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“Cruises to Nowhere” Are a Thing. But Are They Worth the Risk?

Another indulgence for travelers with cabin fever.

Remember how a few weeks ago flights to nowhere were all the rage? Well, there’s a new travel trend on the block: cruises to nowhere.

Singapore Tourism Board announced in October that they’re resuming cruising—only for Singapore residents—by collaborating with Genting Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean. The board has set down safety protocols that need to be adhered to, which will earn companies CruiseSafe Certification. This program has all the dos and don’ts for the company, its passengers, and crew members: the journey is the destination, which means no ports of call or sightseeing; passenger capacity is reduced to up to 50%; and infection control (masks, social distancing, testing before boarding, air ventilation, and emergency response) is in place. The certificate can be revoked and the company may be fined if measures aren’t taken to control the spread of the virus.

Kickstarting this new face of cruising, on November 6, Genting’s World Dream took 1,400 passengers on a “Super Seacation.” The pilot was a two-night trip to the Malacca Strait and back with no stops, and passengers paid between $1,300 and $5,400. The ship came equipped with restaurants and bars, a theater, a casino, a swimming pool and waterslides, a spa, a zip line, and a rock-climbing wall. Now you know why they had a crew of 1,100—almost one staff for one guest due to 50% occupancy.

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Voyagers were allotted time slots for boarding and it started with a COVID-19 test. “I was a little nervous, but it was a quick, painless, and an easy process. One swab test and 20 minutes later, we were done with the test and ready to board,” a passenger told The Straits Times.

“Voyagers were allotted time slots for boarding and it started with a COVID-19 test.”

The vessel also had a clinic and an intensive care unit on board; plus everything was disinfected and sanitized religiously. Passengers were required to wear masks, maintain social distance, and carry an electronic tracking device. Buffets were transformed, entertainment venues had reduced capacity (they hosted a Christmas special and a light show), and guests had to make reservations for the pool and other activities.

The journey was completed without incident and Genting has more two- and three-night itineraries coming up. Around 1,000 people will be sailing with Royal Caribbean on this “safe cruise” setting sail this week. Malaysia, too, is considering cruises to nowhere, but the plan hasn’t been approved yet.

Cruises Around The World

Singapore isn’t the first country to restart cruising. Genting has been operating island hopping cruises in Taiwan since July. The same weekend of Taiwan’s maiden voyage, TUI’s Mein Schiff 2 took 1,200 passengers on a cruise to nowhere from Hamburg, Germany. On its heel was the first Mediterranean ship MSG Grandiosa that traveled with 2,500 passengers on a seven-day excursion in August. It took off from Italy’s Genoa and stopped at Valletta and Palermo.

Many smaller ships have been cruising in Europe. SeaDream Yacht Club resumed its voyages in Norway in June, taking Norwegians to the fjords, glaciers, and the Arctic Circle. These luxury cruises are more intimate with just over 100 guests, but on one of these voyages, one guest tested positive upon return to Denmark.

“In the Caribbean, the first ship that sailed through the waters suffered an outbreak.”

Norway’s cruise and ferry company Hurtigruten was also one of the first few quick-runners, but it wasn’t as lucky. In August, more than 40 passengers and crew members tested positive aboard its ship, and since it also runs as a ferry, there was concern that it had also infected communities along the ports. The company received severe criticism for their handling the situation, and their CEO Daniel Skjeldam apologized for the lapse after shutting down services on three of its ships.

In the Caribbean, the first ship that sailed through the waters suffered an outbreak. SeaDream I had 53 passengers—mostly U.S. residents—and 66 crew members on board when COVID-19 found its way in. The ship returned and docked at Barbados, while everyone was tested and disembarked. The Norway-based cruise company, like many others, has suspended operations for the rest of the year.

Its statement clarified, “SeaDream has decided to cancel sailing for the remainder of 2020 after positive COVID-19 test results. Multiple negative PCR tests were required before the guests boarded, but this was not sufficient to prevent COVID-19 onboard. SeaDream successfully operated more than 20 sailings during the pandemic without any cases and further improvements were made to protocols before the Barbados season. The company will now spend time to evaluate and see if it is possible to operate and have a high degree of certainty of not getting COVID. Seven guests and two crew members have tested positive for COVID-19 by Barbados health authorities.”

As of October, 3,904 known cases have been detected on 87 cruises, the Miami Herald has concluded. Cruises bring passengers and crew members together in close quarters, where they interact with each other and share the same facilities—crew are worse off than passengers in terms of living and working environment. Outbreaks on cruises are nothing new, but coronavirus has increased the stakes for passengers, crew, governments, and international bodies.

Months after the first superspreader debacle, it is evident that cruising amplified the risks even with precautions and reduced capacity.

When Cruises Became Hotspots

In February, cruises were termed as “Petri dishes of coronavirus” when the largest outbreak after China was discovered on the Diamond Princess. Out of 3,711 passengers and crew members, 712 tested positive and one died. Closer to home, 3,500 people of various nationalities on Grand Princess self-isolated in their cabins for days when coronavirus cases were detected onboard and the ship docked in California. They were eventually evacuated and either quarantined or flown back to their countries.

Later in March, 2,700 passengers disembarked in Sydney after a cruise to New Zealand without screening and at least 900 tested positive. Ruby Princess, which is part of US-based Carnival Corp, was called a “plague ship” and an inquiry revealed major failures by the state government. There were more incidents around the world that pointed at superspreader cruises and consequently, countries shut down ports, the CDC released a no-sail order, and cruise liners stopped operations.

Thousands of passengers and crew members were stranded at sea for weeks, with no end in sight, when ports refused to let them disembark. While countries and cruise liners worked to repatriate passengers amid growing concerns and panic, crew members were left on ships for months—floating in an alien world that changed since they first stepped foot on the vessels. Reasons for delay included closed borders as countries wouldn’t allow citizens to enter and lack of flights (employers were expected to arrange for charter flights and that caused more bureaucracy).

Around 300,000 workers around the world were still waiting to go home in September. There were heartbreaking cries for help from employees, begging to go home, while they were isolated at sea. Many reported hellish, traumatic incidents and cruise liners are now facing multiple lawsuits from passengers and investors for negligence.

It wasn’t great PR for the industry that’s been condemned for exploiting employees, evading taxes, and causing damage to the environment.

Recovery Is Far

In the last decade, the world cruise industry (with 55 companies and 278 ocean cruise ships) has grown exponentially. In 2018, it was estimated that the industry is worth more than $150 billion, and it’s responsible for 1.17 million jobs. The demand has been increasing every year, with 30 million passengers setting sail in 2019. About 32 million passengers were going to sail this year, but due to the pandemic, the ports are bereft of human activity. Just in the U.S., $32 billion and 254,000 jobs are lost. Cruise liners are reporting billions in losses, and ships are being sold off and demolished for scraps.

Cruise liners are scrambling to get back on their feet, but it’s going to be a slow process to meet safety requirements and win the trust of passengers.

The CDC has lifted its no-sail order after eight months and replaced it with a Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for sailing in U.S. waters—it’s applicable to ships with a capacity of 250 guests. Apart from strict guidelines for operators, it warns travelers against going on a cruise (including river voyages), saying, “Cruise passengers are at increased risk of person-to-person spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported on cruise ships.”  

The Cruise Lines International Associated notified in a press release that its members (95% of global ocean-going cruise capacity) have decided to suspend operations in the U.S. this year. “This action will provide additional time to align the industry’s extensive preparation of health protocols with the implementation requirements under the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing and Initial Phase COVID-19 Testing Requirements for Protection of Crew,” the statement said.

Although Royal Caribbean has suspended all operations till next year, it is planning “mock cruises” for which 100,000 people have volunteered—it’s an experiment to future-proof voyages, and passengers are delighted it’s free. No dates have been announced for these yet.

According to the framework set by CDC, cruise operators need to host these simulated cruises to prove that they can have a COVID-19-free journey. Cruises will have a lab to test crew and passengers whenever they embark and disembark. They will need to follow social distancing and mask protocols, and even run trials on how they would deal with a positive case. All volunteers need to be over 18 years of age and they should be informed that it’s a risky activity, CDC says. Only after following all the guidelines, cruise liners will be allowed to sail.

That could be months away. Meanwhile, the industry may have to come up with more ideas to say afloat for the sake of travelers who love a good sail.