I took a cruise to nowhere and recommend it for anyone looking to get away, despite the 2 Covid-19 tests and safe distancing measures

PHOTO: AsiaOne

It's been a while since I used my passport, as is the case with many other Singaporeans who were with me, getting ready to get swabbed so that we could board the ship for a cruise.  

Of course, the top question on my mind even as I packed my bags the night before for my Genting World Dream cruise was how different would the cruising experience be now that on land SafeEntry and social distancing are part of our everyday reality. 

And while certain things are definitely different from before, such as constant mask-wearing, they strangely did not detract from the holidaying experience. In fact, some would say that the Covid-19 changes made the cruising experience even better than before.  

What to expect that's different from before

Fewer people on board, but spaced out pre-boarding testing and disembarking times

The World Dream cruise ship can usually take up to 3,400 people on board, but for the cruises to nowhere at the moment, it's limited to 1,700 people for each trip to ensure that safe distances between people are kept. 

A swab test is compulsory before boarding, and to manage the traffic flow, you'll get a pre-determined time slot for your test that starts from as early as 10am. Boarding officially starts at 2pm and the ship only takes off at 9pm. However, if you get an early slot, you can check in your luggage, and hop on a free shuttle to Vivocity before the doors of the ship open.   

Disembarkation is likewise in allotted times (15-minute slots) from 9am and it's done by level. Guests will be ushered in an orderly fashion towards the testing booths, and you won't need to wait for the results before you can leave — they'll contact you if anything is amiss.

Machines that help you wash your hands thoroughly can be found on the ship. PHOTO: AsiaOne

The Covid-19 test requirement

Though you aren't technically stepping ashore on to foreign land, the ship does pass into international waters — we sailed in the Straits of Malacca, along Penisular Malaysia, hence the need to put your passport to use after it's been languishing in our drawers for awhile. 

This is also why two nasal swabs are required — before boarding and after disembarkation. And you would expect to endure long hours of waiting for your turn. However, the set up in Marina Bay Cruise Centre is very efficient, which makes the experience pleasantly smooth. There is hardly any queue as I arrive for my appointed slot, and within half an hour — test result waiting time included — I'm all swabbed and armed with my negative test results, ready to board the cruise. 

The swab test is also a lot less painful than I had imagined it to be. Perhaps it's because it's the Antigen Rapid Test that is administered, the slightly less invasive test. And I'm inclined to think that the person who is swabbing you matters too. I hardly felt anything during my second test (taken after disembarkation), whereas the feeling of my nose being intruded lingered on for 10 minutes after the first swab. 

The cruise ship is equipped to get the results of a PCR test that determines if someone has Covid-19. PHOTO: AsiaOne
Isolation cabins for suspected Covid-19 cases on the ship. PHOTO: AsiaOne

There are also special cubicles for kids taking the test and the parents I spoke to on the cruise were pleasantly surprised that the swabbers were armed with stickers and sweets to coax little ones into taking the test. "I was actually worried that we might not be able to board the cruise if my two-year-old son didn't cooperate during the test, but luckily the staff were well-prepared and the test went on without a hitch," said Kelly Ong, 41 who was on board the same ship as me.  

MICE pods by your side all the time

At first glance, it looks like the elongated, slimmer version of the TraceTogether tokens that all Singaporean residents ought to be armed with. For this pink contraption, it is issued by GovTech to help trace how much accumulated time you might have spent with other passengers on the ship. 

All passengers are issued with MICE pods that must be on person at all times for contact tracing, unless you are in the pool. PHOTO: AsiaOne

And it is compulsory to have the MICE pod on you at all times onboard the ship. You're reminded as you leave the collection counter that a $25 replacement fee applies should you lose it too. It also gives out a beep if too many people are gathered too closely together, though I never heard it ring the entire time I was on board. 

Tap, tap, tap wherever you go

There may be no SafeEntry scanning, but to help trace the movements of guests onboard in the event of an outbreak, you are expected to tap in with your unique room card whenever you enter a public area, even if you're just passing through. 

This meant that, from my room to the restaurant on the 16th level, I had to tap my card a total of four times. It was a bit of a pain while I was doing it, but in reality, it wasn't too different from the SafeEntry scanning you have to do to enter different stores in a shopping mall. Just that you can't simply whip out your phone, you have to use the "identity cards" that you have issued with for the cruise. 

No more than five people in a group and bookings required for pool and facilities usage

Social distancing while watching a show on the cruise. PHOTO: AsiaOne

The social distancing rules don't change just because you're on a ship. The current rule of no more than five people at a table applies, so you'll have to split into two tables if you are on board with a bigger group during meal times. 

It's business as usual for the buffet breakfast, just a little differently than before. PHOTO: AsiaOne

And just like hotels, you'll have to book a slot to use the pool and the hot tubs — only two pax are allowed in each of the four tubs on board. The same booking rule applies for the gym (90 minutes per slot) as well, so if you have limited time on the cruise, I would suggest making a booking as soon as you board the ship.

Rock climbing is one of the activities you can do onboard, you'll just need be masked up. PHOTO: AsiaOne

For the other facilities like the rock wall, high elements course and the water slides, you can't make reservations, but the queues aren't too long.  

Cruise ambassadors that double up as safety distancing officers

While you won't see the red shirts that our social distancing ambassadors are known for, there are still people around to ensure that you are keeping a safe distance from others — cruise ambassadors clad in black polo T-shirts. 

And you'll see them mostly in the buffet areas where people crowd during meal times, constantly reminding people to stay safely apart.

A way to escape from Singapore for now 

While there's definitely some fear involved, especially surrounding the Covid-19 test that everyone has to take, it was an enjoyable experience, one that took me by surprise. While I have had friends extol the virtues of cruising to me, being able to explore a brand new country was more appealing to me in the past. 

However, in the current situation, it's nice to be able to escape from the city (and work — you have to pay for Wi-Fi on board, so it's a handy excuse), even if just for a few days. And because there are half as many people as there normally would be on the ship, there are hardly huge crowds of people, other than at the restaurants during mealtime. 

Lightshow on board, but no fireworks for now. PHOTO: AsiaOne

And with many different activities onboard — swimming pools, rope courses, mini golf course, outdoor movie screening and even dance lessons, there's plenty to keep you occupied. 

I'm not the only one who thinks so. Fellow cruiser Jayner Teh, who like me is on the ship for the first time, decided to book the cruise with her boyfriend to take a breather from work. "It's better than what we expected. There're lots of things to do, including eating and even shopping," she said.

She added that the service on board had been excellent and she's already thinking of booking a cruise for her entire family. "It's a good option to get out of Singapore for a short period of time."

For frequent cruiser Ong, who usually goes on a cruise trip three times a year, shared that while she too was hesitant, her husband reasoned with her that shopping malls these days are more crowded than the ship. And her husband, Fey Lim said that he actually prefers the cruise experience during a pandemic because it's "not as crowded as previously".

Well, the concerns still remain. Whether the risk for infection is higher if you are on board a ship that has someone who tested positive for Covid-19, the recent events have shown that the cruise companies are thoroughly prepared for such situations, and should the inability to travel still continue to plague us next year, you'll probably see me on another cruise again to get away from the busyness of work and everyday life.

kailun@asiaone.com