How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Cruise Industry?

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Tourists and adventurers have viewed cruises as the Holy Grail of travel for quite some time. Cruises are lavish vacations traditionally associated with older travelers and “rich” people, but since 2016, millennials have been showing up in greater and greater numbers to board these ships. Their interest in luxury cruising rose with each passing year — until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While lockdowns across the globe were shocking in their own right, the plight of passengers stuck on quarantined cruise ships felt oddly grim. We also saw the impacts that the brief respite from cruise ships had on the environment.

As cruising returns, more people than ever before are asking questions about the safety of cruises. The pandemic has raised awareness with the general public about the health and safety issues passengers and staff face onboard these mega-ships. What exactly are the hazards of sailing away on a cruise vacation, and can anything be done to improve cruise line safety standards in the future, for ourselves and the planet?

Health and Safety Issues Exposed

Even before the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak, cruise ships were notorious for the large array of health risks they posed. That many enclosed, shared spaces are inevitably going to turn into hotbeds of virus and bacteria activity, even if they are cleaned consistently. That means when you take a cruise, you run an even higher risk of catching everything from common colds to life-threatening illnesses, regardless of whether the world is in the middle of a pandemic. However, viruses aren’t the only health hazards on board.

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Mosquitoes all over the world — even right here in the U.S. — carry some nasty and even deadly diseases, and they come on board right along with passengers everywhere the ship docks. If you travel to locations where these insects live — almost anywhere that isn’t frozen — you could catch anything from dengue fever and chikungunya to West Nile virus and Zika, all of which are mosquito-borne illnesses that are no laughing matter.

Emergency Medicine Falls Short

Cruise ship doctors are trained in emergency medicine for common illnesses and accidents, but most aren’t equipped to handle every potential health concern, particularly because the infirmaries in which they’re working “are typically equipped to treat only minor non-emergency conditions.”

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The medical facilities on board as more akin to urgent care clinics that provide basic outpatient services. They aren’t hospitals with full care capabilities; you won’t find intensive care units or MRI machines, but many cruise ships are equipped with small X-ray machines and potentially a ventilator or two — not enough to handle a shipboard COVID-19 outbreak. In some cases, the medical equipment on cruise ships isn’t even sufficient for dealing with the serious medical issues that regularly arise with travelers.

Unfortunately, if an emergency occurs on the ship, you could very well be on your own — at least for practical purposes. It could be impossible to get the treatment you need until the ship reaches the next port, and that’s a dangerous scenario in a life-and-death situation. It’s also not reassuring to know that, should you embark on a cruise, due to the unpredictable nature of the Coronavirus itself and the fact that you don’t know what kind of medical facilities the ship has, you may have difficulty accessing any sort of life-saving care.

The ship’s medical personnel can stabilize you and determine whether or not you’ll need to disembark to seek treatment locally, and it could very well be in a city or country where you’re unsure about local medical care or don’t have the funds to pay for it. Once you recover, you’d then have to figure out how to get home on your own as well. This isn’t a comfortable proposition even when the world isn’t in the middle of a pandemic. Vaccinated passengers are far less likely to find themselves in this scenario, at least when it comes to COVID. That’s why the CDC continues to urge all aspiring travelers to become fully inoculated before signing up for a cruise. Many cruises may even require vaccine passports in the future.

Environmental Impact of Cruises

In order to lure tourists away from their competition, cruise lines have had to create bigger and more outrageous amenities, resulting in the floating cities you see on the water today. So, just like any city, a cruise ship creates a lot of waste, and companies don’t always dispose of it properly. In fact, Carnival Cruises has been cited and fined millions of dollars for improper waste disposal.

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If we only look at emissions, the impact is staggering. A single one of these massive ships carrying 3,000 passengers creates an average of 1,200 kilograms per kilometer of carbon dioxide emissions, and most of the trips are thousands of kilometers long. Some ships also burn through 66,000 gallons of highly polluting diesel fuel per day. That level of emissions far outweighs anything that cars produce. Passengers triple their carbon footprints on a cruise.

Not only are emissions massive for these floating cities, but waste is extensive. Cruise ships produce a huge volume of sewage, ballast water, bilge water, water waste from sinks and drains, and solid waste on each voyage. The amount exceeds that of average residential wastewater and solid waste production. Although wastewater is less harmful than it once was thanks to various regulations, it’s still harmful. The rules are also difficult to enforce outside of jurisdictional waters and recommended best practices are not followed in many instances.

A typical cruise ship uses anti-fouling paint — which is meant to keep organisms from growing on the boat — on its hull that also adds to its negative environmental impact. This paint sheds toxic heavy metals into the ocean, and those metals eventually find their way into plants and animals in the sea, many of which people use or consume. The problem is even worse in ports where multiple ships dock, leading to concentrated levels of toxins shed in shallower, partially enclosed waters.

The noise pollution cruise ships create may sound like music to passengers’ ears, but it’s potentially hazardous to marine life. The ships themselves also collide with marine animals at times, causing them physical harm or killing them as they plow through the waters. 

The cruise industry’s struggles with environmental safety and responsibility have existed long before COVID-19 broke out. The industry pause gave companies time to review their sustainability practices, but as they set sail again, environmental activists say that not enough has changed.

Should We Bring Back Cruises?

Some things could certainly be done to improve the industry, but at this point, many people are asking if enough changes can be made to truly fix it. Treatment of personnel is beyond questionable — to the point where human rights activists equate some cruise liner jobs to human slavery and debt bondage.

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If cruise companies would agree to make the switch to cleaner-burning fuel, it would be a big step in the right direction. Improving medical facilities should also be a critical requirement, as should providing staff members with fully equipped facilities and breaks.

Travelers should orient themselves to the ship and determine how they can reduce their carbon footprints while on board. Stricter legislation should establish monitoring to ensure compliance with guidelines issued by the CDC, environmental agencies and maritime laws. Scrubbers should be installed to reduce exhaust pollution.

Even then, it would be impossible to make cruise ships fully green and fully safe. The very essence of the industry defies this possibility. Changes can be made, however, to reduce, reuse and sustain. If the industry is to remain afloat, these actions should be taken. There will never be a better opportunity to make these kinds of changes happen.

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