The cruise industry is in deep water; most of the cruise ships themselves are in shallow water. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the $150bn industry, which has been stripped of its passengers due to the stringent travel restrictions and rigorous government pandemic regulations. With complete inactivity for many cruise companies, decisions must be made on the future of their fleets.
Owned by over 60 operators, almost 350 have been left idle. This occurred once following the 9/11 terrorist attacks however, COVID-19 seems to have left a lasting international impact, with hundreds of ships left stationary along the coastlines stretching from the UK to Indonesia. It seems likely that in the coming years, the number of ships and operators will be greatly reduced since the scrapping of ships has become a popular means of easing financial burdens and ensuring companies stay afloat. Tui’s Marella Celebration has already been bought off by a Turkish operator, which has enabled the maintenance of the company to be completed to “the minimum legal standards” (Mr Downes, captain of the ship). Similarly, the Royal Caribbean has also scrapped three of its vessels since the beginning of the global pandemic. Cruise ships are being sold off at low prices due to a rise in the “buyers” market and some are being cheaply dismantled in locations such as India and Pakistan, which have been accused of both environmental and human rights abuses.
Cruise ships cost billions to build; the biggest ships in the world can carry up to 6500 passengers and 2500 crew members. However, by utilising the ships as collateral for emergency funding, the cruise industry has reduced its passenger numbers for the next few years. Many cruise ships have experienced a “warm lay-up”, this involves a reduction in the crew size who are responsible for maintaining the ship’s basic standards and operation system. Other ships have experienced a “cold lay-up”, which means that they have been abandoned – their engines switched off indefinitely – and are most likely to be scrapped.
2019 had provided great momentum for the cruise industry, with a record 30 million passengers being carried across all lines. However, the past five months have braced the industry for a future with significantly low numbers. This is predominantly due to the fact that cruise ships are hotbed for COVID-19 cases. For example, when an Artic expedition cruise ship reopened its operations in early August 2020, it was quickly struck by an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, requiring mass quarantining. This outbreak was incredibly difficult to contain since it included 36 staff members along with hundreds of passengers on the MS Roald Amundsen vessel. Equally, permitting infected passengers to leave cruise ships and return to their respective communities has severely impacted countries such as Australia, who has witnessed multiple outbreaks of cases since. Passengers have also complained about poor hygiene, low precautionary measures, and lack of communication on the ships. This is hardly surprising considering that ships are known for large gatherings and confined spaces for living and working. For an industry whose target demographic is generally at risk from the side-effects of the virus, cruise companies must reconsider their strategy and the design of their ships.
The cruise industry is currently of ill repute for its handling of the virus. It is unfeasible for it to return to normal operations without implementing proper precautionary measures, and many of the cruise ships and staff will no longer be available when the opportunity comes for the reintroduction of their services. With COVID-19 resurging in Europe, Asia, and not being contained in the US, decisions about the future of this industry are of the utmost importance. While ships such as MSC and Carnival are planning imminent returns to the Mediterranean and Europe respectively, it may be too soon, but waiting may equally be fatal.