In scenes reminiscent of some of the most ambitious film scripts, the last three stranded cruise ships finally docked after six weeks at sea. Only one week ago, eight major cruise vessels were floating in limbo with Covid-19 outbreaks on-board, and approximately 6,300 passengers contained in their cabins. Ships were denied entry and turned away at ports due to fears of further contagion.
In Australia, criminal investigations have begun as to how 2,647 passengers from the Ruby Princess liner were allowed to disembark, despite many exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Since then, over 600 of those travellers have tested positive for the virus, with many more awaiting testing or results. Others remain untested and are in unknown locations, posing a threat to unsuspecting communities.
Coupled with other cruise liners, like those that were marooned off the coast of Japan or Florida as the virus took hold on-board, the impact of the pandemic on the cruise industry has caused the type of perceptive damage that any sector would struggle to recover from. Around the world, cruises have been banned from setting sail for months, with many suspended until 2021. Opinions pertaining to the future of the industry from a passenger’s perspective are varied. A recent Guardian article shared views ranging from glowing testimonies to the hygiene and standards on board, to a two-decade cruise veteran stating he hoped to never set foot on a cruise ship again.
“After 36 cruises over 23 years my cruising days are over. The magic for me has sadly died with this pandemic”, said Mike Checkly-James, a 61-year-old UK retiree. A survey for The Independent newspaper, with over 5,000 respondents, revealed that three out of ten passengers would never plan to go on a cruise again.
The Mediterranean is one of the global epicentres of the multi-billion euro cruise industry, which brings tens of thousands of visitors to some of the continent’s most iconic destinations every year. Now, with ports from Portugal to Cyprus closed to passenger traffic, the economic impact will be severe. Europe is the second largest global cruise market after the US, receiving approximately seven million passengers between the Baltic and the Mediterranean alone.
In an interview on Al Jazeera, travel risk consultant Lloyd Figgins painted a gloomy picture for the sector, saying “I would only imagine it is going to get worse. Within Europe there has been a knock on effect from what has happened in the US and the Pacific.” With the virus sweeping Europe, a blanket closure on all ports was the only option to stop further clusters of Covid-19 developing. “If one port closes, but another is willing to accept (cruise liners) then you’re going to get a massive influx of ships trying to get into that port, which will cause massive strain on the local infrastructure”, Figgins added, noting that the true lasting damage would be passenger perception of the industry, now understandably built on fear.
Although the pandemic is unprecedented, the crisis facing the airline and cruise industry has laid bare how ill-prepared these sectors are to face economic shocks. The world’s largest cruise operator, Carnival Corporation, is seeking a 6 billion-dollar bailout to weather the current crisis, and is losing up to 500 million dollars a month with all its ships confined to port. Carnival is the owner of the Diamond Princess, a ship that became a floating quarantine zone off the coast of Japan as 700 passengers succumbed to the virus, with four passing away.
Some European nations, such as Greece, have offered their ports as a place of refuge for cruise vessels that need to on-board fuel and supplies, although they have barred the disembarkation of passengers. The risks associated with making exceptions became apparent after a passenger displaying symptoms of the virus was taken off the Costa Victoria in Crete, leaving the remaining passengers subject to a cabin-lockdown as the vessel sought a safe port.
Many on the passengers were subsequently evacuated via plane from the city of Rome, except those who displayed symptoms of the virus. The Costa Victoria’s original destination had been Venice, but its passengers and crew were reluctant to travel to northern Italy, a major hub in Europe’s pandemic.
As Europe continues to await true respite from the crisis, the return of cruise liners to some of the region’s greatest cities remains very distant. James Hardiman, an analyst with investment firm Wedbush, warned that the cruise industry was heading for a prolonged deep-freeze. He noted that once the pandemic subsides and travel is again part of people’s agenda, taking to the seas on cruise liners was not going to be a priority. “Cruise travel is likely to be dead last on their list in terms of both risk and necessity”, Hardiman told CNN.
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