and line dancing classes. (“Pretty funny.”) He also took a class on pebble painting. (“A little lame.”)
Mr. Lim, who works for the Singapore Tourism Board, called it a “good break” but “a subdued cruise experience”. Compared to his previous cruises, he later said he couldn’t find a lounge to relax in and there was “no spontaneous dance”.
“Overall,” said Mr. Lim, “you can’t really loosen up.”