When the UK-registered cruise ship Braemar docked in Dutch St Maarten on Sunday evening March 1st, it was the latest example of the Dutch Caribbean territory providing ‘safe harbour’ (to borrow from a maritime metaphor) to cruise ships denied a port of call in other islands due to coronavirus concerns.
The ship of the UK’s Fred. Olsen cruise company was barred from entry to its Caribbean homeport in the Dominican Republic after reporting that eight people - four crew and four passengers(two of them British) - had exhibited flu-like symptoms regarded as an early warning sign of possible coronavirus infection.
Dutch St Maarten has become somewhat of a port of last resort for cruise ships denied berthing elsewhere out of concern over the rampant new strain of the coronavirus called COVID19.
It triggered an uproar in some local circles with the government of pursuing politics, profit and public relations over public health.
The Braemar development was the third such occurrence in the region in about a fortnight.
Local authorities which have disallowed entry to cruise ships with people on board displaying flu-like or other symptoms, say they did so “out of an abundance of caution”.
St Lucia, Antigua, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and the Dominican Republic have taken such action.
When the Cayman Islands and Jamaica recently barred the cruise ship MSC Meraviglia from entering their harbours, the ship’s owners responded by accusing them of "acting out of fears" over the new coronavirus.
MSC Cruises said a crew member who had been tested and considered suspect, resulting in the ship being barred, was being treated for seasonal flu.
In the case of the Braemar in St Maarten, tests carried out there showed that the symptoms were not COVID19-related.
(St Maarten and the Cayman Islands are two of a handful of countries in the region with COVID19 testing capability).
However, the French side of the island (St Martin) and its sister island St Barts have confirmed three cases of coronavirus not linked to the Braemar.
Since the outbreak countries have had to take the extreme steps of barring and in some cases quarantining cruise ships.
The crisis of the Diamond Princess which remains under quarantine in Japan looms large and is a stark lesson.
For the tourism-dependent Caribbean island chain, authorities navigate the tightrope of priority public health concerns with an eye on economic implications of their decisions.
The Caribbean is the world’s most popular destination for cruises. It’s very profitable for cruise lines, generally affordable for passengers, and an economic lifeline for the various island ports of call.
Several islands also provide homeporting for a growing number of ships providing an additional revenue stream, while in others joint commercial ventures extend to multi-million dollar investment in port infrastructure.
That makes the cruise industry even more vital to the region’s all-important tourism sector and its overall economy.
But now, with the uncertainties of this new coronavirus (COVID19) against which there still isn't a vaccine, its potential of economic disruption is already proving to be as much of a worry as its threat as its public health.
Of the hundreds of cruise vessels that ply the world including those that bring thousands of visitors to the Caribbean, only four vessels have been quarantined due to proven cases of the to coronavirus.
Others have been denied port access “out of an abundance of caution”.
Outbreaks of viruses in the enclosed, confined, close-contact environment of a cruise vessel are the nightmare scenarios - and realities - that cruise lines, ship’s captains, crews, passengers and destination authorities are at pains to avoid.
Modern cruise ships are not only floating resorts, they are also by force of stringent international regulations required to be floating hospitals equipped with advanced medical facilities, with a team of highly-trained medical staff.
An urgent meeting was called in Barbados this past weekend of regional government leaders, healthcare agencies and cruise industry executives to address the public health and economic threat that COVID19 poses and formulate a response strategy.
Cruising is more popular than its ever been, especially for trips through the Caribbean is the world's leading cruise destination.
The coronavirus crisis will undoubtedly force a hard 'course adjustment' for some parts of this behemoth industry.
As the saying goes, it must be 'all hands on deck' - cruise industry and local authorities - to take the necessary actions “out of an abundance of caution”.
An old Caribbean saying counsels that “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.”
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South Korea, which reported 15 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, said it would ban entry to any foreign passengers of the Diamond Princess. The cruise ship was put in quarantine in Yokohama in early February after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.