Could this be the end of the line for cruise ships?

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Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia

Stranded cruise ships have become a symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic. Passengers and crew are desperate to get off but the ports to which they’ve headed don’t want them.

It is no exaggeration to suggest this crisis could spell the end of the line for an industry already on the nose for its social, health and environmental problems.

Indeed the same business model at the root of those problems is the cause of its current crisis, in which ship operators have been accused of gross or even criminal negligence.

That model has to do with flags of convenience.

Flags of convenience mean ships operate in waters far from their ‘home’ ports. Most are registered in Caribbean tax havens. Operating outside clear jurisdictions, wages are low and working conditions poor.

That so many ships have become floating coronavirus incubators also indicates poor health and safety protocols. An emergency plan for an infectious outbreak on a ship seems an obvious thing to have. Yet reports suggest improvised responses.

Now, with ports and entire nations ordering cruise ships away, flags of convenience have become an existential threat to crew, and the industry.

Ships ordered away
The industry’s reputational crisis is demonstrated no better than in Australia, where 24 of the nation’s 61 confirmed COVID-19 deaths so far have come from cruise ships.

All 20 cruise ships still in Australian waters were ordered to leave last week, with Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram citing concerns the number of cases among crew would be “a big strain on the Australian health system”.

Read more: Explainer: what are Australia’s obligations to cruise ships off its coast under international law?

Just one ship, the Ruby Princess. is linked to 18 deaths (and about 700 infections – roughly 10 per cent of Australia’s total cases).

Deaths have also come from the Artenia, Voyager of the Seas, Celebrity Solstice and Ovation of the Seas.

The Ruby Princess was allowed to dock in Sydney on 19 March. About 2700 passengers disembarked without being tested, because New South Wales authorities believed there was low risk.

Police are now investigating possible criminal charges against the operator, Princess Cruises, for misleading authorities about the situation. (The ship has since been allowed to dock at Port Kembla, south of Sydney, with a fifth of more than 1000 crew quarantined aboard showing virus-like symptoms).

There are also calls for a criminal negligence investigation of the operator of the Artania, in a weeks-long stand-off in Western Australian waters.

Most of the ship’s passengers were allowed to disembark and get charter flights home to Europe. But more than 400 people, mostly crew, remain on board, and the state government fears the number of coronavirus cases would overwhelm local hospitals.

“We’d like you to leave, we don’t want you in our port,” said West Australian premier Mark McGowan.

But where are they, and tens of thousands of crew workers on hundreds of other cruise ships around the world, to go?

Coronavirus update: follow the latest news in our weekly wrap.

Caribbean tax shelters
Consider the Artenia. The ship is owned by British cruise line P&O, chartered to a German company, operates out of Frankfurt and is registered in the Bahamas.

The Ruby Princess operates out of Australia but is registered in Bermuda. Its owner, Princess Cruises, is headquartered in California but also incorporated in Bermuda.

Most cruise ships are registered in a country different to ownership or operation. More than two-thirds (by tonnage) fly the flags of just three nations – the Bahamas, Panama and Bermuda.

Flags of convenience make the cruise ship industry one of the world’s least regulated, with owners and operators able to skirt more stringent workplace, health, safety and environmental rules.

For crew, particularly those in ‘lower level’ service jobs, pay and conditions are poor. Many accept such conditions to earn money for their families. Hidden from view, even passengers can be oblivious to their conditions.

Incorporations of convenience
Both P&O and Princess Cruises are subsidiaries of the world’s biggest cruise company, Carnival Corporation, whose combined fleet of about 300 ships carries almost half the world’s cruising passengers

Carnival Corporation is headquartered in Miami, as are the second and third biggest cruise corporations, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. But Carnival is incorporated in Panama, Norwegian in Bermuda, and Royal Caribbean in Liberia.

Now these ‘incorporations of convenience’ threaten their survival. Their revenue has been cut to zero. The US government is offering no assistance because they’re foreign companies and their employees are spread across the world. Other governments are unlikely to do more.

Industry analysts say the big cruise operators have enough reserves to last six months. After that, if they don’t secure funding, they face going out of business.

Sailing into the sunset
If that happens, many will not mourn the loss.

Long before this crisis, the cruise ship industry was on the nose for its social and environment problems.

It has contributed to overtourism in places such as Barcelona, Reykjavik, Dubrovnik and Venice. Its environmental record is appalling. Just last year Carnival paid $US20 million (A$28 million) to settle a US court case over it allowing its ships to dump rubbish in the ocean – something for which it has a previous criminal conviction.

Read more: The travel industry has sparked a backlash against tourists by stressing quantity over quality

Now the industry’s carefully honed image of cruise ships offering the right balance between fun and security looks sunk.

Whatever remains after this crisis will need a complete overhaul.The Conversation

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Editor’s note: It’s important to note that this is a generalisation and just one writer’s opinion of the of the industry. There are still many positive measures the cruise industry is putting in place to combat these crises in future to make sure sailing is safe again.

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Total Comments: 13
  1. 0

    Excellent article. I think cruise companies have downplayed their threat to the environment, and their treatment of staff. Having been on 5 cruises over the last 10 years, I’ve noticed a tendency to cram more passengers and have bigger and bigger ships. We probably won’t cruise again, and certainly not until there is a Coronavirus vaccine.

  2. 0

    We love cruising but at our age we won’t be taking any more. The cruise industry will flourish once this pandemic has passed as the service provided is relatively cheap, convenient and a very relaxing way to enjoy a holiday.

    • 0

      In the last 14 years we have been almost everywhere on ships but after this episode and considering our age when the services start again we shall be swallowing the anchor as the sailors say. A few places still to see here in Oz.

  3. 0

    Actually the Ruby Princess works the Australian cruise season in Pacific waters but then works Alaska waters during their season.
    It was allowed to disembark passengers without checks because it had only travelled to New Zealand and yet surely crew members were the most likely to being transferring the virus.
    A ship, any ship, is a breeding ground for illness of any kind. Having spent some years as a ship’s engineer it was immediately obvious to me that there would be serious health issues as soon a COVD 19 made an appearance. The herd of passengers in what is really close contact associated with the crew in even closer contact makes it inevitable.

  4. 0

    Just yesterday a financial reporter released data that indicates sales for 2021 are way ahead of expectations indicating that cruising will have a big bounce back quickly.
    Changes to health issues will have to be made and I am sure they will.
    I’ve booked an advanced cruise and can’t wait for them to start again.
    Frankly I thought the article was hyperbole

  5. 0

    just a query,I have never been on a cruise(not a good sailor)I have always flown & at my age find it difficult & expensive to get decent traval insurance I find this offputting does this come into your thinking as I think travel insurance for oldies will only get more expensive from now on,cheers

    • 0

      But of course it will get more costly with age – and you will have to start listing pre-existing conditions etc, what type of pills you take and so on. Took out travel insurance with my health fund and they gave me a package. Also if you go away for 60 days they will take 60 days off your normal health insurance here. In any case do your traveling before you are 80. Even your credit card does not insure you for travel over 80. At least mine does not.

  6. 0

    Of cause they can return.

    Some obvious changes required to their offerings would probably on the cards.
    Maybe the only realizable return for the Cruising Industry 2021 will be SCUBA diving tours to the artificial reefs created with their “petrie-dish” cruise liners.

  7. 0

    A poorly researched article, emotive and unbalanced. Well done Tanker on highlighting those aspects you did.
    FOC – I have worked in the maritime industry all my life as a port agent for commercial shipping. We worked for all the major cruise lines and basically they are bastards who put the $ in front of everything they say and do. But there are no surprises there are there? Tax havens? Maybe you could list every one of the companies that we deal with on a daily basis that avail themselves of the same rules and regulations?

    The 2 cruises we have been on since retiring have been excellent, including the Ruby in late January. The crew were fantastic (and I talk to everyone I see onboard and ask about their welfare) many have been at sea for decades and love their job and the financial benefits that flow thru to their homeland, usually a third world country. If cruise ships paid Australian wages and conditions (6 weeks on 6 weeks off) there would not be a cruise industry as no one could afford it. Just as the Australian merchant marine fleet have priced themselves out of existence.

    Cleanliness standards onboard ship are excellent, and not just because of covid19, norovirus is a threat that can rip thru pax and crew very quickly and you soon learn that you don’t do anything onboard without sanitising. It is usually pax that bring illnesses onboard. The largest ships can have over 8000 pax and crew onboard, that is a lot of people in a confined space. Just like any city of similar size, illness will prevail regardless. The spread of this disease amongst pax aligns with that of the other high impact countries and is just another warning of how it needs to be handled.

    As for over tourism claims, do you think that the destinations might have some say in who/when and how many can visit? Can you really blame the cruise industry?

    I had the greatest sympathy for the crew of these impacted ships. They have been much maligned in our pathetic press and denied obligations under our global maritime treaties.

    But we are In uncharted waters with covid19 and as we see the latest findings (search us covid19 stroke findings) there appears to be a long way to go.

    The industry will survive but probably not as we know it. It is natural for many senior citizens to show caution and stay away, they would represent 70% of cruise customers (estimate) and many are happy multiple cruisers. Their absence will be significant. It is heartening to see some comments of a positive nature about their next cruise.

    Do not put the boots in for the sake of a headline, show some sympathy for all involved in this mess. Your article was just pathetic.

  8. 0

    As an example of why I dislike the cruise companies, we were booked on Sky Princess for a Baltic cruise departing June 19th from Copenhagen. It was cancelled and customers offer a 125% credit to use prior the end of 2021. One family looked to rebook same cruise, same cabin, same date next year and price has gone up from $9k to 15k , so much for the generous 125% credit voucher!

  9. 0

    Well, cruise ships have become a symbol of the COVID-19 still, it’s not so risky if social distancing is maintained properly. Lagoon 410 is one of the popular Lagoons to make the journey enjoyable.

  10. 0

    Having done 2 sea cruises in Europe and a long river cruise through Europe, I loved them all and had to cancel this year’s Greek islands cruise, I think that the river one is a bit better as it is smaller and all onshore excursions are inclusive.
    Every day it docks somewhere and has evening entertainment and suites just the same as sea cruise ships!



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