Windstar Cruises will retrofit its six small ships with hospital-grade air filters and UV-C light that kills bacteria and viruses as part of a multilayered approach to create a safer onboard environment when the line resumes operations in September.
Among those layers is an expectation of increased hygiene diligence on the part of passengers and the expectation that they will wear masks, use hand sanitizers and social distance.
Windstar operates six ships that carry between 148 and 342 passengers. Currently, its 148-passenger tall ship, the Wind Spirit, is scheduled to be the first ship to resume service, on Sept. 10, in Tahiti. The line plans to relaunch in the Mediterranean in October and the Caribbean in November.
Windstar collaborated with the epidemiology department at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Center to approve the program, called Beyond Ordinary Care. Andrew Todd, CEO of Windstar's parent company, Xanterra, said in an interview that the Center not only gave the program "a big thumbs up," but that Dr. Michelle Barron, the center's medical director of infection prevention and a coronavirus expert, told him, "I think you're doing everything possible."
In a separate statement, Barron said, "Windstar's holistic approach has multiple layers of safety at hospital-grade standards, and when combined with responsible hygiene practices from guests, it's the safest environment achievable with tech and science as we know it today.
"When you're sailing on a Windstar yacht, your biggest worry should be how to avoid a sunburn, not getting Covid-19."
Todd said that the line was making a multimillion-dollar investment to install the systems on its fleet after spending months studying the best options.
"The differentiation of this was the UV-C light," he said, which "in theory will zap any bacteria and viruses not caught by the filter."
According to Windstar, UV-C light, also called germicidal irradiation, has been proven to kill coronaviruses.
Another layer of protection on Windstar ships will be a surface disinfection system called EvaClean with PurTab, a hospital-grade sanitizer that disinfects all types of hard and soft surfaces, Windstar said. It will be applied using electrostatic backpack sprayers to sanitize the entire ship, including guest and crew cabins, at the beginning of each cruise, and then in "key areas" throughout the voyage.
The line is still determining whether to require guests to take Covid tests.
Onboard changes will include lower capacity in public areas; the main dining venues will operate at 65% capacity, with expanded dining times and more physical space between diners. Specialty venues will be capped at 60% occupancy. The overall ship capacities will only be slightly less, with a few rooms taken out of service for in case they are needed for isolation.
"But otherwise, our ships have a lot of space, and there is a lot of outdoor deck space and outdoor dining available," said Betsy O'Rourke, Xanterra's chief marketing officer. "What we're going to do is manage capacity within the venues. It naturally happens. We don't think we have an issue with social distancing, because there is so much outdoor space and public space already."
Shore excursions will be operated at reduced capacity and tenders. Motorcoaches and smaller boats will operate at 50% capacity and be cleaned between each use. O'Rourke said the ships will also provide hand sanitizer and masks to guests whenever they leave the ships and that the line is working with shore partners to ensure that any excursion vehicles are fully sanitized and that social distancing is enabled in those vehicles.
"We're going to manage it with capacity and behavior," she said, adding that everyone's temperature will be taken when returning to the ships and that contract tracing will be easier because they can track which guests went on which excursions. For guests who don't take excursions, O'Rourke said the fact that Windstar goes to small ports helps.
"You aren't mixing with large crowds when you're on our cruises," she said. "It gets down to asking all of our guests to adopt certain behaviors, carry a mask, use hand sanitizer, [practice] social distancing, and we're trusting that they will comply and be a participant in the community that we create."
Crew will be tested for Covid-19 before joining the ships, will wear masks and have their temperature taken twice daily. Instead of embracing or shaking hands, they will use a new "Windstar Wave" hand signal: a W made with one's index fingers and thumbs. Windstar will also expand its onboard medical staff and increase crew training in cleaning practices, social distancing and emergency response protocols.
Todd said that Windstar's 2021 bookings are double digits ahead of where they were at this time in 2019 and that some new reservations are even coming in for the fourth quarter of this year.
"It seems to be playing out that people will come back to the smaller ships more readily than the larger ships," Todd said. "We think that's going to work in our favor."
O'Rourke said that the line is seeing an increase in bookings from people who have never sailed Windstar before and that 36% of bookings during a Memorial Day weekend sale were new to brand cruisers.
The Anschutz Medical Campus is named for Xanterra owner Philip Anschutz, whose Anschutz Foundation contributed $100 million to the medical school, which is based in Aurora, Colo.