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MSC Chief Rick Sasso: Cruise Lines Will Overcome COVID-19



It may seem like cruise vacations have been around forever, but the modern cruise industry dates back only to the 1970s when a handful of entrepreneurs plucked passenger vessels from the nearly defunct transoceanic steamship lines to form a new type of seagoing vacation.

Only a precious few executives from those days remain in the industry. Rick Sasso, chairman North America for MSC Cruises, is easily among the most prominent.

Sasso is a travel industry stalwart, beginning his career while still in college in Miami with a full-time job with BOAC, which eventually became British Airways.

Yet he soon found his way to the fledgling cruise industry, literally talking himself into a sales position at Costa Cruise Lines while on his way to another airline job interview.

At that time the average Caribbean cruise ship was 30 years old (compared with a decade or less for today’s ships), measured 20,000 tons (versus 226,000 for the largest mega-ships) and carried around 800 passengers, not the 5,000-plus found aboard the largest ships today.

At the same time, the growing cruise fleets were largely considered to be competition for hoteliers and land-based stakeholders in Caribbean destinations, which then as now represented the industry’s chief deployment region.

The animus was real. As a cruise industry trade reporter in the early 1990s, I wrote several “cruise versus Caribbean” stories chronicling the many skirmishes. Sasso whimsically recalled that era when I spoke with him by telephone recently.

“Back in 1990 and 1992, the Caribbean Tourism Organization was our adversary!” he remembered. “I was the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) chairman for most of those years, and (FCCA President) Michele Paige and I had black and blue marks,” he laughed. “[Destinations] were saying we were taking customers away from land accommodations.

The cruise-Caribbean relationship has come a long way since then, Sasso said. Cruise companies are now working closely with Caribbean governments to repatriate crewmembers stranded by COVID-19 border closings, while the parties jointly chart a post-COVID future.

“Now we have people like [Barbados Prime Minister] Mia Mottley. She has been incredible. I can say the same about [Saint Lucia Prime Minister] Alan Chastanet and [Bahamas Tourism Minister] Dionisio D’Aguilar.”

While the cruise industry has dealt with many upheavals in 50 years, Sasso says the COVID-19 pandemic is a scenario without precedent.

“I keep a file of these things, from the Iceland volcano that prevented airplanes from flying to the attack on one of our ships by pirates. But I never dreamed there would be one like this. Who could have?”

“Whenever I’ve done a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis for our industry, for decades the only thing I ever had in the ‘threats’ box were airline strikes and pandemics,” he said.

“But more like something where crewmembers had measles and you had to quarantine ships and people didn’t want to go on cruises for fear of getting sick. Nothing to this degree, where ships would be shut down for months and months,” he said. “It’s unthinkable.”

Yet despite the significant toll the pandemic has exacted on his industry, Sasso is characteristically optimistic about the future.

“Both as Rick Sasso the salesman, which I am, and as Rick Sasso the optimist I know this industry and what we’ve gone through and how we got through it and how you adjust,” he said.

The rigorous, regular inspections to which cruise ships are subject (even prior to the COVID-19 crisis) make the vessels potentially the safest vacation option, contends Sasso.

He said cruise lines are prepared to make any changes health authorities and regulators deem necessary to halt the virus’ spread, from limiting capacity to expanding onboard medical facilities.

“[Cruise lines] are a responsible group,” said Sasso. “For the last 15 to 20 years, from USPHS inspections to having protocols in place, to having maritime regulators around the world give us rules and regulations that we exceed, we have been responsible.”

With regard to COVID-19, “We’re finding solutions and creating protocols and looking for mitigation,” Sasso said. “But we will get there.”

“The results going forward will be the proof,” he added. “If we have situations where [COVID-19] transmission is impossible to contain, we will have to await a vaccine. Nevertheless, I think this is a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’ We will just have to see if that means three months or six months or longer.”

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