Sometimes all it takes is one picture to encapsulate forever an event of universal terror, joy, bewilderment or fear; like the naked Vietnamese child running from a napalm fire, or the ecstatic sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of WWII, or astronaut Neil Armstrong standing firm-footed on the moon. No captions needed.
This is not a story about clean or dirty ships
Fast-forward to February 2020, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship stands tethered to a deserted Yokohama pier. It can’t offload, it can’t sail, its 3,700 passengers and crew are held captive – connected to land and their families only by smartphones and occasional visits from sanitation teams dressed like space cadets.
When we look back at the intrusion of Covid-19 in a year or two, or five, that single image will be all we need to recall the trepidation, fear and hesitancy about travelling anywhere; not only to Asia, but even to a sunny island in the Caribbean or to a neighbourhood diner – anywhere other people gather.
Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, in a video message to travel advisors and cruise executives, laid out in direct, prosaic fashion some hard facts about the challenge the cruise industry has in dealing with Covid-19. “The bad news is we’re in a tough patch. The good news is we’re in it together … and together we’ll get to the better part sooner than you think,” he said. He also said that the impact on his company ‘ain’t pretty’: “To use a technical term I learned in business school, it sucks … Like you, we’re hurting. We’ve had to cancel cruises, we’ve lost revenue, and our people are putting in long days looking out for the health and safety of our guests and crew.”
How will cruise passengers protect their vacation travel plans if all it takes to sink them is a handshake?
But, as Fain reminded his audience, the cruise industry has weathered 9/11, H1N1 and Ebola. “This too shall pass,” he said. It better, because according to a Bloomberg analysis, the three largest US-based lines, Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd, lost about US$31 billion in market value in about six weeks.
Move where the water’s calmer
Seventy-one per cent of the earth’s surface is water. And the 300 or so cruise vessels in operation today have a lot of room to manoeuvre. As Covid-19 hit China, vessels deployed elsewhere – even though some that tried sailing into other areas such as the Caribbean during February were denied docking privileges. Even the Westerdam of the storied old Holland American line could only dock in Cambodia after being denied dockage in the Phillipines, Japan, Taiwan, Guam and Thailand. In addition, MSC Cruises’ Meraviglia, turned away from Jamaica and Grand Cayman, was forced to tie up in Cozumel, Mexico, where one passenger was tested and diagnosed with a seasonal flu – no sign of Covid-19.
Wherever they go, cruise ships are floating cities, providing all the amenities their guests can hope for, all concentrated in four, five, or even 10 decks neatly wrapped in a hull of something less than 360 metres (1,181 feet), with a breadth of 47 metres (154 feet)*.
The guests will be served (or else serve themselves) three or four meals a day in restaurants, buffets, bars, at the poolside and in their cabins – or in staterooms if they’re lucky. They’ll shop at malls for luxury goods they wouldn’t think of buying at home, circling daily through common areas from lounges to pool decks, bars, theatres, buffets, spas, and back to the bar. Eighteen hours a day (ship recreation organisers keep them out of their cabins as much as possible) they will be mingling with other guests, shaking hands, hugging, kissing, high-fiving, in some cases snuggling, passing around cocktail glasses, trotting off to poolside bathrooms – for seven days a week at close quarters.
Cleaning is a challenge, and Covid’s not the only virus
Maintaining sanitation standards in such an environment is a tough job, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Vessel Sanitation Program’s (VSP) inspectors can attest. The CDC requires all vessels heading for US ports to call in if more than two per cent of their passengers report gastrointestinal illness. At three per cent, VSP inspectors will meet the vessel when it docks.
Squaremouth has experienced a 57-per-cent increase in customers using the cruise lines search filter since the coronavirus outbreak began, indicating that they were looking to add travel insurance to their cruise packages
As recently as February 2020, (while Covid-19 was menacing the Pacific), Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess out of Florida reported that 371 out of 3,055 passengers (12.2 per cent) and 32 of 1,161 crew (2.8 per cent) were stricken with vomiting and diarrhoea, primary symptoms of the Norovirus. The vessel returned to port three days early for a thorough top-to-bottom cleaning before heading for its next cruise on 16 February.
In 2019, the VSP recorded eight Norovirus outbreaks, the most serious of them affecting 561 of the 6,205 passengers (8.92 per cent) and 31 of 2,169 crew (1.48 per cent) aboard. The main villain again was Norovirus, as it was in five 2018 outbreaks. Norovirus is rarely fatal, but some of the victims who have suffered two days of relentless diarrhoea or vomiting sometimes wished it was.
All cruise ships sailing from US ports undergo rigorous sanitation inspections at least once a year – preferably twice – and the ships that fail the inspections can be expected to be revisited.
But it is encouraging that the overwhelming majority of cruise vessels pass the tests with flying colours – a pass requiring at least an 86 out of 100 points. Anything less is a failing grade triggering a reinspection in short order. And it’s worth noting that in 2019, of 168 inspections conducted by the CDC, there were only two failures, both rating a 79.
Ironically, none of the Norovirus outbreaks occurred in ships that failed their CDC sanitation inspections. This is not a story about clean or dirty ships.
This Norovirus experience has deep significance for Covid-19 fighters, as they both have similar modes of transmission: close physical contact, touching of contaminated surfaces (however clean they appear), repeated gripping of contaminated doorknobs, pushing elevator buttons, passing around eating utensils, cozying up to the bar or buffet table. The government of Italy, in combating its Covid-19 epidemic, took the lead in urging people to stay three feet away from each other. That’s not the Italian way, where hugging and kissing are reflex actions.
So who’s to blame?
The media has not been kind to the cruise industry’s handling of Covid-19 quarantines, characterising their vessels as ‘floating petri dishes’, ‘ships from Hell’ or ‘floating jailhouses’ even though it was not ship captains’ decision to go into quarantine. Those were orders from shore, mostly by governments. And disembarking at sea is not an option.
In the case of the Diamond Princess, Japanese government health authorities imposed the quarantine order, preventing the ship from offloading passengers ‘to prevent infectious disease-causing pathogens that are not native to Japan from entering the country via marine vessels’. Furthermore, they dumped the responsibility for implementing the quarantine on a staff and crew with no experience in activating such a sensitive and complicated process.
Dr Kanturo Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University, was especially critical of the quarantine efforts, calling them ‘completely chaotic’ in a video he released of his visit to the embattled vessel. He noted there was no distinction between infection-free ‘green’ zones and contaminated ‘red’ zones, and people were passing between them indiscriminately, eating lunch and passing around smartphones without any protective gloves. A passenger who sustained the quarantine and emerged virus-free tweeted: “It was a joke.”
In response to a query from ITIJ about the adequacy of self-quarantine efforts, Dr Amesh Adalja, infectious diseases specialist and Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted: “Quarantines such as happened in Japan are not warranted and actually increase risk.” He added: “Cruise ships have dealt with outbreaks in the past including with respiratory viruses. They need to base their actions on what they’ve done in the past … but, in essence, sick patients should be treated and other passengers (should) be allowed to disembark.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, Head of the US National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House Consultant at the top of its Covid-19 response team, summed up his feelings about the quarantine efforts to US media: “I’d like to sugarcoat it and try to be diplomatic about it, but it [the quarantine effort] failed. People were getting infected on that ship. Something went awry in the process of the quarantining of that ship. I don’t know what it was, but a lot of people got infected on that ship.”
So what’s a cruising hopeful to do?
Remaining flexible and retaining the freedom to cancel or change venues or dates for future cruises should be paramount in this environment. And cruise lines are offering customers lots of incentives to keep afloat, such as allowing change of itinerary or dates of travel without penalty; waiving cancellation penalties; offering onboard credits for cash purchases. It’s a buyers’ market and likely will be well into the summer.
But the coronavirus threat is not over. It needs constant surveillance for anyone anticipating vacation travel this summer and maybe even autumn. Travellers need to do their homework more than ever.
ITIJ queried Squaremouth, one of America’s largest aggregators of travel insurance plans, to gauge attitudes of prospective cruise travellers; their concerns about being able to cancel if news turns bad; their confidence levels; and how they believe travel insurers could protect them.
Kasara Barto, Squaremouth’s Public Relations Manager, reported that her company experienced a 57-per-cent increase in customers using the ‘cruise lines’ search filter when the coronavirus outbreak began, indicating that they were looking to add travel insurance to their cruise packages. This is particularly interesting since standard trip policies don’t cover cancellations due to events like the coronavirus epidemic. Fear of travel is not normally a covered benefit – except for those with the Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) upgrade.
Barto also noted that since the coronavirus outbreak became widely known in January, Squaremouth has seen a 108-per-cent increase in polices purchased with the CFAR upgrade, even though it costs 40-per-cent more than the standard comprehensive travel insurance policy. But it’s the only option for travellers who want the freedom to cancel their trips due to a coronavirus outbreak, or for any other reason that may come up in these uncertain times.
What about cruise line insurance?
All cruise lines offer standard trip cancellation and medical benefits as add-ons to their cruise packages. Some offer CFAR benefits as well. But their benefit levels on items such a medical services and emergency evacuation are more modest than plans available from third-party travel insurance companies who offer more generous upgrades, both for medical coverage and for contingencies such as trip cancellation and CFAR benefits.
In 2019, of 168 cruise ship inspections conducted by the CDC, there were only two failures
Generally, the CFAR benefits offered by most cruise lines will cover prepaid, non-refundable cancellation costs up to 75 per cent. There are some exceptions of course: Princess Cruises will cover up to 100 per cent, but they will pay out those benefits in future cruise credits. Third-party insurers, such as those available through the travel insurance comparison sites, will also cover to 75 per cent of non-refundable costs, but if the customer wishes, they can get cash, and no lingering commitment to a cruise they no longer covet.
As Squaremouth’s Barto confirmed: “Yes, if a traveller cancels their cruise and is offered a voucher or credit from the cruise line, they can choose to decline the offer and they can claim for the insured cost from the provider.”
This is not the end of the story
It’s far too early to tell if recent cruise cancellations in the western Pacific and their redeployments elsewhere will have any lasting effect on the volume of cruise business globally. But given the current inventory and its growing global mass of buyers, it’s hard to see a long-term abatement.
The bad news is we’re in a tough patch. The good news is we’re in it together….and together we’ll get to the better part sooner than you think
In 2019, of the estimated 30 million cruise passengers tallied by CLIA-affiliated ships worldwide, 14.2 million were from North America, 6.7 million from Western Europe, 4.2 million from Asia (mostly China), 1.5 million from Australia/New Zealand and the South Pacific, and there are still growing numbers in Eastern Europe, the UAE, South America and beyond. Of total cruise ship deployments, 32 per cent were in the Caribbean area, 17 per cent in the Mediterranean, five per cent in China, five per cent Alaska, and 11 per cent in Europe exclusive of the Mediterranean. That’s 55 cruise lines and 278 ships – with 19 more expected to come online in 2020.
But there remains the real threat that we haven’t seen the last of the deadly viruses. So far, we’ve had SARS (2002), H1N1 (2009), MERS (2012), and Covid-19 – and that’s in less than 20 years.
How will cruise ships prepare for the next onslaught? Can they afford a repeat of the Diamond Princess debacle? Will governments step in and require cruise ships to have basic mandated protocols to deal with infectious outbreaks? This seems only reasonable given the continuous prevalence of Norovirus. And, ultimately, how will cruise passengers protect their vacation travel plans if all it takes to sink them is a handshake?