Cruise firms face ‘off-the-scale’ challenge in wake of coronavirus

Like many thousands of nurses, Julie Timson has spent the past few weeks suited up in an armour of personal protective equipment fighting the coronavirus and trying to save lives.

In the moments when it’s too overwhelming on the ward, Timson takes a minute to daydream about sipping cocktails on a cruise ship floating in some ocean paradise destination.

How can I protect myself and others from the coronavirus outbreak?

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers

Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. Check with your local authorities for up-to-date information about the situation in your area. 

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

“I am a cruise fan,” said Timson, who has worked as a nurse for decades. “I have done several cruises a year and have one booked this year in August and I’m forever hoping it will still go.”

Timson, a widow who enjoys the sociability of cruising, said she cannot wait to get back out on deck, even though cruise ships have been branded the “floating Petri dishes” of Covid-19.

Dozens of fatalities have been linked to cruise ships, with passengers and crew dying while at sea and after disembarking. More than 6,300 passengers are still onboard eight ships unable to dock as governments block disembarkation, fearing it will spread the disease.

Some travel industry experts fear the cruise holiday business may never recover from coronavirus and shares in cruise companies have collapsed. Governments across the world have banned new cruises setting sail for months and some sailings have been suspended until at least November 2020.

But the analysts may be underestimating the desire of people like Timson to get back on board regardless. On dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to cruise ships, the number of people bemoaning the fact that they cannot continue cruising greatly outnumbers those worrying about the pandemic.

Ruth Bowe, 29, a primary school teacher from Leicester who has been on 13 cruises, cannot wait to go again.

“Cruising is a fantastic way to see the world for a reasonable price. The ships are clean and they always ask you to sanitise around the ship,” Bowe said, when asked why she was still so keen to go.

“I started cruising with my disabled mum who has multiple sclerosis. She is in a wheelchair, so, for her, cruising is the way she can see the world. She can’t really fly, so cruises from Southampton were our family holiday each year.

“Now my fiance and I cruise regularly. You meet lovely people of all ages from all over the world. It’s a great social experience. We have made friends with fellow passengers that we still meet up with today. There is so much to do on board the ships and it would be a real shame if the industry came to end. Millions of people would lose their jobs around the world and for some people, working on the ships is a much better life.”

While Timson and Bowe are keen to get back on the water, some cruise fans have vowed to give the all-you-can-eat buffets a wide berth for good.

Mike Checkley-James, 61, a retired pension manager from Gloucestershire, said he has eight cruises booked between now and September 2021 but he hopes they are all cancelled. “After 36 cruises over 23 years my cruising days are over,” he said. “The magic for me has sadly died with this pandemic.”

All cruise companies are struggling financially. Royal Caribbean has secured a $2.2bn (£1.7bn) loan against its ships. Norwegian Cruise Line has drawn down a $1.55bn credit line. Shares in the London-listed Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise ship operator and the owner of the Diamond Princess, collapsed by 80% between February and the peak of stock market panic in mid-March.

However, Carnival shares have gained 60% this week after the company secured $6.25bn of rescue financing, mostly secured against $28bn worth of its ships, and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund revealed it had built an 8.2% stake in the company.

“People got really buoyed up by the Saudis buying in,” Ross Klein, a professor at the maritime studies research unit at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said. “People say he got a great deal and he’s going to make a fortune. That may be the case but I don’t see cruising bouncing back quickly.”

Klein said cruise companies will have to work hard to win back consumers’ trust. “There will be some great deals for consumers to convince them to come on cruises,” he said. “But it is going to be a hard task convincing people that cruise ships are safe. It will be a very long time until cruise ships are trusted by the Australian government and consumers.”

Australian authorities this week launched a criminal investigation into how passengers on the Ruby Princess were allowed to disembark in Sydney despite some exhibiting flu-like symptoms. More than 600 people on the ship later tested positive for coronavirus and 11 have since died – more than a fifth of Australia’s deaths so far. The New South Wales police commissioner accused Carnival of potentially breaching biosecurity laws and allowing the virus to arrive in Australia.

A Carnival spokesperson said: “In addition to willingly participating in the investigation, Carnival Australia will vigorously respond to any allegations of which there must now be full disclosure and the basis for them.”

The industry has managed to bounce back from a series of other disasters, including the capsizing of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany in 2012, which resulted in 33 deaths, and numerous outbreaks of norovirus, rotavirus and legionnaires’ disease.

But Klein described the coronavirus pandemic as an “off-the-scale challenge”.

He said: “By offering huge discounts they will be able to convince people who have already been on multiple cruises to return. But the industry is set up for growth, with more and more bigger ships coming through, and to fill them they will need new customers. It will be extremely difficult to convince people who have never been on a cruise before to take one now, no matter how much money off you offer them.”

Robert Cole, a senior analyst for the leisure travel at the research firm Phocuswright, said the biggest challenge for the industry will be being able to maintain physical distancing onboard.

“Cruise ships by definition are a mass of people cramped together in a small space and there’s not much you can do structurally to change that,” Cole said. “Even when the immediate crisis is over, it is likely to be 18 months until a coronavirus vaccine is developed and until then travel will be highly restricted and some form of social-distancing measures will stay in place.

“On cruise ships there are crushes of people everywhere. There are lineups [queues] for buffet, for shows and to get on and off at every port.”

The demographics are not helpful either. A third of cruise passengers are 60 or older, the age group most at risk of serious illness and death from the virus.

“No company wants its customers to be looking at it and saying: ‘Hmm, that looks a bit risky’,” Cole said. “Maybe if you’re a zip-lining company, but not cruises.”

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