Cruise blues and COVID-19 – a global industry in peril
2020, April 2: On March 8, the global community paused to engage in its annual practice of acknowledging and saluting the role and successes of women in global progress. But before the day was done, the progress and global success of cruise tourism was about to be seriously imperilled.
The blow to the cruise industry came from the U.S. government via the U.S. Department of State.
U.S. DEPARTMENT of STATE: March 8, 2020 – Passengers on Cruise Ships U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship. CDC notes increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment. In order to curb the spread of COVID-19, many countries have implemented strict screening procedures that have denied port entry rights to ships and prevented passengers from disembarking. In some cases, local authorities have permitted disembarkation but subjected passengers to local quarantine procedures. While the U.S. government has evacuated some cruise ship passengers in recent weeks, repatriation flights should not be relied upon as an option for U.S. citizens under the potential risk of quarantine by local authorities.
Travel advisories from the U.S. Department of State are rarely more than a warning, except where public violence threatens American citizens’ lives in foreign countries. This, however, was different: it was an unequivocal instruction; a directive that citizens of the USA “should not travel by cruise ship.”
The following day, March 9, the value of cruise line stocks tumbled causing near panic in major markets. ‘Panic’ was what the political directorate of the USA had warned about and had been at great pains to avoid. It was to ‘prevent panic’ why the U.S. Vice President was placed in charge of information flows. It was also why governments around the planet felt it prudent to measure and carefully select the language used to discuss and report on the outbreak and spread of COVID-19. Yet, investors panicked.
By the close of stock markets on Monday, March 9, the major lines had lost a significant amount of value. Shares of the largest of them, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise, had lost 20% to 25%. On March 5, shares of these three lines fell by 9% to 12% as U.S. stock markets experienced their worst decline.
But the share price decline was perhaps not the worst blow. Growing negative perceptions by the general public about health and safety aboard cruise ships, already distorted with unfavourable news reports over recent years, were not assuaged. This could mean sustained fall-out for the cruise market; however, history suggests that the market has a relatively short memory. Also, marketing is a science and the cruise industry has some of the best marketers in the business. So, there is hope that cruisers will return after this global pandemic runs its course.
This coronavirus outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, in Hubei province, China in December 2019. At the end of January 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global emergency as infections spread beyond China’s shores.
Concerns in the cruise industry about this virus surfaced shortly after February 1, when a passenger on the mv Diamond Princess (Princess Cruises) who had disembarked a week earlier in Hong Kong was reported as having tested positive for the virus. The ship, then
in Japan at the port of Yokohama, was immediately the focus of attention of health professionals. The Diamond Princess was placed under quarantine and 3,700 passengers and crew (from several countries) were ordered to stay aboard. For weeks, passengers were forced to stay in their rooms, wearing masks and uncertain of their fate as day after day, reports of more confirmed diagnoses made the news. By mid-February, when positive diagnoses of COVID-19 infection were being reported outside of China – in Europe and the Middle East – health authorities the world over knew there was a global problem that was already unfolding. The state of knowledge about this particular virus was relatively minimal and so there were no drugs or vaccines specific to this virus.
On February 26, health authorities in the Cayman Islands refused to offer the MSC Meraviglia a berth. The ship was turned away for what the Cayman authorities said was action to protect the health and safety of its residents. It was reported that one crew member was suffering from influenza. The Caymanian government decided not to take the gamble, given what news was already circulating the globe about COVID-19.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent spreading of the disease, Caribbean cruise ports have been cautious and vigilant.
Caribbean countries moved smartly to protect their peoples by refusing to receive cruise ships (and passengers) that they had doubts about “… out of an abundance of caution for human health and safety.” Those countries included:
- British Virgin Islands;
- Dominican Republic;
- Saint Lucia;
- The Cayman Islands; and
- The Turks and Caicos Islands,
The policy of Caribbean governments and cruise destinations to deny entry of thousands of visitors to their shores may not have been popular with cruise lines that were already in a survival struggle. However, the policy, which was clearly based on simple common-sense, was decidedly sound and responsible; and, it was supported in principle by the World Health Organization and indeed every country then dealing with COVID-19, including the USA.
Travel rapidly spreads the disease and thereby increases the rate of infection.
And a global pandemic of any disease capable of causing death is not to be trifled with.