With worldwide concern about the Wuhan Coronavirus growing, this is not the time to be stuck on a zombie ship in Asia that no one wants to let dock, and could become a floating prison under quarantine for weeks. However, once the virus is contained, there could be some tremendous values on Asian cruises in future.
The past few weeks have not been kind to the cruise industry.
Many media outlets have run major stories focusing on the negative impact of the Wuhan COVID-19 Coronavirus on cruise ships plying Asian waters. Some stories referred to one of the impacted ships as “a floating petri dish,” while others implied another vessel was like the mythical Flying Dutchman ghost ship which couldn’t find a port that would accept it.
The driving force behind this negative coverage is the Wuhan Coronavirus, which started in China’s Hubei Province in late December and has since spread throughout the region and beyond, affecting nearly 70,000 people worldwide, killing some 1,670 of them to date (February 16, 2020). This virus has caused severe disruption to many travel plans, with many flights to and from China suspended, and most cruise itineraries in the region altered or cancelled.
The Diamond Princess and the Westerdam are two high-profile examples of what can go wrong when cruise ships sail in a region where an outbreak of a contagious virus unexpectedly takes place and the local infrastructure has trouble dealing with it.
The former ship has been locked down in quarantine since February 5 in the Japanese port of Yokohama at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal, which is about 40 km from Tokyo. When the 3,700-passenger Diamond Princess was quarantined, it had some 70 people who were infected. As of today, there are 355 passengers who have tested positive for the virus – a huge increase in just 11 days.
Until Saturday (February 15), Japanese officials had enforced a 14-day quarantine period on the ship so that infected passengers could not accidentally disembark and potentially spread the virus. (Those with the virus have been taken to hospital as they were diagnosed).However, at the urging of the American Embassy in Tokyo, the Japanese agreed to let the 400 Americans on board begin departing to military bases in the United States starting Monday (February 17).
But according to Fox News, this decision hasn’t pleased all the passengers, including Matthew Smith and his wife who would prefer to stay on the ship. “I understand getting off the ship to be in another space, but under this circumstance, the offer is we’re going to put you on buses with other people who haven’t completed their quarantines and have not been tested for the virus,” Smith told Fox. “We’re going to then put you on a plane with all these people and take you back to the United States, and because of the risk you still pose due to that situation we’re going to stick you in another quarantine.”
One might ask why anyone would want to stay quarantined on a cruise ship incubating a contagious disease like the coronavirus. However, passengers in balcony cabins have been able to get lots of fresh air, and those without balconies have been given time outside on open decks for daily walks. In addition, some pretty good tasting meals have been delivered to cabins three times a day. In contrast, this might seem attractive compared to being quarantined on a military base.
The situation with Holland America Line’s Westerdam has also caused disruption. The ship with 2,257 people aboard left Hong Kong on February 1 and was subsequently turned away from ports in five Asian countries despite not having a confirmed case of the virus on board. After looking like it might become a modern day version of the Flying Dutchman – the legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever – the Westerdam was finally allowed to dock and disembark passengers in Sihanoukville, Cambodia on February 14.
However, one of the passengers who left the ship and flew to Malaysia was subsequently diagnosed in Kuala Lumpur with the coronavirus. And six other passengers who had flown to Malaysia were under surveillance pending the results of coronavirus tests. This will undoubtedly cause more local angst about allowing cruise ships into regional ports.
While the Diamond Princess and Westerdam got most of the media coverage, there were other cruise ships in the region that were also impacted.
For example, after leaving Sri Lanka on February 4, Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 voluntarily cancelled all of its Asian ports of call on its world cruise including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Instead, after stopping at Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur) on February 11 to refuel and disembark passengers who wanted to leave the ship, the QM2 set sail for Australia. For those who did not want to get off the vessel in Malaysia but had only paid for the Asian segment of the cruise (including four of my good friends from Toronto) Cunard offered them free passage to Fremantle, Australia.
The World Dream of Genting Cruises is another example. The ship was put on lock-down in Hong Kong on February 5 after it turned back from a four-day cruise to Taiwan. The ship’s occupants were quarantined after passengers from the Chinese mainland who boarded from January 19 to 24 tested positive for coronavirus. On February 9, Hong Kong authorities allowed 3,600 people to disembark the ship amidst negative publicity.
As a result, cruise line operators across Asia have had to cancel departures and give refunds to passengers stuck on “zombie” ships. In addition, passengers booked on future cruises in the region are cancelling in droves, and very few are booking new cruises in the region.
The financial hit to the cruise industry is likely to be so severe (many millions of dollars), that Christopher Muller, a professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, told Fortune last week that “This is terrible for the cruise industry. In the new markets of Asia, the rebound will take longer since the overall market is not as mature and built up.”
Indeed, Fortune says Royal Caribbean Cruises has canceled 18 sailings in Southeast Asia, and if it’s forced to eliminate all its excursions there through April, it could cost the company $1.20 per share in earnings this year. In addition, Carnival Cruises, the world’s biggest cruise company, recently said that its earnings this year could fall as much as 65 cents per share. And some travel experts say that cruise bookings are down by as much as 15 percent.
Despite the hit to their bottom lines, some cruise lines appear to be doing the right thing from both a public relations and customer service perspective. For example, most major cruise companies are providing refunds and/or future cruise credits, giving passengers free Internet and phone service on board zombie ships, and helping to rearrange air transportation home for those who booked their flights through the cruise line.
Of course, in every dark cloud there is usually a silver lining. So when the Wuhan Coronavirus is eventually brought under control, there could be a raft of fantastic deals on cruises to Asia, and perhaps elsewhere. That’s exactly what happened after the SARs and Mexican swine flu outbreaks were brought to heel in 2003 and 2009, respectively.
So while now is not the best time to book an Asian cruise, savvy travelers would do well to keep an eye on these itineraries as the medical prognosis changes. There might just be some tremendous values down the road.
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