Self-serve buffet sails out on cruise

Darren Cartwright
Holland America cruise line has all but put an end to the self-serve buffet

Hand-picking fruit, grabbing a slice of pizza or even making a salad are a thing of the past on one fleet of cruise ships that has all but put an end to the self-service buffet.

The Holland America Line has literally taken a hands-on, or make that hands-off, approach and heavily restricted self-service in the general dining areas of its ships.

The move could be just what's needed to restore Australia's faith in the industry following four gastro outbreaks on Holland America's sister line Princess Cruises over the past 15 months.

The most recent was in January when some 200 passengers went down with the norovirus aboard the Sea Princess during a tour of New Zealand.

Both Holland America and Princess are subsidiaries of the Carnival Corporation, which has a number of cruise lines including P&O Australia and Cunard.

I take a tour around Asia on Holland America's Volendam, which can cater for up to 1450 guests. I quickly notice that the grab'n'go treats are behind glass in the Lido Market dining room, where there's an abundance of big-smiling waiting staff ready to serve me.

Only pre-plated desserts and pre-made and wrapped sandwiches can be retrieved from the general buffet area. All other meals are carried out to guests.

There are only a few areas where passengers can treat themselves, including the poolside taco servery, while in the bars, nuts are delivered in mini-carafes and have to be poured out to be consumed.

The Volendam's hotel director Craig Oates says the reduction in self-service has been gradual and is purely to enhance the guest experience and not related to concerns over passenger hygiene.

"I joined 14 years ago and a lot of it was self-service but it's slowly transitioned. It has not been an overnight decision to restrict self-service," Mr Oates told AAP.

"The reason we have people making salads is, rather than people helping themselves and getting mixed up with the dressings, we wanted to add something to the guest experience."

If there's one area where people are guilty of touching food, only to place it back on a plate, it's fruit, says Mr Oates.

Fruit now sits behind glass and can only be accessed with tongs or by request.

"You may see it now and then ... where someone goes to take an apple, doesn't like it, and puts it back," he said.

"We used to have our apples and fruit on self service. Now they can ask for it or use the tongs."

Griffith University's associate professor of Environmental Health Anne Roiko says norovirus can easily spread through self-service buffets.

Noroviruses are a group of viruses that can cause gastroenteritis with diarrhoea, stomach pain and vomiting.

"Norovirus is so contagious you want to avoid any cross-contamination with an infected person's hands on food utensils," Ms Roiko said.

Avoiding self-service buffets would certainly help in stopping the spread of norovirus on board a ship, she says. But then, it can easily spread on the surface of tongs, or by shaking hands.

Holland America prides itself on hygiene and Mr Oates said key "touch points" were regularly cleaned on the Volendam and tongs, accessed by the public, are changed at least once an hour.

"We take precautions all over the ship, where there are touch points like elevators and chairs and we have a team that sanitises areas every four to six hours."

"The enemy is cross-contamination and if you sanitise it enough the cross contamination stops and the enemy dies. We are very serious about it. Even if there are only a few cases it affects the guests experience."

The Volendam, one of the smaller ships in the fleet, is currently cruising Asia before heading to the Americas.

The Noordam, with a capacity of about 2300, will be entering and exiting Australian waters several times during 2018.

Both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines were asked about their buffet service but refused to comment.

The writer travelled as a guest of Holland America Line