The first major cruise ship to resume tours of the Mediterranean since the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe set sail from the Italian city of Genoa on Sunday, as the industry tries to regain ground after a bruising hiatus.
The departure of the MSC Grandiosa from the northwestern port city shortly after 17:30 GMT represents a high-stakes test for the global cruise sector.
The crisis forced operators to ground their ships and also led to accusations that they botched the handling of the epidemic in its early stages.
Cruise lines are hoping that tighter protocols will allow them to control the still-lingering threat of coronavirus aboard its ships while still offering travellers a cruise experience that does not disappoint.
Earlier in the day, arriving passengers preparing to check in before taking a required coronavirus blood test inside the terminal told AFP they were not concerned about the virus. Some said they believed cruises were now safer than other vacation options.
"I couldn't miss the first cruise after COVID," cruise blogger Rosalba Scarrone, 64, told AFP.
"I've taken 87 cruises, can you imagine how much I've suffered not setting off from February until now?"
The Grandiosa is part of the fleet of privately owned MSC Cruises, founded in Naples but now based in Geneva. The ship will travel to the ports of Civitavecchia near Rome, Naples, Palermo and Valletta, Malta during the seven-day cruise.
Competitor Costa Cruises, owned by Carnival, has opted to delay the restart of its Mediterranean tours until September, with departures from Trieste and Genoa for Italian-only clients to guarantee security.
- Fewer passengers -
Much is riding on the decision to restart cruises. Italy represents the bulk of Europe's cruise industry, reaping 14.5 billion euros of revenue per year ($17 billion) and supporting nearly 53,000 jobs, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
The group estimated a potential economic loss from suspended cruises throughout Europe could amount to about 25.5 billion euros.
"The voyage ... represents a tangible sign of comeback for one of the fundamental economic industries of our city," said Genoa Mayor Marco Bucci. Over 2 million cruise passengers departed from the city last year.
Last week, Italy's government, which is striving to revive the country's moribund economy after a more than two-month lockdown, gave cruise operators the green light to begin operating again as of August 15.
MSC authorities said approximately 2,500 passengers were on board its debut cruise, limited to about 70 percent of normal capacity.
All eyes in the industry will be on the Grandiosa after a smaller cruise operator, Norway's Hurtigruten, was forced earlier this month to suspend its newly restarted service after dozens of passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19.
Global health authorities criticised the industry's slow response to the spread of the virus at the onset of the crisis earlier this year before ships were grounded in March, from lax monitoring of crew, to continued operation of self-service buffets and gyms, to lack of personal protective equipment.
- Buffet is served -
As of June 11, 3,047 people were infected with coronavirus and 73 people died aboard 48 cruise ships affiliated with trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), according to Johns Hopkins University data provided by CLIA.
Health authorities say close living and working spaces for crew, along with partially enclosed environments, contributed to greater risk of infection on cruises than other venues.
MSC has suspended the rest of its Mediterranean cruises until October save for an August 29 cruise departing from the southern Italian port of Bari.
The company said its new security protocol exceeds national and industry standards and includes daily temperatures taken and escorted trips in controlled groups for excursions.
Food from the buffet, a highlight of the cruise experience, will be served at passengers' tables.