Cruising for a bruising

Eric Lee Tsun Lung has enjoyed more than 50 ocean cruises since he was a youngster and he looks forward to going to sea again soon, regardless of the spate of coronavirus outbreaks on cruise liners, frequently dubbed “floating petri dishes” in the media.

The 36-year-old went on his first cruise in 1994 with his parents. He remembers it well; a three-days and two-nights cruise on the Star Pisces ocean liner, run by Star Cruises, from Hong Kong to Xiamen in China.

“I love everything about cruising!” Lee says, who now works in human resources. He adds that he enjoyed his first cruise so much that as soon as he grew up, he started planning a fly-cruise trip to the US and Europe.

Despite loyal cruise fans like Lee, the industry is weathering an unprecedented shut-down, and some experts doubt passenger numbers will ever return to their pre-pandemic levels. Governments and health authorities around the world have issued “no sail” edicts, many ports are closed to cruise ships, and the avalanche of bad press about on-board disease will be difficult for many to forget.

A Covid-19 outbreak on Carnival’s Diamond Princess ship in February began the rolling disaster. Quarantined off the coast of Yokohama with passengers testing positive to the virus, at one point the ship was home to one of the world’s largest cluster of coronavirus cases. A number of the Diamond Princess passengers subsequently died of the disease.

Diamond Princess’s sister ship Grand Princess was then stuck off Oakland, California, with dozens of passengers testing positive.

Passengers from the infected Ruby Princess, a third ship in the Princess fleet, were allowed to disembark in Sydney, Australia, in March, fuelling outrage when the ship became the largest source of coronavirus cases in Australia.

Eric Lee Tsun Lung has been on at least 50 ocean cruises, and he plans to go again as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the Westerdam cruise ship, from the Holland America line, followed a lonely trail around the world, repeatedly refused permission to dock. Westerdam passengers were finally allowed to disembark in Cambodia.

Now, months later, many thousands of cruise ship staff are still stuck on board cruise ships around the world, and cruise companies are not saying exactly when the industry worth billions is expected to resume operations, although it’s widely expected many of the floating hotels will start their voyages in August or September.

Joel Katz, managing director Australasia & Asia of the global Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), says that while cruising is suspended globally, cruise lines are working on the “new landscape that cruises will operate within when the time is right to resume sailing”. Most cruise line are offering easy itinerary changes, deep discounts and enhanced credits for those passengers whose cruises were cancelled to jumpstart the industry.

“Although a fully defined plan for resumption of cruising has not yet been finalised, we expect cruises in some markets are likely to resume in a gradual, phased-in manner, since the virus is at different stages in different parts of the world,” Katz says.

“At least in some regions, the first cruises that depart are likely to be shorter voyages and more limited itineraries.”

One of the first cruise ships scheduled to leave Hong Kong post-pandemic, and perhaps one of the first cruises operated by a major cruise-line around the world, appears to be the Royal Caribbean line’s Voyager of the Seas, due to depart on July 12 for a three-day cruise to Shanghai. It seems the Shanghai cruise is in response to the region’s recovery from the virus and RCL’s cruises in other parts of the world appear to be officially suspended until August.

With fares beginning at US$330 per person for an inside cabin, the Shanghai cruise is listed on Royal Caribbean’s website, but the cruise line did not wish to confirm or comment on other plans for the rebirth of the industry.

In the past, more than 30 million passengers took to the seas every year, according to CLIA estimates, criss-crossing the world in ever more elaborate ships, some featuring towering water-slides, surf simulators and live music and dance shows with high-tech special effects.

Dedicated cruise passengers are happy to sacrifice space and solitude for the pleasures of lavish buffet dining and almost constant entertainment. But the necessary proximity of cruise passengers to one another in ships’ crowded dining rooms and bars can speed contagion.

Cruise ships have been hit with varying types of contagious disease over the years. In February, more than 370 passengers on the Caribbean Princess were diagnosed with norovirus, causing vomiting and diarrhea. The health ministry of Trinidad and Tobago refused to let the ship dock, and it had to turn back to the US. More recently, those passengers on the ill-fated coronavirus-struck Ruby Princess on a voyage from New Zealand to Australia in March have been warned that a crew-member has now been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Cruise lines are now working with experts on ways to limit future disease outbreaks. Social distancing will be extremely difficult to enforce, given the number of passengers needed on board to keep cruising profitable.

CLIA managing director Katz says global understanding of the virus is changing almost daily, delaying planning.

“The industry is taking a holistic approach to planning that looks at all aspects of the guest experience, both onboard and shore-side, including reviewing screening and testing options,” he says. “We will work with governments and public health authorities in all jurisdictions where cruising operates and will be guided by expert advice.”

Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of the Cruise Critic, a news and reviews cruise website, says the cruise lines are still working on plans and protocols for the future “with guest and crew safety a top priority”.

So far most of the companies have remained cagy about the exact policies they will introduce, but McDaniel says social distancing plans could include passenger limits on board or in specific areas of the ships.

One of the few operators to announce new sanitation protocols, she says, is the US-based Norwegian Cruise Line.

NCL cruises will resume globally from August, with a seven-day cruise from Miami to the western Caribbean departing on August 2, offering fares from US$649 per person.

Norwegian’s website lists the new procedures developed to combat disease, which include the installation of medical-grade air filters on the ships, pre-embarkation health screenings, fogging and disinfection, full-service buffets with staff to serve guests, increased medical staff, dedicated isolation accommodation, reduced guest capacity and staggered embarkations.

Experts think it’s likely most cruise lines will come up with similar protocols, but reducing the ships’ passenger capacity too far will eat into profits.

Hongkong cruise fan and blogger Eric Lee voyages with friends and family and he’s also been on three cruises on his own. “Usually I cruise with friends and many of them are first-time cruisers, they think cruising is just for the elderly and boring,” he says. “But after their first trip they like cruising very much.”

He even has a blog on Facebook dedicated to cruising and, because he is considered to be a media representative, he is sometimes offered complimentary cruises and shipboard lunch visits.

“I always book an inside cabin because I seldom stay in the room,” he says. “There’s nothing like sitting on the pool deck, or in the lounge, with a glass of wine and an hors d’ouvre, or just napping during the day.”

These days, he likes cruising to Europe, “for the culture”, but his favourite destination is the Caribbean for the beaches, and his favourite cruise line is Royal Caribbean. The length of time he spends cruising the oceans each year has increased as time has passed.

“I plan to cruise every year, at least one long haul to the USA-Europe and one short cruise in Asia.”

Lee is confident the cruise operators will take pains to deal with potential disease outbreaks.

“I’m sure they will have strong hygiene levels to prevent the virus, maybe take fewer passengers on board, modify the buffet restaurant,” he says. “I’m not worried about it.”