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 made up about 32% of cruisers. Their interest in luxury cruising rose with each passing year — until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Cruise lines came under fire from the very beginning of this health crisis when various ships revealed they had coronavirus outbreaks on board. In fact, the Diamond Princess, a luxury Princess Cruises ocean liner owned by the 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 February quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, and more than a dozen passengers died from the virus. 700-plus passengers were treated for the virus and eventually recovered.

Other ships were soon affected, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a No Sail Order and direct all lines to cancel their cruises by mid-March 2020. In June, several international cruise companies set sail again in hopes of revitalizing the cruising industry — and more outbreaks soon followed. Norway’s Hurtigruten cruise line took the hardest hit, with hundreds of passengers and crew members from several cruises testing positive by mid-July. Germany’s AIDA Cruises and Paul Gauguin Cruises in the South Pacific also experienced outbreaks. Due to the new outbreaks on ships, the CDC extended the no-sail order on cruise ship operations from U.S. ports of call to October 31, 2020.

COVID cases dropped for a time, prompting states and cities across America to ease up on lockdown restrictions. The CDC, however, was ultimately forced to extend the No-Sail order on September 30, 2020. The CDC also constructed a framework for conditional sailing – one that took effect as of November 4, 2020. This framework requires passengers and crews to be tested at the beginning and end of sailings that are limited to no more than seven days. The ships are outfitted with test labs, and the crews are trained on procedures for testing and quarantining people on board, if necessary. “trial” voyages will also be conducted prior to restricted voyages. These changes will take time to fully integrate, prompting U.S. cruise companies to cancel or delay cruises as needed.

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 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? Yes, possibly, if we take a closer look at the numerous ways COVID-19 has impacted the cruise industry.

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. However, cruise lines have begun reviewing their sustainability practices now that passengers are staying home. Hopefully, cruise ships will become healthier vessels for marine animals, and the environment as well as people. 

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