It’s been one year since the last US cruise. What’s in the waters ahead?

One year later, the industry is still stuck in the worst crisis it…

It's been one year since the last US cruise. What's in the waters ahead? 1
It's been one year since the last US cruise. What's in the waters ahead? 2

Taylor Dolven
 |  Miami Herald

Miami — A COVID-oblivious zombie driving down the MacArthur Causeway might assume the cruise industry is doing well. Every day, ships arrive at or depart from PortMiami. At times the port is as full of ocean liners as it would be on a prepandemic winter day.

But the reality is much different. Ships that normally carry as many as 8,800 passengers and crew are now staffed by just 100 in charge of basic marine operations. They visit PortMiami only to refuel and restock. No passengers have boarded a cruise ship in the U.S. since March 13, 2020.

For the 60,000 South Floridians who work in the cruise industry and the 14.2 million Americans who used to take cruises, the past year without any has been a trying one.

No industry has been harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic than the tourism industry, with travel bans and warnings in place across the globe since last March. But while hotel occupancy nationwide is down 20% from pre-COVID levels, the cruise sector — which served about 30 million customers worldwide annually pre-pandemic — has been nearly paralyzed.

After outbreaks led to at least 111 crew and passenger deaths and affected 87 ships, cruising became the target of public health officials’ early efforts to curb COVID-19 spread. Despite the CDC warning on March 8 that all Americans should avoid cruise travel, the industry waited until March 13 to cancel cruises. By then, dozens of ships were stranded across the world with nowhere to dock as those onboard continued to succumb to the virus. Even after passengers went home, thousands of crew members remained trapped at sea for months without pay. At least two popular port destinations have since decided to limit cruise tourism going forward.

One year later, the industry is still stuck in the worst crisis it has ever faced, without an end date in sight.

The four largest cruise companies — Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises — and many smaller competitors have hung on, raising enough money to get them through the cruise-less year.

Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have enough cash at this point to last at least another 15 months without cruises, according to UBS analyst Robin Farley. She estimates the cost of getting the fleets up and running again — a process that could take as long as 90 days once the CDC gives them the green light — could cost the companies $595 million, $335 million, and $180 million, respectively.

The majority of the six companies with cruise ships in U.S. waters have complied with requirements issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October to test all crew members for COVID-19 weekly and report results to the agency, a CDC spokesperson said. Once that phase is completed, the CDC will issue requirements for agreements companies must secure with U.S. ports. After that, the companies will be allowed to operate test cruises, and then eventually the real thing. Most companies have canceled U.S. cruises until June.

Executives from Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises declined to be interviewed for this story.

But what will cruising look like when it returns?

MSC Cruises has been operating seven-night cruises in Italy for European passengers since January, and Royal Caribbean Group has been operating short cruises to nowhere from Singapore for country residents since December. Both require negative PCR or antigen COVID-19 test results from passengers before boarding and enforce social distancing and mask wearing in public areas on board.

In total, more than 360,000 passengers have cruised worldwide since last March, according to industry lobbying group Cruise Line International Association.

“The effectiveness of the cruise industry’s protocols as demonstrated in other parts of the world since last July with more than 360,000 passengers sailing, even prior to the widespread availability of vaccinations, is highly encouraging and a strong indication that a multi-layered approach is the right path at this time,” said CLIA spokesperson Bari Golin-Blaugrund via email. “With that said, there is no doubt that the continued rollout of the vaccine across the world will help support the reopening of multiple sectors, including cruise, and this is something that we are monitoring closely.”

Royal Caribbean Group will soon require all crew fleet-wide to be vaccinated, and will require passengers on upcoming cruises from Israel to be vaccinated as well. British cruise line Saga Cruises and U.S.-based American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines have announced they will require proof of vaccination for all guests and crew starting in July.

The vaccine is the real light at the end of the tunnel, said Cruise Critic editor Colleen McDaniel.

“Getting this pandemic under control is going to be the best direct route to a resumption of sailing,” she said. “We’ve seen a vast majority of cruisers say they will cruise if a vaccine is a requirement — 81%.”

Miami-based Crystal Cruises plans to restart all-Bahamas cruises in July and will require passengers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and test negative for the virus before boarding. American Queen Steamboat company will resume chartered river cruises in the U.S. on March 15; the ship falls below the CDC’s conditional sail order threshold of 250 total people.

Social distancing, masks and limits on shore excursions have industry analyst Tony Peisley worried about the how well the cruise experience will sell going forward.

“The very nature of the product is about meeting and mingling, being on the ship, meeting people, having dinner with them,” he said. “If you can go back to the old normal, then there’s no reason why cruising can’t get back to the level it was before and start to grow again. But if you have any level of these restrictions, that will limit the market.”

Even with the added restrictions and rolling cancellations, companies say bookings are strong. Oceania Cruises, owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said the company saw the most bookings taken in a single day in the company’s 18-year history on March 3. Last month Royal Caribbean Group reported its bookings are within historic ranges for the first half of 2022 and at higher-than-normal prices. Carnival Corp. recently reported that it has more bookings for the first half of 2022 than it did for the same period in 2019.

So far, strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 haven’t always worked. Miami-based SeaDream canceled the remainder of its cruises for the year after several passengers and crew members tested positive for COVID-19 on its ship in the Caribbean in November. After an outbreak aboard a Norway-based Hurtigruten ship in July, police found the company had not followed proper testing and quarantine guidelines and delayed in notifying staff and passengers about a possible outbreak.

During the hiatus, some cruise destinations have decided to limit cruise tourism when the industry returns. In November, Key West voters decided to limit the number of people who can disembark from cruise ships in the city each day and the size of ships that can dock. Last month the premier of the Cayman Islands Alden McLaughlin said his government would likely impose limits on cruise ship arrivals when the industry returns.

Canada has banned cruises in its waters until March 2022, eliminating cruises to Alaska, which require a stopover in Canada for foreign-flagged ships to comply with the U.S. Jones Act.

Peisley, who is based in Britain, faults the lack of consistent lobbying for the industry’s fallout with the destinations.

“Cruising should have a lot more friends than it does,” he said, citing economic benefits to countries visited by cruise ships. “There’s been an arrogance and a complacency across the industry. This is one area where they have taken their eye off the ball and said … ‘if people don’t like it we’ll go somewhere else.’ That is not the right attitude.”

Worker impact

For hundreds of thousands of crew members, the uncertainties continue to pile up. Most don’t know when they’ll see a paycheck again.

A crew member from Trinidad and Tobago who worked for Royal Caribbean for more than a decade was stuck at sea until late June without pay. He has decided to try to find work on an oil rig instead of return to cruise ships. He requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company.

“It’s really tough being away from your family for so long and in the long run the company shows more love and interest to the guests than the employees,” he said.

Eric White, an inspector for the International Transport Workers’ Federation in Florida, said his greatest concern remains the mental health of crew members. He was still working on crew repatriation cases from cruise ships until January, when he helped arrange travel home for several MSC crew members to American Samoa.

At least a half dozen crew members have died from suicide on cruise ships since March.

“I know that a lot of the management see the crew as a tool, not as a resource,” he said. “Hopefully the trials and tribulations of dealing with this, crew being hesitant to come back to work because they are worried about being treated as a number and not a human being, can change that.”

White said the easiest way for companies to cut down on mental health problems is to shorten contracts to five months so that crew members aren’t spending nine months, working seven days each week, away from their families, with the risk of being stuck for several more in a crisis like a pandemic.

Many of the 60,000-plus South Florida residents who work directly and indirectly for the cruise industry have seen their salaries cut or their jobs disappear entirely as the $7 billion passenger cruise economy associated with PortMiami remains halted.

On land, shuttle driver Sanaa Ghorab hasn’t worked since last March when she drove her last cruise passengers to their Miami hotel after 20 years behind the wheel. A $74,000 loan from the federal small business administration she received in December is keeping her current on payments for her vehicles.

“I’m exhausted, I don’t want to stay home anymore. I want to work. I love working,” she said, crying. “I should have done something else for a Plan B … Miami is what Miami is, it’s a tourist destination. Who doesn’t want to come visit Miami? We live off the tourism, that’s it.”

She blames the CDC for keeping cruises docked while airlines are allowed to pack their planes full of passengers.

“It’s dumbfounding how they haven’t opened the cruises. It’s the only thing left,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer we can survive.”

Delray Beach travel agent Diane Fish, who tested positive for COVID-19 after cruising on the Ruby Princess ship in Australia last March, said she is still booking cruises, but the constant cancellations are wearing her customers thin. She’s making just 30% of her pre-pandemic monthly income.

“How many times do we cancel the cruise before someone peters out?” she said. “People have bumped their cruises from Christmas to spring break, to summer. Alaska, are we going or not? I don’t know.”

South Florida’s cruise industry

COMPANIES: Cruise companies with South Florida headquarters include:

—Carnival Corporation

—Royal Caribbean Cruises

—Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings

—MSC Cruises USA

—Virgin Voyages

—Crystal Cruises


EMPLOYMENT: 60,000 direct and indirect South Florida jobs

TRAFFIC: 66 cruise ships called at PortMiami in 2019

GLOBAL WORKFORCE: 225,000 crew members worldwide

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