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Coronavirus journey: The 'last cruise ship on Earth' finally comes home

The MSC Magnifica Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The MSC Magnifica's world cruise was supposed to last 117 days, before being cut short

The three last cruise ships still sailing with passengers will dock today - and one has had quite the odyssey.

The MSC Magnifica left Europe in January, and was in the other corner of the world when ports began to close.

With nowhere to go, the Swiss-owned ship started the long journey home. Its passengers, used to a new port every few days, last felt land six weeks ago.

On Monday those passengers will finally get off in Marseille, having last disembarked in Wellington.

Their voyage has included political storms, presidential pleas, one death, and - despite it all - plenty of fun.

When the Magnifica left Genoa, Italy, on 5 January, the world looked very different.

The "unknown pneumonia", as it was called, did not have a name. No one had died, the World Health Organization said, and just 59 people were infected, all in Wuhan.

It is safe to say most of the Magnifica's 1,760 passengers - mainly Italian, French, and German - had not heard of the virus. And so, as they watched the sunset from the boat's Bar del Sole, or ate in the Quattro Venti restaurant, spirits were high.

At the helm was Captain Roberto Leotta, from the small town of Riposto in Sicily. Captain Leotta has worked on cruises for 32 years, after three years on tankers and one in the Italian navy.

Like many people from Riposto, his father and grandfathers were sailors. "It is something that is in my DNA," he tells the BBC.

Image copyright MSC Cruises
Image caption Captain Leotta: "Sailing is a tradition in my family, and a tradition in my town"

After leaving Europe, the ship stopped in Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, before heading across the Atlantic. By the time they docked in Brazil on 19 January, the virus had left China, and Captain Leotta had noticed.

"We were always in contact with all the local authorities," he says. "[But it was] after South America the situation became more concerning."

The ship left Chile on 21 February, reaching Pitcairn in the South Pacific three days later. By now, cruise ships were in the news.

Ports were closing their doors. Passengers from quarantined ships were dying. And the Pacific island of Aitutaki - just east of the International Date Line, population 2,000 - was worried.

Cruise ships and the coronavirus

The Magnifica was due in Aitutaki, famed for its turquoise lagoon and white sand, on 2 March. But as the coronavirus crept closer, local concerns grew.

The island relies on cruise money but they asked the national government - the Cook Islands - to ban all cruises. The ship, which was virus-free, was allowed to dock on the main island, Rarotonga, but not Aitutaki.

For the first time, Covid-19 had changed the plans of the MSC Magnifica's passengers.

One of those passengers was Andy Gerber, then aged 69, from Bern in Switzerland. The Magnifica was his 20th cruise.

In Auckland - the next stop after the Cook Islands - he enjoyed a beer in the sunshine; in Napier he admired the art deco; in Wellington he rode the cable car. But the big one was Sydney, a week after Wellington, where he would turn 70.

"A long time ago I reserved a steakhouse to celebrate with a bunch of friends," he tells the BBC.

Until Australia, the Magnifica's itinerary was a blessing. In January, as the coronavirus emerged in Asia, the ship was far away in South America - where the virus wasn't recorded until late February.

When it visited New Zealand, just five cases had been confirmed - all of them travellers, or their partners or relatives.

But as the Magnifica approached Tasmania on 14 March, the coronavirus had caught up with the cruise ship. The island had six cases, and things were getting worse.

The ship had permission to dock in Hobart, but Captain Leotta knew passengers may return with more than souvenirs.

"We decided it was much better for our passengers to remain safely on board," he says.

The world - which seemed so big when they left Genoa in January - was suddenly much smaller.

"It was clear," says Captain Leotta, "that there was basically nowhere to go."

And so, in Sydney, the captain confirmed the news: the world cruise was over. They were heading home. The trip of a lifetime had become half the trip of a lifetime.

Instead of the steakhouse, Andy Gerber celebrated his long-awaited 70th on board the ship, as the sights of Sydney were tantalisingly in view. How did he feel?

"At first - terrible!" he says. "But after the shock, we were grateful the captain decided not to let us ashore, as this meant we were 99.999% clean [of the virus]."

When the cruise was cancelled, passengers were allowed off - under strict conditions - in Sydney and Melbourne, if they wished to make their own way home. A few hundred did so, but most settled down for the ride: five weeks, 12,000 miles [19,000km], and a whole new meaning to long-haul.

The ship was supposed to head north to New Caledonia in the South Pacific. Instead it went south, and sailed straight into a political storm.

Image copyright Andy Gerber
Image caption Andy Gerber celebrating his birthday on board

When a cruise ship wants to dock, it must provide the port with medical records, to show there are no contagious diseases on board.

As the Magnifica approached Fremantle in Western Australia, the records showed around 250 people had visited the medical room in the past two weeks. Many were for painkillers, or dressings - routine visits. Crucially, there was no sign of Covid-19 on board.

The Magnifica wanted only to refuel and resupply in Fremantle - not disembark. So, as he sailed up the coast, Captain Leotta was surprised to see the news conference from Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan.

"Currently more than 250 passengers [on the Magnifica] have reported upper respiratory illnesses," Mr McGowan announced.

"This morning I have contacted the prime minister…I will not allow what happened in Sydney to happen here.

"We will not allow passengers or crew to wander the streets. This is a non-negotiable position."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption After Mr McGowan's news conference, a small group of protesters welcomed the Magnifica in Fremantle

Somehow, Mr McGowan had the wrong information. Wires were crossed. The Magnifica was leading the news, when its passengers were healthy - and didn't want to get off anyway.

The company insisted there were no respiratory diseases or flu symptoms on board. But Western Australia then accused MSC of "inconsistent advice" - something MSC denied.

Either way, when it arrived in Fremantle, the ship was greeted by the police and border force - to make sure no one got off - and a handful of protesters.

"Let's say that was not nice," says Captain Leotta. "It was disappointing, first of all because it was fake news. It was wrong. And you can imagine, this news went all around the world immediately."

Despite the disagreement, the Magnifica was allowed to resupply in Fremantle, before heading onwards. But it would soon be in the headlines again.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Magnifica passengers, photographed from the shore in Fremantle

As the TV crews filmed the Magnifica in Fremantle, and the politicians gave their news conferences, Anura Herath was below decks, out of sight, working hard as usual.

Being a chef on a cruise ship is hard enough. It's even harder when the passengers aren't disembarking for meals. But Anura, from Kandy in Sri Lanka, is used to hard work.

The 31-year-old has been a chef for seven years, since graduating from a hotel school in Sri Lanka. After working in his home country, he moved to hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, before joining MSC in August 2017.

"In Dubai, the salary is enough, but I could not save much," he says. "So I decided to join the cruise line, because I can save, and I can travel the world."

After Australia, the Magnifica's plan was to sail to Dubai for a "technical stop". But that, too, became impossible so they decided on Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka.

By now, Anura didn't want to sail back to Europe. Would he be quarantined, and if so, for how long? How would he get home?

And so, he went to his bosses with a plan: let me off in Colombo.

Image copyright Anura Herath
Image caption Anura Herath's career has taken him around the world - this picture was taken in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina

Although it seemed to make sense, Sri Lanka would not allow anyone to disembark. He would have to see his homeland appear, and then disappear, from below deck.

So, on 4 April - two days before Colombo - Anura, while wearing his chef's whites, recorded a 94-second video message for the Sri Lankan president and prime minister. Let me off, he said in Sinhalese. I am the only Sri Lankan on board. It will be too hard to get back from Italy.

After publishing the message, Anura went to work. He shared it with a journalist friend in Sri Lanka, but didn't expect much. After finishing work in the small hours, he went back to his cabin.

"I tried to sleep, but my family called me and told me to look on Facebook," he says. "So I looked - and so many people were sharing this message."

On Ape Rata - the Sri Lankan site that picked it up - the video was watched half a million times. Now everyone wanted to speak to the chef from Kandy.

"Politicians, navy, army, so many people called," he says. "It was like a dream. Everything was very fast."

The Sri Lankan president decided to relax the rules and so, as the Magnifica arrived in Colombo to refuel, the navy brought Anura ashore.

"I prayed for it, but I didn't believe it would come," he says "Everybody helped me - all the Sri Lankans."

For Captain Leotta - who had the final say - it was another first in a journey full of them. "We were proud of him," he says. "He really did the impossible to get off the ship."

As it turned out, Anura wasn't the only one to get off in Colombo. A 75-year-old German woman, who needed urgent (non-Covid) care, was also taken ashore and, sadly, later died.

As for Anura, he is still in quarantine at the naval centre in Boossa, but hopes to see his mother in Kandy soon.

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Media captionThe cruise ship cancellations have led to cleaner canals in Venice

As it pulls into Marseille on Monday, the Magnifica will be one of three cruises still sailing with passengers, the Cruise Lines International Association says.

The other two are also due to disembark today: the Pacific Princess in Los Angeles, and the Costa Deliziosa in Barcelona (it will also drop off passengers in Genoa afterwards).

For Andy Gerber, who turned 70 in Sydney harbour, life on board "the last cruise ship on Earth" has been enjoyable, despite the lack of shore visits.

"There is still plenty to do if you want," he says. "Gym, games, shows, dance classes…

"We have two pools and perfect weather, plenty to eat and drink, and we have made a lot of friends - especially during all these sea days."

A Facebook forum is also upbeat. Covid-19 never reached the Magnifica and neither, it seems, did cabin fever.

What do I need to know about the coronavirus?

While there are some complaints - mainly about other passengers - there are plenty of pictures of singing and dancing. A picture of one performance on 10 April is captioned: "Maybe this is the only theatre in the world still open."

And - despite it all - the man at the helm also has happy memories of his truncated tour.

"We found ourselves [globally] in a situation where Covid-19 has been isolating people, and distancing people," says Captain Leotta.

"Here was the opposite. We became like a family - our guests and our crew together. The spirit has been beautiful."

But what of the cruise industry? Can it recover from the bad press, the cancelled bookings, and all the other problems Covid-19 brought?

"We will return to cruising, and we will return better prepared than before with more experience. We are learning a lot, we will be there stronger than ever before."

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