A recent study of the global cruise industry and tourism crises revealed a systematic failure within the industry to understand the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to (and including) 2019, the cruise lines were the fastest growing sector in the tourism industry. In 2018, the total economic contribution (direct, indirect, and induced) of cruise tourism to the global economy (through goods and services) was $150 billion, with 1,177,000 full-time jobs.
However, the cruise industry is a crises-prone industry and in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreaks on the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, the major cruise lines remind us of the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: a massive and impressive, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance but with feet partially made from baked clay.
Crises linked to cruise ships are not new. In 1912 the sinking of the Titanic made news and continues to be reviewed and critiqued. In 1915 the S.S. Eastland sunk in a Chicago port killing over 840 of the 2500 passengers. In 2005 pirates attacked the Seabourn Spirit off the coast of Somalia, and in 2010, the Splendor (one of Carnival’s largest vessels) experienced engine fires stranding passengers for four days with no power.
Thanks to the norovirus many Carnival cruise ship passengers have become ill:
1. 2009, Coral Princess: 271 sick
2. 2010, Crown Princess: 396 sick
3. 2012, Sun Princess: 216 sick
4. 2013, Ruby Princess: 276 sick
In 2014 the Explorer of the Seas sailed back to New Jersey with almost 650 victims of norovirus complete with related nausea and diarrhea. The passengers and crew aboard the Celebrity Mercury suffered through outbreaks on five consecutive sailings in 2000, including 443 sick in February 2000 and 419 in March. The CDC issued a (then) rare no-sail order because the ship kept infecting the passengers and the cruise line would not stop sailing.
The virus affects the stomach and intestines and can be ingested from contaminated food or water or via contact with an infected person. In some cases, it can be spread through unsanitary bathroom practices as the microbe resides in the feces. The virus can spread rapidly, especially in small spaces like a cruise ship.
In the past, the cruise industry responded to some crises (i.e., 9/11 terrorist attacks, 2008 global financial crises) relatively quickly and adopted the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code), providing a plan for addressing issues of safety and security. After 9/11 Abercrombie & Kent, the luxury tour company that maintains private docks along the Nile, installed metal detectors and plainclothes security on their boats. The fleets of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises placed security forces of former military personnel, including members of the Israeli special forces, the British navy and Nepalese Gurkhas on their ships. The vessels also had fire hoses, radar and powerful searchlights (to blind potential attackers) to protect passengers. In response to the 2008 financial crises the industry lowered cruise prices (covering basic operational costs) and focused on expanding onboard revenue.
Shock, Awe and Demise
What is different with COVID-19? This virus is airborne and can remain on surfaces for hours. It appears that the industry was (and is) unable to police its own environment, world governments were obliged to intervene, resulting in either forcing (or strongly recommending) lockdowns, social distancing, restricted mobility and other restraints on what the industry could and should do.
Political leaders along with government administrators and private sector cruise line executives issued guidelines for addressing and corralling the pandemic while additional directives came from global health care operations (i.e., WHO). The outcome? Everyone bungled the responses, adding confusion and misinformation to feeble scientific communication networks that had been eviscerated over the almost four years that Donald Trump has occupied the White House and mismanaged by WHO leadership.
When the virus was first detected on the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, the absence of a containment plan escalated the disease into unprecedented health-related crises that spilled over from a single cruise company to an entire industry.
The virus attack on cruise ships and fleets in March 2020 changed the industry forever, halting and then suspending Princess Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Viking, Norwegian Cruise line, Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corporation and MSC Cruises. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a No Sail Order for at least 100 days for all cruise ships carrying more than 250 passengers, extending the No Sail order to October 31, 2020. The Azamara, a small luxury cruise line has suspended sails until the end of 2020. Carnival has also cancelled all sailings from the USA until the end of 2020; however, Celebrity plans to resume operations in November 2020 and sailings from/to foreign ports continue.
The industry is suffering through significant financial losses, sparking fears to investors. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd shares dropped 82.31 percent, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings shared dropped 85.17 percent and Carnival Corporation & Plc shared dropped 76.61 percent from January 2, 2020 to March 23, 2020.
Extending aid to cruise lines has been controversial. The big three cruise lines are incorporated in what is termed “equivalent exemption countries,” where they are not required to pay the 21 percent corporate tax that US companies are obligated to pay. If, as an example, Carnival, the largest US cruise line company, moved from a foreign port (i.e., Panama) to the US, they would have to pay approximately $600 million in corporate taxes on its reported $3 billion in income (2019), so they are unlikely to relocate any time soon.
In September 2019, the Federal Reserve Bank injected $400 billion and between March–July 2020, injected an additional $7.4 trillion into the repurchase agreements market. Currently there are 122 new ocean-going ships on order until 2027, with a total value of $68.4 billion putting into question the liquidity of the extremely fragile cruise Ines.
What to do? ICV Recommendations
Beginning in 2006, the International Cruise Victims (ICV) organization, a non-profit cruise industry watch-dog representing victims of tragic events at sea, including crimes (i.e., sexual assaults), inadequate medical services, overboard accidents, mysterious disappearances, fires, capsized ships, and the spread of deadly diseases, has monitored and advocated for cruise ship safety, security and accountability.
The ICV has proposed steps that will bring the challenges facing the industry into focus and requests that a comprehensive plan for emerging from near-ruin be presented to government agencies and the public before they are permitted to sail.
The ICV calls for an:
1. Investigation into the history of the cruise lines COVID-19 infestation on many vessels, focusing on what they knew, when they knew it, and the steps taken to mitigate the crises
2. Identification of individuals responsible for the “decisions to conceal information from passengers and the general public”
3. Take full responsibility, and be held accountable, for the sickness and death of passengers
4. In preparation for re-entering the marketplace, the cruise lines must, “create detailed, science-backed policies for handling COVID-19 outbreaks, ensuring passengers that they are following public health guidelines issued in each of the jurisdictions in which they operate, including, but not limited to:
• Pre-embarkation, onboard, shore excursions and disembarkation policies
• Mandatory health screenings before and during embarkation
• Quarantine quarters set aside for passengers and crew in separate areas
• Limited shore excursions to protect the health of port communities
• Measures to ensure physical distancing
• Reduced guest capacity not to exceed more than 40 percent of total capacity until a COVID-19 vaccine in available
• Open air dining area and elimination of all self-service options
• Measures to ensure infection control and improved sanitation measures, allowing additional time between ship turn-arounds
• Onboard rapid results testing
• Installation of H13 HEPA filters
• Independent onboard COVID-19 Compliance Officer (C19CO) responsible for establishing and enforcing safety protocols, training staff, monitoring and reporting noncompliance
• Improved medical facilities and equipment
• Increased levels of personnel certification and training
Jamie Barnett, the ICV president stated, “To allow cruise lines to forge ahead without meeting this criterion would be signing the death warrants of not only many of its passengers and crew, but the thousands of people forced to interact with them once they return. Instead of worrying about the people under their care while onboard, the cruise industry has worried about their shareholders. And instead of learning from and correcting their deadly mistakes, they continue to repeat them until they are forcefully stopped.”
It is obvious that the cruise lines spend more time, money and effort on public relations, advertising and promotions then on passenger safety. According to Barnett, “Each time there is another outbreak or safety incident, we are reminded that cruise line actions are more about public relations than public safety.” The organization is seeking tangible actions that will demonstrate their commitment to passenger safety, “Now is the time for this industry to take a much-needed hiatus to reprioritize its foundational principles and priorities. It is long overdue.”
The cruise line industry has received unprecedented global media attention this year; little has been favorable. Because the ships operate in murky waters that are loosely regulated by governments permitting very uneven and (in many instances) unsafe practices, COVID-19 has revealed major weaknesses in the industry and a structure that hides and/or ignores legal, social and ethical responsibilities and tries to shed personal accountability and culpability.
Barnett finds that, “The reputation and credibility of the cruise industry,” is being pushed to take responsibility for its actions and inactions. “The benefits are the very survival of this industry which is, after all, not a necessity but rather a luxury. Lack of regard for the safety and wellbeing of the crew and passengers will end up destroying the industry. People will find other ways to vacation. Other places that they trust. Other destinations that will mean it when they say that safety is their number one concern.”
For additional information: https://www.internationalcruisevictims.org