Coronavirus leaves cruise liners all at sea, industry captains seek refuge from troubled waters

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The cruise liner sector has been already facing intense scrutiny for its poor management of carbon footprint and the pandemic has only left it rudderless in a stormy ocean

Ushering in the New Year is always a funfair activity unless, of course, it turns into a total nightmare. Little did the 2,017 passengers aboard Cordelia Cruises’ MV Empress, a 200-metre-long luxury cruise liner, realise when the ship set sail from the Mumbai Port on 31 December that the trip won’t be an ahoy to 2022 but one that’s filled with fear rather than fun.

After a period of uncertainty and confusion, the cruise liner was ultimately sent back to Mumbai from its first stop Goa itself, a long way from its destination Lakshwadeep, after 66 people, including six crew members tested positive for COVID-19. In Mumbai, every individual aboard the cruise liner is undergoing a test to ascertain if they have contracted the disease. Fear and instances of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in luxury liners are however not new.

COVID-19 and cruise liners

According to Reuters, on 2 January cruise ship AIDAnova, with 2,844 passengers and 1,353 crew onboard docked in Lisbon on 29 December while en route to the island of Madeira for New Year’s Eve celebrations was affected after 52 cases of COVID-19 were detected among the fully-vaccinated crew.

A CNN report on 4 January said that MSC Cruises confirmed 45 COVID positive passengers disembarked from its MSC Grandiosa vessel in the Italian port of Genoa on Monday. The vessel was ferrying 4,813 passengers and crew members on a round trip from Civitavecchia-Rome, with scheduled stopovers in Malta and Barcelona over the New Year. In the summer of 2020, MSC Grandiosa was incidentally the first cruise ship to return to the Mediterranean following the global shut down of the multi-billion-dollar cruise industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last week of December, Royal Caribbean Cruises diverted a ship from planned stops in Curacao and Aruba after dozens of cases of COVID-19 were identified in passengers on board, Fortune reported. The Odyssey of the Seas reported 55 confirmed positive cases among guests and crew members. Similarly, the Symphony of the Seas, the world’s biggest cruise ship, which also belongs to Royal Caribbean Cruises, had faced an outbreak on board in the third week of December.

Fortune further reported that Royal Caribbean’s competitor, Carnival in its Carnival Freedom cruise ship also had to isolate passengers who tested positive.

Cruise liners vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreak

Speaking to NBC News, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Michael Saag said that “outbreaks are going to occur in crowded spaces on a cruise ship no matter what, but testing travellers and staff minutes before departing and during any trip lasting more than three to five days would mitigate the transmission”.

In the same NBC News report, professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Dr William Schaffner said, “A cruise ship is an enclosed population where people are in close face-to-face contact often in very small places for prolonged periods of time.”

On 30 December last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased its travel warning for cruise ships to the highest level irrespective of the vaccination status with Omicron taking things further downhill. Incidentally, the agency confirmed 1,359 cases between 26 June and 21 October aboard cruise ships last year while cruise ships operating in US waters reported about 5,000 Covid cases to the CDC between 15-29 December.

According to CNBC, if people still go forward with their cruise ship plans they are advised to get vaccinated before their trip and receive a booster dose if eligible. Facemasks are a must at all times and passengers who are not fully vaccinated should self-quarantine for five days after travel.

A study An overview of the impact of COVID-19 on the cruise industry with considerations for Florida by Ana Lucia Rodrigues daSilva termed the coronavirus pandemic as the largest crisis faced by the cruise industry to date. The first quarter of 2020 saw 54 infected ships with 2,592 ill crew members and passengers around the world and at least 65 people died onboard a cruise ship.

The havoc that COVID-19 can cause in cruise ships first came to light when cruise liner Diamond Princess reported its first case in February 2020. The ship was forced to be in quarantine off the coast of Japan and over 700 passengers and crew members aboard were infected, and nine people, unfortunately, passed away.

Cruise lining industry and COVID-19

For the global cruise industry, which according to the Mobility Market Outlook, generated approximately $3.3 billion of revenue in 2020 and is likely to reach as much as $34.1 billion by 2025, the CDC guidelines came as a big dampener.

Brian Salerno with the Cruise Lines International Association said the trade group was frustrated by the CDC’s decision.

“We’re obviously disappointed at the CDC’s decision to raise the travel level for cruise today—especially given the overwhelming level of effectiveness of cruise protocols that are resulting in significantly lower level of cases on cruise as compared to land,” Brian Salerno, senior vice president for maritime policy with the Cruise Lines International Association, told CNBC.

The American Society of Travel Advisors and the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies also expressed unhappiness over the decision of the CDC.

Earlier, as per the Travelmarket Report, the CLIA projected nearly 80 percent of global capacity to be back in operation by the end of 2021 and estimated that the industry will reactivate 100 percent of global capacity by mid-2022. The CDC order however now puts a spanner on the achievability of such targets this year.

In its 2020 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook report, the CLIA said that cruising sustained 1,177,000 jobs equaling $50.24 billion in wages and salaries and $150 billion total output worldwide in 2018 giving an overview of the size of the industry. The CLIA had also claimed that the cruise industry will face a loss of over $32 billion in economic activity and more than 254,000 American jobs will simply vanish. Omicron has become the latest threat for the $150 billion industry as per its 2018 valuation which threatens to ruin recovery plans and put the sustainability of the industry at stake.

A KPMG article said that there are over 50 cruise lines and more than 270 ships globally but just around 75 percent of the market is controlled by three main players. These leading companies oversee an empire of subsidiary cruise lines, collectively bringing in $34.2 billion in revenue in 2018. The value per share relating to the industry’s largest three entities at the beginning of 2020 was $134.55, $58.79 and $51.35 respectively.

The cruise lining sector has been already facing intense scrutiny for the poor management of carbon footprint and COVID-19 has only left it rudderless in a stormy ocean not only because of health concerns for passengers, crew but communities at large and a deep dent in its reputation globally.

With inputs from agencies

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