Travel firms say they are “utterly devastated” after being told hundreds of British cruise ship passengers, including Scots, will not be allowed to step foot on Scottish soil – despite being able to travel to the same location by road.
With less than 24 hours before the MSC Virtuosa was due to dock at Greenock for a scheduled stop, the Scottish Government has yet to clarify its position publicly but it is understood passengers will be denied the right to disembark.
The domestic seven-night cruise, which left from Liverpool earlier this week, was to arrive at Greenock on Wednesday at around 9.30am and depart at 8pm before heading for more stops in Belfast, Southampton, Isle of Portland, Greenock and Liverpool.
However the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), the professional body for travel agents and the travel sector in Scotland, said it has seen a copy of an email sent to current passengers by operator MSC Cruises.
It reportedly states: “Due to the latest Scottish Government Covid-19 restrictions and regulations… we are sorry to inform you that the port call of Greenock has been cancelled.
“No guests are allowed to embark or disembark… This decision has been made by the Scottish Government and is out of our control.”
Travel agents across Scotland have also been informed that as well as cancelling the drop off at Greenock, departures on June 16 and 23 have been scrapped.
Barred from stepping foot in their own country
SPAA president Joanne Dooey said the industry is “now facing a situation where Scottish passengers who joined the cruise in Liverpool are barred from stepping foot in their own country”.
She added: “The SPAA has been asking for clarity on the situation for this particular cruise ship since last week, and all we have received so far is an indication that cruises may only restart when all of Scotland is in Level 1.
“Inverclyde itself is currently in Level 1.”
Scottish travellers were due to join the cruise in Greenock and an anticipated third of the current passengers were expected to go ashore for excursions on Wednesday.
The SPAA said it understands 75% of those on board or due to board have been double vaccinated and have been triple tested. It said the crew has been vaccinated and tested and “robust protocols” are in place, including screenings and temperature checks.
Ms Dooey continued: “The Scottish Government has effectively closed the country’s borders to anything other than road travel.
“The irony is that any of these passengers can get in a car and drive from Southampton to Inverclyde with no testing, border control or vaccinations.
“We’ve been advised that the Scottish Government recognises that this ‘will be somewhat disheartening to the industry’ but this cruise route was a lifeline for Scottish travel agents and their passengers who want a holiday.
“We, as travel agents, are utterly devastated. As the door to the only international flight closed this week with Portugal being placed on the amber list – with no ‘watch list’ warning as promised by the Government – this series of domestic cruising was one of the only products left for travel agents to sell.
“The Scottish Government is not even paying lip service now to working with the travel sector to save Scottish travel.”
Passengers booked to embark on future cruises from Scotland will still be able to join the vessel but may have to travel to England first to board.
We reported on Monday how Scotland’s cruise industry has been promised “further clarity this week” on when journeys can resume amid warnings the sector is in a perilous position after 14 months of coronavirus uncertainty.
It comes after North East Conservative MSP Liam Kerr wrote to the transport secretary, Michael Matheson, calling for urgent answers following the cancellation of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ summer programme from Scotland, prompting concerns for the sector.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We remain committed to enabling cruises to restart in Scotland as soon as it is safe to do so. We recognise the impact this is having on the sector and will provide further clarity this week.”
A hammer blow
Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel, said news about the situation in Greenock is “yet another hammer blow for the Scottish travel industry, Scottish holidaymakers and for regional tourism partners who were looking forward to welcoming UK guests ashore for excursions”.
“Cruises from Greenock have been on-sale for months, yet despite urgent calls from the industry, the Scottish Government has provided less than 36 hours’ notice that these sailings cannot go ahead,” she said.
“Meaningful engagement with the Scottish travel industry is of paramount importance and we must see this take place over the coming weeks.
“It is unsustainable for the Scottish Government to continue to make announcements without constructive consultation with key industry partners when these decisions have such a profound impact on business.”
Almost 900 cruises begin their journey in Scotland in a typical year, carrying 800,000 passengers, but firms have been prevented from operating at all since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.
The sector published in October a framework, agreed with the UK Government, for restarting when restrictions allow and open water tests – where ships sail between two ports with reduced capacity and virus testing – have been taking place in England.
The Welsh and Northern Irish governments have said they will follow guidance set by the UK Government but no further announcement has been made by the Scottish Government since ministers were locked in discussions before May’s election.