Gin – and tonic. P&O Cruises boss talks about Iona’s distillery and remains upbeat about a safe return to the seas next year

Sea change: Iona is due to start sailing next year (Picture: P&O Cruises)

New ship Iona ‘looks absolutely stunning’ and the first steel for her sister is due to be cut by the end of this year, P&O Cruises president Paul Ludlow said today.

In an upbeat media briefing, he revealed that customer demand remains strong and bookings from people new to cruising had ‘exceeded expectations’.

‘Our guests are ready and waiting to sail with us,’ he said. ‘People want to holiday and people want to cruise and people believe better times are ahead.’

The British-based cruise line has suspended sailings up to the end of February 2021. ‘When we get the green light from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office we will be ready,’ Mr Ludlow promised.

The industry’s dialogue with ministers remained ‘very positive’, although the restart date ‘is somewhat informed by what’s happening in the country at large,’ he added.

Cheers: Salcombe Gin will be served on Iona (Picture: P&O Cruises)

When pressed, Mr Ludlow said that any decision to extend the restart date ‘would probably be made this year’, adding that beginning sailings in March ‘wasn’t impossible’.

During the video call, Angus Lugsdin from Salcombe Gin also talked about the spirit his company will make on Iona in the first distillery at sea. He said he had foraged on the Scottish Isle of the same name to find botanicals to flavour the gin that will be served on board.

Masterclasses will also be held on tasting and blending gin, he added.

In a question-and-answer session, Mr Ludlow confirmed that P&O Cruises would have testing capabilities for crew and guests on its ships and said techniques were ‘developing very quickly’. ‘When we return, we will return in a very safe manner.’

Passengers will only be able to go ashore on official excursions but the company was looking to provide tours ‘with a lower price point’.

About half of guests on cancelled voyages who had taken future cruise credit had already used it to book new sailings, Mr Ludlow said, adding: ‘We all need things to look forward to in our lives.’

Upbeat: Paul Ludlow

When I asked how well and quickly he thought P&O Cruises had dealt with refunds for those who had requested them, Mr Ludlow said ‘the vast majority’ of guests had their money repaid ‘very quickly’ but some transactions were more complicated.

He added: ‘I’m pleased to say we are now in a position where 99.5 per cent of guests [who requested a refund] have been refunded.’

When Mr Ludlow went to Germany for the handover of Iona from the shipyard he wasn’t allowed on board because of strict Covid measures. But he added: ‘She looks absolutely stunning and will be unlike anything the British market has seen before.’

The 5,200-passenger ship will remain in Europe until its first voyage from Southampton but events around its christening will depend on the mood of the country at the time, Mr Ludlow said.

Iona’s as-yet-unnamed sister ship is still due to debut in 2022.

For details of P&O Cruises’ summer 2022 itineraries, please click here

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