The global cruise industry is in disarray for the foreseeable future as travel restrictions due to the pandemic coronavirus outbreak takes hold. Caribbean tourism, including the Cayman Islands, relies heavily on revenue from cruise passengers but for the next month at least there will be no operations. The fact that the halt will fall over the crucial Easter period is an extra blow.
The first cruise operator to announce it was suspending its river and ocean cruises for a temporary period was Viking which is based in Basel, Switzerland, closely followed by Princess Cruises, based in Bermuda and nearly all other major cruise lines have made similar announcements in the past week. The biggest who have shut down are Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian who collectively make up around 70 percent of the world market.
The unprecedented move to shut down the cruise industry follows advice from European and US governments that those aged 70 and over, and those with pre-existing health conditions, should avoid cruise holidays for the time being, while Covid-19 is such an important health issue.
Such advice is a devastating blow for a cruise industry that attracts all ages and is a particularly popular holiday choice for mature travellers. However, across the industry, which prides itself on high service levels and optimal customer care, many cruise lines are simply unable to deliver the experiences they promise guests presently, with port closures and travel restrictions growing by the day.
The Caribbean is suffering in all sectors of tourism, but the cruise lines are probably hardest hit. Cruise ships have repeatedly come under fire around the region for dumping sewage, food waste, plastic, and oil into the aqua waters as well as damaging coral reefs. Environmentalists do not trust the cruise industry to protect the islands from a health crisis any more than they trust it to protect the environment.
Carnival has ceased cruises for ships based in North America until April 9. In a statement the line said: "While Carnival has not had a diagnosed case linked to our operation we realise this situation is bigger than the cruise industry and we will continue do our part to support public officials to manage and contain this unprecedented public health challenge."
The Dominican Republic turned away the Braemar at the end of February due to health officials’ concerns about flu-like symptoms reported on board. But in a move typical of an industry that tends to play island nations against one another, the cruise company called the decision an “overreaction” and found a friendly port in St Maarten. Passengers disembarked and new ones filed on board.
From there, the Braemar headed to Cartagena, Colombia, where an American who disembarked became the first recorded coronavirus case in the city. Four crew members and one passenger tested positive on a stop in Curaçao. Meanwhile, in Canada, Alberta’s chief medical officer revealed that a Braemar passenger had tested positive after returning home from the ship. As the crisis continued to unfold on board, Barbados turned the Braemar away, and it headed toward the Bahamas, the country whose flag the ship flies, home to one of the busiest Caribbean island cruise ports.
The Bahamian government announced that the Braemar would not be allowed to dock, and by Friday, Fred Olsen announced it would suspend cruises in the face of the crisis.
Across the Caribbean, cruise lines have placed enormous pressure on governments to be allowed to continue to dock their ships, even when concerns about illness on board arose.
In Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos, Carnival Cruise Line, the namesake brand of Carnival Corporation, which controls about half the market share, threatened to pull its business after government officials attempted to stop ships carrying potentially sick passengers from docking in their ports or restricted which passengers could disembark. The three governments were left to make critical public health decisions under threat from a corporation that holds enormous sway over Caribbean economies.
One of the ships turned out to be carrying the virus. On Friday, authorities in the Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico announced that their first confirmed coronavirus patients had entered on the Costa Luminosa, a Carnival Corporation ship.
Only after news broke that the Cayman Islands would be forced to shut down one of its three hospitals because of worker exposure to a Costa Luminosa patient did the Cruise Lines International Association announce that its members would suspend operations in the US, cancelling many Caribbean cruises.
This is an industry notorious for not listening to consumers or to people providing feedback. The outcome is that they’re exporting illness.