Docking of ‘last cruise ship on Earth’ spells uncertainty for industry

MSC Magnifica cruise vessel. Credit: HASENPUSCH. DIETMAR

MSC Magnifica, the final passenger carrying cruise ship that set off before the global coronavirus pandemic began, has docked on 20 April in Marseille, France. Freezes on future sailings, port closures, and criminal investigations all signal stormy times ahead for the cruise industry.

The USD150 billion cruise industry has been severely impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19, due to national restrictions in response to the pandemic. The MSC Magnifica did not escape unscathed, with the crew and passengers refused disembarkation rights in Australia in the ports of Hobart, Tasmania, on 13 March and Fremantle, Western Australia, on 24 March. This was despite having set sail before the global outbreak and none of the passengers or crew showing symptoms of the virus.

While the stop in Fremantle was purely for re-fuelling purposes, the ship, described by a passenger as “the last cruise ship on Earth”, was met with protesters, police, and the Australian Border Force to ensure no one got off.

In Hobart, the vessel docked and left a day later as the captain and company decided to cut the cruise short and head back home. The stringent precautions taken by Australian ports was largely motivated by the discovery that the single largest source of COVID-19 cases in the country was caused by passengers disembarking from the Princess Cruises owned Ruby Princess, a New South Wales police commissioner commented to the press. An estimated 202 of the over 1,000 Filipino crew have tested positive for COVID-19, further 21 passengers who disembarked subsequently died from the virus and another 845 tested positive.

A police investigation has been launched into whether Princess Cruises or the government were to blame. Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Princess Cruises, has appeared to have a higher percentage of outbreaks on its vessels than other operators and had highly publicised cases feature in global news; it owns the widely-written about COVID-19 infected Diamond Princess, which was quarantined outside of Yokohama, Japan, for 14 days. The beleaguered firm has seen a loss in profits, from a USD336 million profit in Q1 2019 to a USD781 million loss for Q1 2020, and notably, seen its shares fall nearly 80% so far this year.  

The global pandemic has hit the entire cruise industry, following measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced a 30-day suspension of all cruise ship operations in the US from 13 March, “CLIA cruise line members are voluntarily and temporarily suspending operations from the U.S. as we work to address this public health crisis,” said Kelly Craighead, president and CEO, CLIA. According to CLIA statistics, the cruise industry contributes around USD53 billion to the US economy, supporting travel agencies, airlines, hotels, and a broad supply chain of industries, all of which will be affected.

The Canadian government also suspended all cruise vessel port calls from 13 March to July 2020. “Cruise season is suspended until July,” said Justin Trudeau Canadian prime minister in a public address. It has been estimated that the suspension of Canadian port calls will cost USD65-70 million to the local economy.

River cruise operators have announced cancellations for sailings dating from the end of April till mid-July. Expedition cruise operators, such as Aurora Expeditions, have announced that it will reschedule sailings to 2021, with the exemption of the 2021 Antarctica expedition season which may not even go ahead.

Such cancellations and re-scheduling is extremely costly to the operators. Hurtigruten, for example, is not only cancelling all sailings of its hybrid expedition vessel, Roald Amundsen, from 17 May to 1 July but it is offering passengers future cruise vouchers worth 125% of the initial voyage price. MSC, have similarly halted all ship operations until 30 May, and are equally offering 125% of original fare paid in future credit.

The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts job losses of up to 50 million, amounting to between 12%-14% of total jobs globally in the cruise sector. “Seafarers are the foundation of every memorable cruise vacation experience and now, more than ever … When it is time to sail again, seafarers will be instrumental to our recovery and invaluable in shaping unforgettable memories for our passengers once again,” said a representative of CLIA to SAS.

All aspects of the cruise industry has been affected and the road to recovery appears to be long and costly, “It’s too early to tell when operations will return to business as usual,” said a CLIA representative. “However, there are several key learnings from this unprecedented situation that we will all benefit from as we prepare to sail again—including enhanced protocols and practices that the industry put in place as the global crisis emerged.”