As confirmed cases of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus continue to spike outside Asia, major cruise lines around the world have responded with a variety of actions, including a temporary suspension of their scheduled cruises. But it’s likely a case of doing too little, too late to save some cruise lines from getting financially swamped by the virus tsunami.

As I reported last month, the public relations nightmare for the cruise industry began on February 5 when the 3,700-passenger Diamond Princess was quarantined in the Japanese port of Yokohama with 70 people on board were confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus. The pathetic handling of the situation by Princess Cruises and Japanese officials eventually led to the infection of about 700 passengers and crew before the evacuations of passengers began with Americans on February 17.

Crew clad in protective gear on Diamond Princess

According The Guardian newspaper, Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said that quarantining passengers on a cruise ship allows the virus to literally pick them off one-by-one. “The whole idea of the cruise ship quarantine was ill-conceived, and the resultant slew of infections it spawned was completely predictable,” he said.

Despite the PR debacle, many health, media and cruise industry “experts” didn’t get the message.

On February 13, a story by CNN tried to reassure the public that it was still safe to sail on cruise ships. According to the story, “The situation in Asia has already led some operators to cancel sailings in the region and raised questions over whether vacationers heading on cruises elsewhere are at heightened risk of contracting the virus. It’s unlikely, experts say.”

Helicopter brings medical supplies to Grand Princess

The story went on to quote an expert:  “I think there’s extremely low risk of getting novel coronavirus on a cruise ship,” said Dr. John Lynch, who has specialties in infectious disease and travel medicine at University of Washington School of Medicine. Even in Asia, Lynch noted, the probability of encountering someone who has been exposed to the virus, is asymptomatic upon getting on the ship and develops symptoms over the course of a trip is “really, really low.” Presumably, the doctor now works as a barista at Starbucks.

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 55 cruise lines with about 280 cruise ships, wasn’t much better. It tried to “pooh-pooh” the risk of catching the virus on board a ship by boasting about the enhanced safety protocols its members had adopted. Among the measures announced by CLIA were enhanced screening of passengers who had traveled or transited through selected destinations, and the denial of boarding to people who had traveled to South Korea, Iran, China, including Hong Kong and Macau, and any municipality in Italy subject to lockdown (quarantine) measures by the Italian Government.

Buses carrying passengers from the Diamond Princess.

Despite these enhanced measures, the reputation of zombie cruise ships as floating petri dishes only got worse.

In early March the Grand Princess reported 28 cases of the coronavirus on board, and was subsequently quarantined off the coast of San Francisco. To make matters worse, passengers complained that recommended quarantine protocols weren’t being followed aboard the ship, including when they were disembarked on March 10 in Oakland.

A number of other cruise ships were denied entry to countries during March after confirmed or suspected outbreaks of the virus.

MS Braemar was denied entry by several ports

For example, the Silver Explorer was quarantined off the Chilean port of Castro after a passenger on board the ship contracted the novel virus. The MS Braemar headed to Cuba after frantically searching for a place to dock after it was refused several ports of entry in the Caribbean because five passengers tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Norwegian Jewel floated in limbo in the Pacific Ocean after being denied docking at two previously scheduled ports on its cruise to French Polynesia, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. After departing in February from Sydney, Australia, the ship subsequently headed to American Samoa to refuel. And just last week, the Canadian government said at least 77 Canadians were on a trans-Atlantic cruise ship with several COVID-19 cases — the Costa Luminosa was hoping to disembark its 1,400 passengers in the French Mediterranean port of Marseille.

Norwegian Jewel in Sydney

In response, the U.S. State Department announced on March 8 that U.S. citizens, especially those with underlying medical conditions, should not travel by cruise ship. Canada followed a day later with its own warning about cruise ship travel. A few days later Canada’s Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the government was also taking additional measures to ban cruise ships carrying more than 500 people from stopping in Canada until July 1, 2020. Other nations, including Australia, followed with similar exclusions.

Officers in protective gear take sick passengers ashore

These restrictions left the world’s major cruise lines with few viable options. As a result, on March 13 CLIA’s ocean-going cruise line members voluntarily decided to suspend cruise ship operations from U.S. ports for at least 30 days. So for now, with a handful of exceptions, cruise ships are tied up in port or floating off the coasts in various parts of the world, including in Florida and California.

Most cruise lines have tried to maintain goodwill with affected passengers by offering future cruise credits or refunds for disrupted or cancelled sailings. And many are waiving cancellation penalties on future cruises up to a few days or weeks before departure. However, there are some questionable exceptions.

Stingy refund policy at Hebridean Cruises

For example, U.K.-based Hebridean Cruises has said it intends to operate all of its itineraries as scheduled, and if passengers cancel “because of disinclination to travel”, no refund of monies will be made. Nor will it allow a transfer of funds for a cruise at a later date. (Hebridean has subsequently removed this policy from its website and has now cancelled cruises until at least after April 28. However, no word on its refund/future cruise credit policy.) And while Cunard Cruises is offering guests impacted by the temporary suspension of its operations a future cruise credit of 125 per cent, there is no mention of any cash refunds.

As result, cruise cancellations are way up, and most travelers are waiting for the coronavirus to be contained before booking a new cruise. In this regard, the 30-day suspension of cruise operations by CLIA members seems incredibly optimistic – in fact, some travel experts are predicting it won’t be safe to travel abroad by any means until at least late summer or early fall.

CLIA says 600,000 people cruise every day

So will the COVID-19 virus sink the cruise industry?

Over the next year, the virus will certainly cost the travel industry billions of dollars in lost revenue and likely sink a number of smaller and weaker cruise lines in the process.  But the larger lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian (and most of their cruise line subsidiaries) — will stay afloat.

However, it will take much longer than a year for the public to forget the terrible images of zombie ships with infected passengers, and for the cruise industry to restore the trusted reputation it once enjoyed with the traveling public.

Featured image – passengers stuck on quarantined cruise ship

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3 replies »

  1. What a ridiculous piece of fear-mongering. . “The whole idea of the cruise ship quarantine was ill-conceived, and the resultant slew of infections it spawned was completely predictable,” [some doctor] said. The charts there show that after Feb 25 – a month ago – the 690 cases have perked up to 710. Thousands of people confined to one ship, and there’s 20 new infections in a month? That’s a “slew”?


  2. Thanks for sharing your opinion, Kevin. Almost everyone agrees that cruise ships are not the best place to be during an outbreak of an infectious virus. In fact, the U.S. Department of State has urged U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, not to travel by cruise ship for the immediate future. To the credit of CLIA members, they are not asking for financial hand-outs from the government as a result of the shutdown as per this article in Forbes:


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