With cruise ships quarantining thousands of passengers while dealing with coronavirus cases onboard and ports turning ships away over coronavirus concerns, what does that mean for the future of cruising?
The new coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, has spread across the globe with more than 43,000 confirmed cases and the death toll rising above 1,000 as of Tuesday morning. The majority of the cases are in mainland China, and the death toll has now surpassed the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2003.
While viruses like SARS have impacted travelers before, the cruise industry is uniquely impacted by the spread of the coronavirus, especially because the outbreak began in China, an emerging market in the cruise industry.
Cruise historian Peter Knego told USA TODAY that there is no precedent that matches what is going on now, though he compared it loosely to SARS and the bird flu. But now that the cruise industry has such a large presence in the area of the initial outbreak, the game has changed.
“The China market has exploded in past five years or so,” he said. “It’s a different animal than before.”
According to a Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) report on the Asia cruise market, passenger numbers from Asia hit a record high in 2018 with 4.24 million taking an ocean cruise. China accounted for more than half (55.8%) of that traffic, the trade association reported.
It’s important to keep in mind that the Asia-Pacific market, while it is growing, is still small relative to other markets around the world, Bari Golin-Blaugrund, senior director of strategic communications for CLIA told USA TODAY in an email.
“In 2018—the latest year that we have final numbers—28.5M passengers sailed on CLIA cruise ships; of those passengers, about 8-9% (or 2.5M) were from China, including Hong Kong and Macau,” she said.
And right now, while there are several ships that have been impacted by coronavirus, hundreds of others continue normal operations around the globe. “While the relative impact to global cruise operations is not extensive at this time, we recognize that the impact even on just one person is significant,” Golin-Blaugrund added.
It may take a while, Knego said, to figure out how to deal with the virus, though some cruise lines are in the thick of it now. “I just think we have to see how it develops,” he said.
What’s happening on cruise ships right now?
There are several cruise ships that are already in the thralls of dealing with coronavirus or the fear that surrounds its spread. Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
Holland America’s MS Westerdam has been turned away from several ports, most recently by Thailand, leaving the ship in limbo. Despite reports to the contrary, there are no known cases of coronavirus on board, though the ship was in Hong Kong and has also been barred by the Philippines, Guam and Japan.
Diamond Princess, a Princess Cruises ship that is quarantined off the coast of Japan through Feb. 19, has had at least 135 people who have been diagnosed with coronavirus, and at least 20 of them are Americans. Those with confirmed cases of coronavirus are being taken off the ship and moved to hospitals. The cruise had 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew on board when it set sail on Jan. 20.
Passengers aboard Dream Cruises’ World Dream disembarked Sunday at Hong Kong’s Kai Tek Cruise Terminal after tests revealed no one on board had coronavirus. Three people who were on the ship from Jan. 19 to Jan. 24 tested positive for coronavirus, and the ship was under quarantine near Hong Kong while it waited for test results for passengers and crew to come back. World Dream operations will be suspended until further notice, according to the cruise line.
Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas departed Bayonne, New Jersey, Monday afternoon after passengers tested negative for coronavirus. Passengers were tested after the ship docked and screened 27 passengers who had recently traveled from mainland China. The itinerary was changed from a Bahamas cruise to Bermuda, in light of the delayed departure.
The Costa Smeralda, one of Costa Cruises’ ships, had a coronavirus scare at the end of January that locked down the ship for almost a day in Civitavecchia, Italy. The scare turned out to be a case of the flu.
Other lines have canceled or altered their itineraries for cruises, primarily to avoid China.
Does the industry know what to do?
So what does that mean for cruising right now? Can the industry handle this kind of outbreak?
CLIA has issued and updated industry precautionary measures for its members to follow to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
CLIA member ships are to deny boarding to anyone who has been in close contact with or helped to care for someone suspected or diagnosed with coronavirus. Those who are being monitored for potential exposure to the virus are also to be turned away.
Ships are also to deny boarding to all who have traveled from, visited or been through airports in China within a two-week period prior to embarkation. That includes Hong Kong and Macao in addition to mainland China.
Some lines have taken even more drastic precautions: Norwegian and Royal Caribbean International cruise lines announced Friday they would bar passengers holding passports from China, Hong Kong or Macao, a decision that has been controversial.
But are cruise lines doing the right things?
Andrew Coggins, professor at the Pace University Lubin School of Business and cruise industry analyst, called the blanket ban on China, Hong Kong and Macao passport holders “worrying.”
“That smacks of racial/ethnic paranoia,” he said in a statement. “Royal Caribbean has invested much time and treasure developing their China Market over the past 12 plus years. China is a proud and ancient country. Such a blanket ban will not go unnoticed.”
Eric Cioe-Peña, director of global health for Northwell Health told USA TODAY in an email that what Princess Cruises is doing on Diamond Princess, is safe, because they are taking precautions to separate people that are healthy from people that are sick.
“It’s really important that we’re not putting people at risk when we quarantine them,” Cioe-Peña said. “One of the good things that was done with the Japanese cruise ship is that the people who were identified as ‘sick’ were taken off of the boat and brought to medical care facilities.”
And while under quarantine, the passengers on the Diamond Princess have been instructed to stay in their suites or cabins. Those in interior cabins with no window or outdoor access have been able to go on deck for up to an hour and a half but must stay at least 3 feet from fellow passengers, Matt Smith, an attorney on the ship from Sacramento, California, told USA TODAY on Friday. It’s so isolating it almost feels they are alone on the ship, Smith said on Monday.
But there are risks if you quarantine thousands of people for longer than they intended to be on a ship – food, medical supplies and getting rid of waste are all concerns.
“We’re pretty much in the unfolding stages,” Knego said. “I think until they determine how serious this epidemic is, it’s day-by-day play.”
But coronavirus isn’t the only virus to plague cruise ships.
The spread of norovirus, a highly contagious virus which causes vomiting and diarrhea, has been an issue on cruise ships for years. Just this week, two ships faced norovirus outbreaks that forced both to return to port.
And the flu is something to worry about, as well, potentially even more so than coronavirus, from Knego’s perspective. “Even though this is a scary disease, the flu is much more prevalent,” he said. “It’s everywhere and many more people are dying.”
The flu is deadlier and more widespread than coronavirus. So far there have been at least 22 million flu cases, 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths related to the flu in the U.S. this influenza season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since there is no vaccine for coronavirus currently, the CDC also recommends common heath practices for prevention, including washing hands, sanitizing frequently touched objects and avoiding people who are sick.
When will the threat of coronavirus end? It might return every winter
And cruisers aren’t at huge risk unless their ship is traveling to an affected area or has passengers from those areas.
At a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services briefing Friday, Robert Redfield, director of the CDC alluded to the coronavirus cruise issues.
“If you’re going on a cruise ship, stay in the Caribbean. … It’s really no risk,” he said.
As the virus continues to spread, the industry’s response is likely to change, as well.
In its announcement Friday on enhanced screening, CLIA made sure to add that preventative measures could be subject to change in coordination with and under advisement from medical authorities.
Will people keep cruising?
Hearing about the virus and the quarantines that have resulted can be scary.
There have been mixed reactions from passengers stuck on ships such as the Diamond Princess. Some are trying to keep a positive attitude while others think that the ship has turned into a “floating prison.”
In hearing about the virus, one family from Hawaii canceled their upcoming cruise through Asia with Norwegian Cruise Lines and lost $32,000- the line wouldn’t issue a refund.
Angela Pettit, a 51-year-old IT consultant from Texas and frequent cruiser, has gone on more than 20 cruises in the last decade.
Pettit disembarked from a sailing on the Celebrity Eclipse just last week. The cruise visited a few locations, including Argentina and Alaska, she told USA TODAY.
Passengers didn’t know the full extent of what was going on with coronavirus until the ship docked in Houston, she said. But on board, there were worries. “It was a concern throughout the whole trip because you just don’t know,” she said. “You’re coming in contact with so many different people; you don’t know their backgrounds.”
While Pettit doesn’t have another cruise scheduled for the immediate future, she does have another booked in February 2021. And though that is nearly a year away, she is feeling hesitant.
“I’m kind of having second thoughts,” she said. “I never worried prior.”
Pettit wants to see how coronavirus plays out and how travel agents and cruise lines handle the situation.
Another cruiser, Carole Jones, 47, from Minnesota, finished a cruise with Carnival Cruise Line just over a week ago.
Jones has six children, and on past cruises, her children have contracted norovirus, which changed the way they cruised in later cruises but hasn’t stopped them.
With the confined space of a cruise ship, Jones said she understands how viruses like coronavirus or norovirus can get out of hand quickly. Now, they take wipes to sanitize their cabin, don’t eat at any buffets and try not to use any public restrooms onboard to avoid any spreading germs.
“We were on the ship when first quarantine happened overseas,” she told USA TODAY. “It definitely made us nervous.”
Her family has another cruise scheduled in a few months. At this point, they aren’t planning to cancel. But they also aren’t committed to going.
“The cruise industry does a great job, but something like this is new,” Jones said. “We’ll see where we are in three more months.”
Others are determined not to let the virus keep them from their plans.
Sylvain Plasse, an actor from Toronto and frequent cruiser who has completed more than 100 sailings, told USA TODAY in a message that “we have to continue living.” He has no plans to stop cruising but is taking precautions.
“[Coronavirus] definitely will not deter me from cruising; however… I am avoiding Asia at all costs,” he said.
Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, told USA TODAY that coronavirus has begun to come up in conversations with people planning their next trip.
“We are closely monitoring the situation,” she said. “I’ve been in this business for a really long time – over 35 years – and nothing like this has ever happened.”
Right now though, she said that most people are not canceling their cruises and people are still booking.
Contributing: Julia Thompson