When the World Reopens, Should the Cruise Industry Recover?

By Allyson ChenLast Updated Sep 16, 2020 1:21:02 PM ET
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Tourists and adventurers have viewed cruises as the Holy Grail of travel for quite some time. We usually think of cruises as lavish vacations and associate them with older travelers and "rich" people, but since 2016, millennials have made up about 32% of cruisers. Their interest in luxury cruising continues to rise with each passing year — at least that was true until the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic hit.

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From the very beginning of the pandemic, cruise lines came under fire when various cruise ships revealed they had coronavirus outbreaks on board. In fact, the Diamond Princess, a luxury Princess Cruises ocean liner owned by Carnival Corporation, made headlines as one of the first cruise ships affected by the virus in February 2020, several weeks before countries around the world started shutting down on a large scale. The ship and its passengers spent most of the month of February quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, and 13 passengers died from the virus. Another 700-plus passengers were treated for the virus and recovered.

Other ships were soon affected, prompting the CDC to issue a No Sail Order and all cruise lines to cancel all their cruises by mid-March 2020. In June, several international cruise companies set sail again in hopes of revitalizing the cruising industry — and outbreaks soon followed. Norway’s Hurtigruten cruise line took the hardest hit, with hundreds of passengers and crew from several cruises testing positive by mid-July. Germany’s AIDA Cruises and Paul Gauguin Cruises in the South Pacific have also experienced outbreaks. Due to these recent new outbreaks on ships, the CDC has now extended the ban on cruises departing from U.S. ports to September 30.

More than ever before, everyone is asking questions about the safety of cruises. The pandemic has raised awareness with the general public about the health and safety issues passengers face on board these mega-ships. What exactly are the hazards of sailing away on a cruise vacation, and can anything be done to save the industry at this point? More importantly, should we even try to save cruises, or should we let this former travel niche sail away toward a watery grave?

Health and Safety Issues Exposed

Even before the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, cruise ships were notorious for the health risks they posed, often in the form of viral outbreaks. 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, but viruses certainly 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 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, and they aren’t required to engage in additional training. Even more alarming, a crew member who has medical training is "sufficient," according to Maritime Law, so the "doctor" doesn’t even have to be an actual doctor.

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Think of the medical facilities on board as being more like a walk-in clinic at Walgreens than a hospital with full care capabilities. You would be lucky to find a standard X-ray machine or a single ventilator on board. In some cases, the equipment they have on the ship isn’t sufficient for dealing with potentially 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 you reach the next port, and that is an extremely dangerous scenario in a life-and-death situation. The ship’s medical personnel can determine whether or not you disembark to seek treatment locally, and it could very well be in a city or country where you don’t trust the local medical care or have the funds to pay for it. Once you recover, you would then have to figure out how to get home on your own as well.

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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 multi-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 1,200 kilograms per kilometer of carbon dioxide emissions, and most of the trips are thousands of kilometers long. That level of emissions far outweighs anything produced by cars. Passengers triple their carbon footprint on a cruise.

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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 regulations from the United States and other nations, 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.

Cruise ships use an anti-fouling paint on their hulls that also adds to their 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 are consumed by humans. The problem is even worse in ports where multiple ships dock, leading to concentrated levels of toxins shed in shallower, partially enclosed waters.

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The noise pollution created by cruise ships 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 even killing them as they plow through the waters.

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. Employing medical staff who are actually qualified should also be a critical requirement as well as providing staff members with fully-equipped facilities and breaks.

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

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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 post-COVID-19, these actions should be taken. There will never be a better opportunity to make these kinds of changes happen.