Pandemic doesn’t dampen long-term hope in Israel

The pandemic has heavily hit the Israeli tourism sector, but the country’s hotels are likely to recover sooner than those in other countries of the Middle East.

TEL AVIV—The Israeli hotel industry was set for fast growth in the coming years on the back of record-breaking tourist flow in 2019, and sources believe the pandemic has slowed, but not stopped, that success story.

Israel hosted a record number of tourists in 2019, with around 4.55 million people visiting the country, compared to 4.1 million visitors in 2018 and 3.6 million in 2017, said the Israeli Tourism Ministry. Before the spread of COVID-19, that organization predicted an estimated 5 million foreign arrivals were due to come in 2020.

The pandemic has turned the tables, and some hoteliers are very stark in their analyses.

“The effect is worse than all the wars and operations Israel had gone through during the previous 15 years, combined,” said Avi Zak, managing partner of Drisco Hotel Tel Aviv.

“We went from nearly 100% occupancy to 0% in three to four days between 11 to 15 March and until the beginning of June this year. The overall occupancy of 2020 will be 30% to 50% lower than projected before the COVID-19 crisis.”

Tali Tenenbaum, VP of marketing at the Israel Hotel Association, said hoteliers have taken a massive hit.

“The hotel industry is the first to be hit and the last to recover,” she said. “The injury to the industry is fatal. Only about 63% of hotels have reopened since May 2020. In cities based on foreign tourism such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Tiberius, the situation is even more difficult.”

Some managers preferred not to open their hotels, while others adjusted pricing.

“We have adjusted the rates and product to the local Israeli market, and since opening, we maintain a high level of occupancy at relatively affordable rates,” Zak said.

The demand environment remains week, said Estelle Hock, sales analyst lead and guest relations manager at Israeli-owned Atlas Hotels, which has 16 hotels in the country.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the hotels in Israel were closed for several months at the beginning of the pandemic. Many are still closed as non-Israelis tourists are not allowed to visit Israel,” she said.

Between January and July 2020, average occupancy in Tel Aviv amounted to 34.5%, down 55% year over year, according to data from STR, the parent company of Hotel News Now.

For the same period, the city’s average daily rate fell 29.9% to 672.50 ($194.69) Israel new shekel, and revenue per available room fell 68.5% to 231.70 ($67.08) new shekel.

Weighing the advantages
On 16 August, the Israeli government approved a bailout package for hotels at the cost of 300 million Israeli new shekels ($88 million), to be distributed in the form of grants.

Eligibility for those grants and amounts paid to each hotel is determined on each hotel’s slump in revenue compared with corresponding periods in previous years, the tourism ministry said.

Simon Hulten, the senior associate at business advisory HVS London, sees government interventions in Israeli as vital.

“The bailout package, including the cancellation of city tax, a furlough scheme which runs until June 2021, as well as grants to assist with running costs until next June, (is), as far as I know, more extensive than many other countries in Europe and will without a doubt be a key pillar to frame and assist existing hotels to stay afloat,” he said.

He said many countries and markets with less reliance on international demand and air travel had experienced stronger recoveries during the summer and would probably continue to do so going forward. That includes Israel, with more than 50% of its overnight demand deriving from domestic tourism, a percentage higher than many other countries in the Mediterranean region.

Sources said the bailout package will help hoteliers to make it through. Hulten said he anticipates the hotel industry would achieve pre-crisis performance around 2024.

The bailout package may be altered the longer the battle against COVID-19 lasts, said Tenenbaum, who added the pandemic appears to be a marathon, rather than a rally.

She said that when the dedicated grant was formulated in June, it was intended to help pay hotels’ fixed expenses on the assumption that towards the end of the year, inbound tourism would have recovered.

“No one imagined that the crisis would continue to hit us during 2021, and hotels will be closed again, so the support, which we hope will be received soon, does not compensate for the long period,” Tenenbaum said, who added the industry needed to further lobby government.

Some hoteliers, though, are not counting on much state aid.

“The bailout package is something we are not looking at or looking for. We work harder now to pay all our debts and be able to provide our employees with as many jobs as possible. If we got something, I would be highly surprised. I assume that we will see some kind of improvement in one year and return to 2019 numbers in 2022,” the Drisco Hotel Tel Aviv’s Zak said.

Tenenbaum said despite the pandemic’s effect on investment attractiveness, in the last month new hotels have launched.

She said Israeli hoteliers are very skilled at dealing with crises and unprecedented challenges.

“Israel’s hoteliers have an exceptional experience on how to thrive in periods of uncertainty, perhaps more than any other country, and have demonstrated the value of being agile and successful in challenging environments,” she said.

“Although this crisis is unprecedented, this mindset and the ability to adapt to new circumstances are definitely in Israel’s favor when looking at potential recovery curves,” Hulten added.


Loyalty Programs Need to Get Aspirational When Travelers Are Stuck at Home

Loyalty gurus discussed what travel companies need to do to solve a pain point: How can they engender loyalty when most travelers are immobile.

Speaking on a panel, “The Coming Shifts in Travel Loyalty Post-Crisis,” at the online Skift Global Forum Wednesday, Amy Weinberg, senior vice president of the World of Hyatt, said the loyalty program offers an always-on digital experience, Headspace, to address members’ needs outside the walls of a hotel.

Other panel members included  Danielle Brown, chief marketing officer of Points, who said aspirational purchases are booming on the platform, and Dan Frommer, founder of The New Consumer, who argued that loyalty programs need to get more fun and less transactional.  Skift Global Hospitality Reporter Cameron Sperance moderated the session.

Frommer of The New Consumer, a publication about the intersection of technology and how people spend their money, said loyalty programs often “are a real downer,” and need to get more fun, inclusive and community-minded instead of feeling like a class system.

During the current period, programs’ ability to be flexible becomes very important, Frommer said. He pointed to Chase, which added a Pay Yourself Back tool that includes credits for grocery purchases, for example.

For airline and hotel loyalty programs, agility is “ridiculously important,” said Brown of Points.

Personalized offers gives loyalty program members something to be excited about, Frommer said, adding tongue in cheek that for the first time in a while he measures his self-worth by metrics other than his airline loyalty tier. He pointed to Starbucks and Chipotle as two retail programs doing interesting things with personalized offers.

Weinberg of Hyatt recalled that the chain introduced instantly confirmable upgrades in 2009 coming out of the financial crisis, and expects the loyalty program to continue to evolve during and post-pandemic.

For example, Work from Hyatt has generated “really good traction,” especially in warmer climates, she said.

Frommer challenged Hyatt and others to publish more content, explaining that he has a couple of favorite Hyatt properties in Japan but hasn’t heard anything from the chain about what he’s missing out on there when he can’t travel.

All seemed to agree that leisure travelers will become much more important to travel loyalty programs with business travel on a seemingly prolonged hiatus.


Reopening Costa Rica: Hotel Recovery in the New Normal

Supported by a WTTC Safe Travel Stamp, Costa Rica’s borders have slowly re-opened to international tourism. We chat to hotel operators on the ground about the fresh protocols, and the path to recovery.— Costa Rica Tourism Board

As the Covid-19 health crisis continues to impact the world, the question of how to re-open borders to international visitors remains the pressing focus for the global tourism sector.

While many nations are still facing lockdowns and restrictions, some have begun to re-open their borders following successful quarantine periods.

Together with its Latin American neighbors, Costa Rica was forced to temporarily close its borders back in March this year.

As a trending international destination – increasingly popular for its vibrant culture, tropical Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, and innovative approach to sustainable tourism – Costa Rica’s local industry felt the lockdown acutely, not least of all its hotel operators.

Thankfully, supported by a range of new health and safety protocols, Costa Rica is slowly welcoming back its international visitors. The nation recently received a World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Safe Travel Stamp, which covers over 16 new industry-wide safety protocols.

In July, Tourism Minister Gustavo Segura Sancho announced a phased re-opening to international air traffic, with flights initially from the EU, UK and Canada permitted to return as of August 1.

On August 19, this list was expanded to include Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), South America (Uruguay), and Asia (citizens and residents of Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, and the People’s Republic of China).

As of September 1, residents of nine US states – Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington D.C. –  were permitted to enter Costa Rica. On September 15, residents of three more states – Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – will be added to the list.

Travelers to Costa Rica are also now able to arrive on international health insurance policies (as well as two local options), provided they cover sufficiently for Covid-19. Encouraging news for travelers, and a promising sign of things to come for the local industry.


And though an impending arrival of English, European and Canadian visitors this month and beyond marks a promising addition, hotel operators are viewing the August 1 lift as the first of many ‘baby steps’ towards pre-Covid occupancy levels.

“Right now, national tourism is rising rapidly,” says Montserrat Quesada, Marketing Coordinator at Costa Rica’s El Mangroove Hotel on Panama Beach.

“On the other hand, international tourism will probably take longer, since there is still lots of uncertainty.”

According to General Manager of The Intercontinental Hotel Costa Rica, Ricardo Menendez, the prompt >re-opening of key flight corridors in the region – particularly with the U.S. – is the next vital step for the industry’s resurgence.

Costa Rica saw 3.14 million visitors in 2019, with 53 percent coming from the U.S.

“For demand to reactivate it’s important that the borders with the United States and Latin America are opened, since they are our main markets,” says Menendez.

“These have been very challenging months,” he adds, “with a new reality.”


In this new reality safety comes first. Hotel health and safety protocols have become central to re-building the industry, keeping guests healthy and safe while bolstering consumer confidence.

Hotels like El Mangroove and The Intercontinental continue to work energetically alongside the government, Costa Rica Tourism Board and Ministry of Health on every mandated rule and regulation in preparation for the foreign visitors to come.

“During the past few months, while the hotel was closed, our team worked rigorously to implement all safety protocols, make all necessary changes, and train staff to be ready to welcome guests back,” says Quesada.

“We’ve implemented measures such as temperature checks at check in, luggage disinfection, sanitizing stations throughout the properties, social distancing measures at restaurants and event spaces, and deep cleaning of every room.”

Investing in technology and supplies to guarantee the wellbeing of its future guests, The Intercontinental has installed thermographic cameras for taking temperature, alcohol dispensers in all areas including entrances, restaurants, lounges and elevators, and implemented thorough staff training sessions, supported by the Cleveland Clinic and Ecolab.

Along with mandated facemask usage, and clear social distancing signage, both operators see this raft of measures as something that’ll likely exist for the long haul.

Meanwhile, local airports are doing their part to maintain vigilance against the spread, with San José’s Juan Santamaría International (SJO) and Liberia’s Daniel Oduber (LIR) airports, continuing to follow strict safety and cleaning protocols.


The fresh industry protocols mark a significant shift for the sector, all underscored and according to a recent paper by Costa Rica Tourism and the Ministry of Health.

As well as general guest regulation, the protocols highlight specific rules for venues, PCOs, vendors and suppliers as well as hotels with meeting spaces – while events can happen again as per the pre-Covid era, enhanced procedures will be in place to ensure the safety of attending guests, including a range of social distancing measures for venue seating configurations and all banquet-style sit-down setups.

Trade fairs will again be able to take place, but with a format allowing for one person at a time, by appointment, and a maximum of two exhibitors at each booth.

While it’s great news that conferences and meetings will again be welcome back at Costa Rica’s hotels, there’s a good chance this transition back from ‘virtual to tangible’ is going to eventuate over an extended period, with Zoom-style formats likely to last the distance, regardless of loosened Covid regulations.

Quesada agrees: “We think that virtual and hybrid events will keep standing out for large meetings, adding that ‘measures such as deep cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection procedures and the use of personal protection equipment will be kept in the long run.’”

In the event that guests or staff are exposed to the virus – or suspected to have been exposed during their stay at the hotel – they’ll be required to undergo a medical assessment through, and comply with the broader directives of the Costa Rican Ministry of Health.


Though it might still be closed to vital markets, the August 1 re-opening can only be seen as a promising step in the right direction.

“We hope to see an increase in international travel towards the end of the year, and hopefully a reactivation on the groups and incentives business for the second half of 2021,” says Quesada.

“U.S. travelers have always been one of our top visitors, so in a post-Covid environment we expect to see them traveling to Costa Rica, hopefully as much as before Covid,” adds Menendez.

As for the travelers’ end, visitors permitted to enter Costa Rica will need to provide a negative PCR test upon arrival, as well as a completed online Health Pass. In a fluid situation, against a shifting backdrop, Costa Rica is leading the way to recovery in the post-pandemic world: a template for others in the region to follow.

“We are striving to ensure guest safety and tranquility,” says Quesada, “and we are thrilled to see guests coming back.”


Hotel Contactless Tech: What Will Stick and What Won’t?

Contactless interactions have become crucial to the successful operation of a hotel during these times of crisis. Surveys are showing that guests want it, and hoteliers realize it. The result is a major jump in the uptake of contactless technology.

That said, not all technology is created equal, and that also goes for the various contactless tech solutions. Some tools have seen strong uptake in the past months, but might fade as the virus (hopefully) fades in the coming years. Other tech will continue to define how hotel guests interact with hoteliers for years to come.


This is a big headline to kick things off with. To clarify, it is clear that almost every hotel will eventually adopt some or all of the contactless technologies set out [in the report]. This is clearly a growth area with a lot of room to grow.

We believe, however, that surveys or success cases stating the importance of these technologies to guests should be read with a pinch of salt. Not only will the importance of contactless interactions undoubtedly diminish over the coming years, guests generally overstate the importance of hotel features when asked.

A case in point is a 2018 research paper published in the Cornell Hospitality Report, which shows that the vast majority of guests ‘overpredict’ what hotel amenities they will actually use. The authors surveyed 724 hotel guests staying in 33 different U.S. based hotels, questioning them before their stay about their anticipated use of hotel amenities, and then again afterwards about their actual use of amenities. Below we have visualized a selection of the findings.

Exhibit 6: Most hotel amenities are used less than expected by guests

The results show that we should be careful when assuming that the uptake of these new contactless technologies will be universal, even when guests say they want them in surveys. And when we consider the presence of these technologies as a determining factor in booking a hotel, their impact is likely to be even lower.

Of course, anticipating that there is free WiFi, or a seamless check-in process, could certainly impact booking behavior, but countless studies have found that price, location, and possibly brand, always trump any other factors. And considering the race is on for most hotels to implement these systems, the competitive advantage for hotels with contactless tech will soon be lost.

McKinsey introduced an interesting framework in a recent article to evaluate which COVID induced consumer trends and behaviors — and which technologies as an extension of that — will be here to stay, and which will likely fade. We can apply this to contactless technologies in the hotel space. Below is our view, but with the ever-changing situation this is very much an opinionated stance. Everyone should determine for themselves how they see different technologies evolve, and make decisions based on that.

Exhibit 7: Evaluating the future potential of contactless technologies


Marriott in Danger of Losing 122 Hotels to Much Smaller Brand

A Boston real estate trust that severed ties with IHG on a 103-hotel deal last month appears poised to do the same with Marriott on an even larger portfolio — and a smaller hotel company stands to benefit once again.

Service Properties Trust, or SVC, sent Marriott a payment shortfall notice this week on 122 hotels across 31 states. Marriott has 10 days to cover the $11 million shortfall or SVC will terminate the agreement and transfer the hotels — largely a mix of select-service and extended stay brands like Courtyard and Residence Inn — to affiliation with Sonesta International Hotels Corp., the memo states.

The flag affiliation transfer would be the second growth shot in the arm in less than a month for Sonesta, which currently has 83 hotels ahead of taking on the 103 IHG hotels at the end of November. IHG failed to make an $8.4 million payment on guaranteed property returns to SVC, sparking that agreement termination.

Sonesta, which has hotels in North and South America as well as Egypt, largely benefits from the cancelled agreements due to SVC’s 34 percent stake in the hotel company.

SVC claimed its hotels saw stronger performance under Sonesta flags in prior brand conversions. Revenue improved by more than 14 percent at 16 SVC-owned hotels that switched from IHG to Sonesta affiliation in 2012, according to an August SVC memo.

“We have received SVC’s correspondence and are reviewing it,” a Marriott spokesperson told Skift. “We don’t have any further comments at this time.”

SVC and Sonesta declined to speak for this story, but Sonesta CEO Carlos Flores hinted earlier this month of further growth opportunities on the horizon beyond the IHG conversions.

“I think it’s highly improbable we would not explore and pursue other opportunities,” Flores told Skift. “I say that tongue-in-cheek because we’re already seeing other opportunities in the market.”

The continued build-up for Sonesta is notable, as it goes against so much of the hotel industry’s view on growth.

Analysts as well as leaders of major brands like Marriott, Hilton, and IHG have all predicted the biggest hotel companies will benefit over the next few years due to so many travelers craving familiarity on their first hotel stays during and after the pandemic. That familiarity is typically found with bigger brand standards and would conceivably lead hotel owners to consider switching flag affiliation to one of these bigger brands.

But Sonesta has far less scope than the two brands SVC is dropping. Sonesta is on track to have a little more than 300 hotels after the IHG and Marriott-branded properties change flag affiliation. IHG had more than 5,900 hotels at the end of the second quarter. Marriott had more than 7,400.

“I do scratch my head in terms of distribution systems and branding in general: Marriott vs. Sonesta, IHG vs. Sonesta — that could be a challenge,” said LW Hospitality Advisors CEO Daniel Lesser. “SVC owns the assets, but they also own the brand, so from that perspective, I can see what they’re doing.”

SVC’s wave of flag affiliation shifts has less to do with maximizing distribution channels and more with gaining control at both the ownership and operations side of these hotels as well as bulking up the Sonesta brand, Lesser added.

At least one of the impacted companies doesn’t see the SVC agreement cancellations as a sign trouble is ahead for some of the world’s biggest hotel companies.

“Candidly, the relationship is a complex financial one, and we have to do what we think is right for our shareholders. They have to do what they think is right for their shareholders,” IHG CEO Keith Barr said this week at Skift Global Forum. “We have more interest coming in than we have going out. That’s more of a financial relationship and transaction than it is a definition of the performance of the portfolio.”


Airbnb Reinstates Domio Listings After Scandal Cost CEO His Job

Despite Brian Chesky’s rhetoric about Airbnb needing to return to its local connections mission and roots, the economics point to Airbnb needing Domio- and Sonder-like listings. Even if it means negative publicity pre-IPO.— Dennis Schaal

Domio’s short-term rental listings are back on Airbnb after being suspended for several weeks, but Domio’s two co-founders, CEO Jay Roberts and Chief Strategy Officer Adrian Lam, were forced out as the seeming price for reinstatement.

Domio announced the executive departures on Friday.

Although Domio’s quasi-hotel listings are back on Airbnb in cities such as New Orleans and Nashville, interim CEO Jim Mhra, who replaced Roberts on the board of directors, has to operate the company knowing that one of its main distribution partners, Airbnb, has given Domio a “final warning” regarding further violations.

Airbnb suspended Domio’s listings in mid-August after The Information conducted an investigation that found a number of questionable practices, including Roberts, chief strategy officer Lam, and three other employees erroneously passing off homes they’d purchased in Nashville several years ago as being their primary residences, and listing them on Airbnb in apparent violations of the city ordinance.

The sketchy practices  also included “the listing of rental properties using a network of misleading Airbnb host accounts — some featuring fake names and stock photographs — which made it harder to tie them to Domio,” The Information story in mid-August said.

After the suspension, Airbnb conducted an investigation that found that Domio had violated its rules but that these transgressions ended “after 2018. But Domio was seemingly pressured to remove all executives who worked for the company at the time of the violations. Hence, the Domio board, in cleaning house, accepted the resignations of Roberts and Lam.

Until Saturday, Domio’s accounts on Airbnb had been suspended, meaning Domio wasn’t allowed to accept new bookings on Airbnb, but Domio was presumably permitted to service existing reservations.

The Domio suspension and its bad publicity had been an issue for Airbnb on the road to its pending initial public offering.

As framed in Dennis’ Online Travel Briefing September 9: “Whether it is house parties, regulatory crackdowns, or corporate hosts drawing ire, none of these developments would help Airbnb’s eventual roadshow. It is also an impediment to companies such as Sonder and Domio as they seek new contracts and expansion. However, these real estate-oriented hosts have proliferated across Airbnb’s platforms, so it becomes a question of when — not if — Airbnb would reinstate Domio into its good graces.”


The only question was whether Airbnb would reinstate Domio’s listings before going public or after. Some observers thought Airbnb might wait — and were shocked at the timing.

The proliferation on Airbnb of corporate hosts such as Domio and Sonder, which cooperate with real estate speculators and sign master leases of multifamily apartments to operate as short-term rentals and quasi-hotels, clashes with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s recent statements that the company needs to get back to its roots.

He has stated that Airbnb in its early days had a mission of connecting people — hosts and guests — but the corporate nature of big-time professional hosts, who have come to dominate the Airbnb platform in many cities, diminishes the people-to-people experience.

Many short-term rental industry executives, however, welcome the so-called professionalization of hosting because it tends to foster higher quality stays and a standard experience.

Andrew McConnell, co-founder and CEO of Rented, which focuses on revenue management in the short-term rental industry, tweeted: “It’s a 2-sided marketplace. Guests prefer the stability, certainty, and predictability that comes with professional management, as they should.”

McConnell acknowledged that Airbnb would find embracing listings such as Domio and Sonder’s as essential for boosting the Airbnb valuation in the IPO process. Last year, Airbnb reportedly attracted a $31 billion valuation, but that fell to around $18 billion when the company accepted private equity financing early in the pandemic crisis.

Domio, founded in 2016 and having attracted some $112-$116 million in funding and financing, issued a statement about the reinstatement that read in part:

“Airbnb found that a number of user reviews and non-compliant host listings between 2016 and 2018 were in violation of Airbnb’s community standards. We believe the home sharing community is built on trust and we respect Airbnb’s decision to remove those reviews from its platform.

“After weeks of cooperating with Airbnb, it was confirmed that this activity has not occurred in years. We’re pleased to announce that Domio’s listings will be reinstated on Airbnb’s platform. Guests will be able to book Domio listings directly on Airbnb effective September 26, 2020. We greatly appreciate the cooperation with Airbnb and look forward to our continued partnership.”

Airbnb’s statement noted that Domio requested reinstated after the Domio board removed executives who were running the company at the time of the misdeeds.

“Airbnb’s thorough examination uncovered certain past practices by Domio from a number of years ago in violation of Airbnb’s Community Standards regarding authentic reviews,” Airbnb said.

“As a result, we communicated to Domio our decision to remove their accounts. Domio requested reinstatement after its board removed all members of its leadership team present at the time of the unacceptable activity, and therefore Airbnb made the decision to reinstate Domio’s accounts, in addition to removing all prior suspicious reviews from Domio’s listings. We will not hesitate to permanently remove their associated accounts if there are future violations of our standards and policies.”

USD 810B worth of projects to help Saudi leisure tourism sector grow to new heights in the next 10 years

Massive investment in mega tourism projects to the tune of USD 810B is expected to transform Saudi Arabia to one of the largest leisure tourism industries in the world between now and 2030, according to research conducted by the Middle East and North Africa Leisure Attractions Council (MENALAC), the leisure and entertainment industry council representing the Middle East’s dynamic leisure attractions sector.

“Mega tourism projects being developed by the Public Investment Fund will be spread over an area of more than 64,634 square kilometers, with a value exceeding $810 billion,” according to Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), the country’s tourism regulator.

Among these, the USD 500B Neom leads the list of the mega projects – which once completed, will deliver a futuristic mega sustainable city, followed by the USD 10B Qiddiyah Project, spread across 334 square kilometres in Riyadh. 

The third project is Amaala, or the Saudi Riviera, located in the northern region with an area of 3,800 square kilometres, and developing islands in the Red Sea with a total area of 34,000 square kilometres. 

Mishal Al Hokair, Board Member of MENALAC, said, “Saudi Arabia has an array of dynamic plans and attractions planned over the next few years, each of which will add to the fast growing Leisure and Entertainment sector. Its Vision 2030 will change the entire economic and tourism landscape of not only Saudi Arabia, but the entire Middle East region, which will have a massive positive knock-on effect on the leisure tourism industry.

“Once the current Covid-19 situation improves, the investment and development in the Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector will bring massive opportunities for the industry. It is time for everyone to prepare for the next big growth.”

In addition, SCTH will be developing museums in various Saudi regions, and preserving Saudi heritage with a cost of more than USD 1.3B. 

“Saudi Arabia foresees that national tourism will significantly contribute to the gross domestic product as the most growing non-oil economic sector.  The tourism revenues increased to more than USD 51B in 2017, and to more than USD 56B in 2018,” SCTH said in a report.

The total number of inbound and outbound tourist trips in Saudi Arabia is expected to reach 62 million trips, where tourism revenues are anticipated to exceed USD 37B by the end of 2020.  

“Therefore, it is anticipated to rank as the 24th on the scale of tourist business environment, and 124th in the international openness of tourism, and the 60th in the travel and tourism competitiveness indicator,” the report said.

Also, tourist facilities licensed by SCTH, have achieved a big growth over the past 10 years, especially in tourist accommodation.  In 2008, the number of tourist accommodations did not exceed 800 hotels, and hotel apartments.  In 2018 the number increased to 7,388.  The number of travel and tourism agencies went up from 589 to 2,414, with the presence of 633 tourist trips organisers.

Changes and growth in Saudi Arabia’s tourism landscape will help leisure attractions operators in the Middle East and North African countries. The recent reopening of the land borders by Saudi Authorities will help boost regional tourism in the GCC region.

SCTH plans to facilitate investment of SR171.05 billion that will boost the tourism industry capacity and the number of hotel rooms to 621,600 rooms and boost the tourism sector’s contribution to the GDP by 3.1 percent, and increase direct employment to 1.2 million jobs.

Prakash Vivekanand, Board Member of MENALAC, said, “The latest news from Saudi Arabia is very encouraging. The government wants to push ahead with the mega projects that will boost not only the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) but also the tourism sector. It will create massive opportunities for all the players in the leisure attractions business and we could count on an exciting future for the industry in the MENA region.”

According to Saudi Arabia’s General Investment Authority (SAGIA), the country wants to increase investment in recreational facilities to 6 per cent from the current 2.9 percent per annum – more than double the current level, as part of Saudi Vision 2030.

 “In 2017, the Saudi Arabian tourism sector attracted investment of USD 28.6B, which was six times the world average in tourism capital investments,” according to a report by SAGIA. “Investments are expected to rise 5.5 per cent per annum over the next ten years to USD 54B per annum.”

Despite the current situation with regards to Covid-19, Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead with construction of some of these massive projects. A number of construction contracts have recently been awarded following the partial re-opening of the economy after the lockdown.

Red Sea Development Company has recently awarded construction contracts worth US$1 billion while Neom has awarded Bechtel and AECOM programme management contracts.

Rosa Tahmaseb, secretary general of Menalac, said: “The leisure attractions industry in the MENA region is upbeat with the new opportunities that are arising in Saudi Arabia. We see massive opportunities for our industry being created by more than a US$1 trillion investment in the Saudi Economy between now and 2030.

“I urge the leisure industry stakeholders, both our suppliers and operators to explore these opportunities and ascertain how they can take a leading role in helping Saudi Arabia develop its leisure facilities in the coming decade.

“Despite the short-term setback created by the Covid-19 pandemic, the long-term prospects for our industry remain bright. One example of this can be seen in the dynamic projects planned for Saudi Arabia.”

Tourism and entertainment are an essential part of the Saudi Vision 2030 which is aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy by reducing its dependence on oil. The Kingdom intends to develop versatile tourism destinations, which include several coastal sites, marvellous islands and distinguished heritage areas, all of which will require a high level of expertise, support and the most innovative attractions, technology and experiences to ensure the Kingdom becomes one of the top tourist and entertainment destinations in the Middle East within the next few years.


Where can I go on holiday? Here’s the lowdown on European travel country by country

Planning your next vacation already?

As it may be hard to get your bearings with all the restrictions amid COVID-19 pandemic, Euronews has broken down everything you need to know before travelling to Europe, country by country.


You may enter the country: if you have only been residing in a country where the COVID-19 situation has been stable for the past ten days.

Austrian authorities have listed the “safe” countries: Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, San Marino, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (only the Canary Islands), Czech Republic, Hungary, Vatican, United Kingdom and Cyprus.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from any third country.

More information can be found in the ordinance from the Minister for Social Affairs and Health.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or the Schengen Area.

You shall provide a negative PCR test and will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from any of the “red zones”.

Belgium authorities have listed the “red zones”: Andorra, Austria (province of Vienna), Croatia (provinces of Split-Dalmatia, Brod-Posavina, Zadar, Sibenik-Knin, Dubrovnik-Neretva, Požega-Slavonia, Virovitica-Podravina and Lika-Senj, Czech Republic (Prague, Central Bohemia, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast regions), France (Paris and many French departments), Hungary (Budapest), Monaco, Netherlands (provinces of South-Holland and North-Holland), Romania, Spain (except for the islands of Tenerife, El Hierro, La Gomera and La Palma), Switzerland (cantons of Freiburg and Vaud) and United Kingdom (North West region).

All people travelling to/through Belgium for at least 48 hours now must fill out a passenger locator form.

More information can be found on the Belgium Minister for Foreign Affairs website.


You may enter the country: if you are a resident from the EU, Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

Additionally, citizens from Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro, Moldova, Israel, Kuwait, Belarus and Turkey are permitted into Bulgaria without restrictions.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from any third country.

More information can be found on the COVID-19 Bulgarian website.


You may enter the country: if you are from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall provide a negative PCR test and proof of paid accommodation: if you are travelling from any third country. If not, you will be subject to a 14-day quarantine or self-isolation measures.

More information can be found on the EnterCroatia website.


You may enter the country: if you are from Canada, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway or Thailand — providing you got the Cyprus flight pass.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Vatican, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Uruguay.

You may not enter the country: if you are travelling from any third country — except for special permissions and permanent Cyprus residents returning home.

More information can be found on the Cyprus Flight Pass website.

Czech Republic

You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall provide a negative PCR test or undergo a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from Spain or from any non-EU country where there is a high risk of infection.

_More information can be found on the Ministry for Foreign Affairs website._


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall justify your travel and provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from Andorra, Belgium, Croatia, France, Luxembourg, Monaco, Malta, Romania, San Marino, Spain and the Czech Republic or any third-country national — tourism will not be allowed.

You may not enter the country: if you are showing clear symptoms such as dry cough and fever.

More information can be found on the Danish police website.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall be subject to a 14-day restriction of freedom of movement: if you are travelling from any country with an infection rate above 16. You may shorten this period by getting a PCR test.

More information can be found on the Minister for Foreign Affairs website.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

Family members of Finnish citizens may also enter the country regardless of nationality.

You need to justify your travel: if you are travelling from Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

_More information can be found on the Finnish guidelines for travellers website._


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from Algeria, Bahrain, India, Israel, Kuwait, Madagascar, Oman, Panama, Peru, Qatar, Serbia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates or the United States.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are showing symptoms of COVID-19 upon arrival, cannot show the results of a PCR test or come from any third country (for specific imperious reasons only).

More information can be found on the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs website.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you have spent time in a “high risk” country (where the infection rate is above 50) in the past 14 days.

_More information can be found on the Federal Foreign Office website. _


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from Bulgaria, Romania, United Arab Emirates, Malta, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia.

All people travelling to Greece must fill out a passenger locator form.

More information can be found on the Greek government website.


You shall provide a negative PCR test and justify your travel: if you are a resident from any foreign country (essential travel only).

Citizens of Visegrad Group Countries only need to provide a PCR test.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are a Hungarian national returning from abroad

More information can be found on the Hungarian consulate website.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from Denmark, Finland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Norway and Germany without restriction.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from any other country in the EU/Schengen Area (essential travel only).

You may not enter the country: if you are travelling from any third country.

More information can be found on the Icelandic Ministry for Health website).


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU or Schengen Area.

You shall be subject to a 14-day restriction of movement: if you are travelling from any location that is not on the COVID-19 Irish green list — which includes Estonia, Finland, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Slovakia.

All people travelling to Ireland must fill out a passenger locator form.

More information can be found on the Irish government website.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from Croatia, Greece, Malta and Spain

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, Rwanda, Republic of Korea, Romania Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine and need to justify your travel: if you are travelling from any third country

You may not enter the country: if you are travelling from Armenia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Chile, Kuwait, North Macedonia, Moldova, Oman, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic / Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Colombia (for non-EU nationals only).

All people travelling to Italy must fill out a self-declaration.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU and the Schengen Area.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from a country where the infection rate is above 16 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Only travellers Lithuania, Finland, Liechtenstein, Cyprus and the Vatican are not affected for now in Europe.

All people travelling to Latvia must fill out a questionnaire.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You shall provide a negative PCR test and will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from a country where the infection rate is above 25 cases per 100,000 inhabitants

All people travelling to Lithuania must fill out a form.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You may not enter the country: if you are travelling for any third country.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling from France (all Paris airports and Marseille), Romania, Spain (from Barcelona, Girona, Madrid), Tunisia and the Czech Republic.

You may not enter the country: if you are a third-country national or if you have not spent at least 14 days in one of the countries allowed before reaching Malta.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from countries labelled as “orange” by the Netherlands (Andorra, Aruba, Bulgaria, Croatia, Malta, Romania, St. Maarten, Spain, Monaco, Greek islands and various departments in France, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, United Kingdom, Cyprus, Slovenia, Slovakia and Hungary).


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from a country with more than 20 cases per 100,000 inhabitants during the last two weeks and more than 5 per cent positive tests on average per week over the last two weeks — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and some parts of Denmark, Finland and Sweden are the only exceptions at the moment.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU and the Schengen Area.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling to your Polish place of residency from outside the EU/Schengen.

You may not enter the country: if you are travelling from any third country.

Note that following international locations have been banned from landing in Poland: Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Brazil, Bahrain, Spain, Israel, Qatar, Kuwait, Libya, Argentina, Chile, France, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, Colombia, Costa Rica, Lebanon, Maldives, Namibia, Moldova, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Cape Verde, United States, Bolivia and the Bahamas.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You shall provide a negative PCR test: if you are travelling to the archipelagos of Madeira or the Azores.

You shall provide a negative PCR test and justify your travel: if you are travelling a third country (essential travel only).


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from a country with a high incidence rate (Luxembourg, Malta and some regions in Spain).

Note that direct passenger flights from Sweden, Portugal, UK, USA, Iran and Turkey are suspended.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU and the Schengen Area.

You shall provide a negative PCR test and will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from another country than the ones that were tagged as “safe” — Australia, Austria, China, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from a country with more than 40 cases per 100,000 inhabitants

Slovenian authorities listed the countries where the restriction does not apply: Austria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Hungary, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Rwanda, San Marino, Slovakia, Uruguay, United Kingdom and the Vatican.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom without restriction.


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom without restriction.

You may not enter the country: if you are travelling from any third country (except for essential travels).


You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom.

You will be subject to aperiod of quarantine: if you are travelling from a country defined as presenting a high risk of infection.

The Swiss authorities have listed the areas with a high risk of infection: Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Belize, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Gibraltar, Guyana, Honduras, India, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Namibia, North Macedonia, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Qatar, Romania, San Marino, Sint Maarten, Spain, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States of America and most French regions.

United Kingdom

You may enter the country: if you are travelling from the EU and the Schengen Area.

You will be subject to a period of quarantine: if you are travelling from a country which is not on the UK corridor list.

The UK corridor list has been established as follows: Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Azores, Barbados, Bermuda, Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Brunei, Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands, Cuba, Curaçao, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, Estonia, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, Gibraltar, Germany, Greece (except the islands of Crete, Lesvos, Mykonos, Santorini, Serifos, Tinos and Zakynthos, Greenland, Grenada, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macao, Madeira, Malaysia, Mauritius, Montserrat, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Norway, Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, Poland, San Marino, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, St Barthélemy, St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Pierre and Miquelon, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Vatican City State and Vietnam.

All people travelling to the United Kingdom must fill out a passenger locator form.


France: A less pessimistic outlook for 2020 thanks to the summer season but caution for the end of the year

After a disastrous start of the year marked by the worst recession since the WWII, the French economy’s 2020 growth outlook has now slightly improved. The upturn in economic activity since May has been stronger than expected and it continued during the summer vacations.

The U.S On Travel 'Red List' Of 16 Countries Issued By France

The beginning of this normalization has been observed through macroeconomic aggregates such as household consumption of goods, but also through sectoral data, particularly those relating to the hotel and restaurant industry. In this context, high-frequency indicators in our possession suggest that France should record the strongest growth in its history in the third quarter. Moreover, the rebound is likely to be stronger than in many of our European neighbors. Although this phenomenon is partly the result of an arithmetic mechanism, it also reflects a greater resilience in the tourism sector during this summer. However, it should also be noted that the pace of normalization slowed in August.Moreover, we believe that we are now entering a pivotal period where the risks of stagnation or even a downturn in economic activity are numerous, and, therefore, there is a need for caution for the end of the year.


The Covid-19 crisis has paralyzed economic activity in France, so that after a 0.2% fall in quarterly GDP in Q4 2019, the negative spiral intensified with a contraction of 5.9% in Q1 2020 and 13.8% in Q2, the worst sequence ever recorded.

Quarterly evolution of French GDP


Some sectors have been harder hit, specifically in industry, those producing mobility equipment – such as aeronautics and automobiles. Within services, all sectors of the tourism ecosystem have been hardly hit – particularly transport, restaurants and accommodation, whose activity has historically evolved in strong correlation with overall economic activity.




Faced with this unprecedented shock, the public authorities intervened massively and chose to protect household purchasing power as a priority. In this respect, a study3 published by the OFCE showed that, over the eight weeks of lockdown, “households and individual entrepreneurs (as well as the voluntary sector) suffered a loss of income of 14 billion euros4”. Nevertheless, this loss of household income was more than compensated by a drop in spending leading to a significant savings surplus (+75 billion euros as of July 5). In a context where the health situation has improved (lower number of hospitalizations and deaths, increase in tests, access to masks, etc.), a normalization of activity was achieved from May onwards. The Bank of France5’s economic survey, published on September 14, also underlined that, for the month of August, the loss of GDP over a typical week of activity was 5% compared to the pre-crisis level (compared to -27% in April).



As in many developed countries, the normalization in activity levels, faster than initially expected, is mainly due to the rebound in household consumption of goods. In France, the latest figures from INSEE6 showed that in July 2020, “household consumption spending on goods increased slightly (+0.5% in volume compared to June) after a strong increase in May and June (+35.5% and +10.3% respectively)”. In this context, in July, household spending on goods almost returned to the level of November 2019.



This phenomenon has been encouraged by the aforementioned accumulation of a savings surplus, by a catch-up effect that adds up to state aid intended to stimulate demand (particularly in the automobile sector7), and a desire to profit fully from the summer season, which was also reflected in tourism-related spending. France was able to benefit above all from the resilience of its domestic market, including with regards to its tourism industry. This facilitated its rebound relative to its neighbors, particularly those in Southern Europe (whose exports and tourism depend heavily on Northern European countries), but also those in Northern Europe (which are generally more internationally oriented). In July and August, France therefore took the lead in Europe in terms of the recovery of tourist numbers.




Economic activity continued to grow in August, but the pace of growth has slowed compared to previous months, as shown by the monthly composite index developed by Markit9, which reached 51.610 in August, a three-month low. Regarding the services sector, the report noted that “underlying data indicated that a rebound in the Hotel & Restaurants sub-sector was partially offset by declines in other areas, including Post & Telecommunications and Renting & Business Activities.”

Even when households were taking summer breaks, particularly in areas where resort tourism is important, the momentum slowed sharply during August.



It even reversed at the end of the month, in response to renewed concern about the sanitary situation (particularly with the Bouches-du-Rhône and Paris regions becoming a “red zone”) and the sluggish demand observed by companies in many services’ sectors. At the same time, in the manufacturing sector, the Markit index fell back below the 50 threshold, indicating a contraction.

In this respect, we can assume that activity in the automotive sector has stagnated due to the decline in new car registrations. According to the Committee of French Automobile Manufacturers (CCFA), in August11 the French market for new passenger cars fell by 19.8% in gross terms compared to August 2019. This decline is partly due to unfavorable base effects (solid basis for comparison in August 2019) but also reflects a backlash after the excellent figures in July, boosted by the end of the “cash for clunkers” scheme.

Even though the overall rebound in activity lost momentum in August, the positive base effect accumulated since the end of the second quarter still implies that French growth will spring back very strongly in the third quarter. More specifically, its rate of growth will be the highest ever recorded, and probably well above the average for the euro zone. In this context, the government should revise upwards its growth forecast for 2020, currently set at -11%. A figure close to the Bloomberg consensus (i.e. around -10%) seems appropriate to consider the potential turbulences that could occur in Q4.




As illustrated by the decline in tourist activity since mid-August, we are entering a pivotal period where businesses will have to take the lead. This observation is equally valid for the hotel industry, where 65% of the annual turnover is generated during the week (Monday to Thursday), mainly by business customers, and for which September usually marks a peak in activity. This reality is reinforced by the recent evolution of the sanitary context, as France and some of its key territories are once again subject to restrictions (such as a fourteen-day mandatory isolation upon return) imposed by various European countries, such as the United Kingdom, Belgium or Germany. It should also be pointed out that national measures, which could go as far as a localized lockdown, would likely penalize activity very significantly. The risk would be greater if two of the regions that are currently most affected by the virus, namely PACA and Ile de France, were to be subject to restrictions.

Indeed, these regions account for more than 35% of national GDP and for more than half of the turnover of the hotel and restaurant industry. At the same time, even if the government decided to implement an ambitious €100 billion recovery plan, its new effects are not expected to be felt until 2021, which raises fears of a period of uncertainty for the end of the year. At the same time, numerous bankruptcies are already expected for the month of October. As Les Echos12 pointed out, “since August 24, companies that cannot pay their invoices have 45 days to declare themselves in suspension of payments at the Commercial Court”, which should result in a rise in business failures starting in October. This phenomenon could then weigh on household morale and put a brake on consumption.

Finally, on a geopolitical level, the environment will be particularly unfavorable. Indeed, the latest negotiations between Europe and the United Kingdom suggest that the “Hard Brexit” scenario remains credible. On the other side of the Atlantic, the uncertainties surrounding the November 3 elections will increase, especially since various scenarios synonymous with instability of the international trade system cannot be ruled out. These factors, combined with a lack of visibility on the post-Covid recovery, could lead companies to delay their investments and hiring decisions, thus amplifying the phenomenon of stagnation or even relapse. The economy, as well, will have to fight against the risk of a second wave.


How MSC Cruises Is Operating Safely in the Mediterranean

MSC Cruises has so far — knock on wood! — been operating safely in the Mediterranean. The MSC Grandiosa departed Aug. 30 on its third voyage since the COVID-19 pandemic began. TravelPulse discussed the resumption of operations with Ken Muskat, executive vice president and COO of MSC Cruises USA. Here is an edited transcript.

MSC Cruises' World Class Cruise Ships - YouTube

TravelPulse (TP): Does MSC Grandiosa’s safe cruises thus far prove that cruising can be safe during these times if tough protocols are in place?

Ken Muskat (KM): The completion of MSC Grandiosa’s first two Mediterranean voyages — since the temporary halt of operations in March — as well as her third voyage, which began on Sunday, August 30, has reflected a successful implementation of MSC Cruises’ new and comprehensive health and safety protocol.

A good example of this is the Universal Health Screening of every guest prior to embarkation, including a temperature check, a health questionnaire and a COVID-19 antigen swab test. With this measure, we went above the guidance that was required by key international and regional authorities, and the protocol is doing what it was meant to do.

During the embarkation of the second cruise, a young man tested positive at embarkation (that’s both at the first antigen test as well as the second molecular test). As a result, he and his traveling party (his family) were denied boarding. In addition, so were the other guests — 15 in total, including the young man and his family — who had traveled to Genoa by van together with them.

The restart of MSC Grandiosa has given some proof that cruise ships, with the new protocols in place, can be a protective healthy bubble.

TP: Your guests must explore ports in Italy and Malta only on MSC Cruises-organized shore excursions. Why?

KM: This allows us to ensure that the same high standards of health and safety that are applied on board are also applied ashore. For instance, transfers are properly sanitized; tour guides and drivers are wearing personal protective equipment, and the attractions we are visiting are following the same strict standards that we have on board.

TP: What would happen if someone onboard did show symptoms?

KM: We have a fully equipped onboard 24/7 Medical Center with highly qualified medical staff who are fully trained for COVID-19 treatment and who are supported by a 24/7 ashore medical team. Our comprehensive isolation procedure will deal with suspected cases, and the onboard medical team will establish direct contact with ashore laboratories to treat the case in conjunction with the local health authorities. We have dedicated isolation staterooms on board, which have their own air supply and dedicated medical team. Close contacts of any suspected cases will also be tested and treated if necessary.

TP: Where are most of the passengers coming from on MSC Grandiosa? Italy? Or the 25 other Schengen countries that have abolished internal borders?

KM: Approximately 90 percent of our guests for these initial cruises have come from Italy. The rest have come from other Schengen countries with France being the second most important source market.

TP: Have most of the passengers been following the rules, save for the one family that left the approved shore excursion?

KM: Our main objective when establishing our new protocol has been to reduce the risk of a suspect case joining the ship, to prevent and mitigate the risk of transmission during the vacation, as well as ensuring we have a dedicated response plan in place should someone fall sick.

Starting with testing at the pier, our guests have been extremely cooperative and understood that our Universal Health Screening is providing them with the confidence that everyone on board the ship is healthy.

We’ve also seen that our guests are very comfortable with the protocols on board as they are going out and enjoying the services while being reassured that the various measures are being applied on board and in all the ports. This includes our guests adhering to the required hygiene rules such as wearing masks and keeping appropriate distance from guests outside their social bubble.

Guests also enjoyed and respected the new buffet system – whereby guests tell the server the food they want, and it is plated for them – with some preferring the new approach and feeling it was more efficient.

MSC for ME wristbands were also distributed to everyone to facilitate proximity and contact tracing on board. The smart wearable wristband collects data related to interactions on board and ashore during excursions. The complete history of all contacts between guests, guests with crew and among crew members can be traced and identify anyone on board who may have been exposed to a positive or suspected positive COVID-19 case. Guests wore these bracelets throughout the week and were also able to make good use of them for contactless bookings and payments in particular.

The small number of guests that chose not to follow the rules and processes set out in the protocol, such as a family of three who broke away from their organized shore excursion, were not allowed to put other guests at risk and were denied re-embarkation. By departing from the organized shore excursion, this family broke from the “social bubble” created for them and all other guests.

TP: Does it appear that people are enjoying the cruise despite face masks and social distancing?

KM: The feedback from the first two cruises has been positive. Guests understand that protocols such as wearing face masks in public spaces and social distancing have been put in place for their own health and safety, and they are comfortable with them.

From an onboard experience perspective, we have opened all major facilities and services that our guests would have expected pre-COVID (i.e. specialty restaurants, cafes, shops, theaters, spa etc.), but in a far more spacious setting as we sail at a reduced capacity.

Our guests came back from the shore excursions happy and were reassured that the same high standards we’re applying towards health and safety on board was also able to be undertaken by our tour operators and tour guides.