• Tens of thousands of passengers and staff were stranded as the outbreak hit.
  • Ships are being scrapped as $150 billion industry still waits to set sail again.
  • Cruise destinations and related tourist activities are also badly impacted.

Cruise ships being moored offshore, unable to dock, became an early symbol of the coronavirus’s global spread.

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of passengers and employees faced anxious waits to be allowed to disembark and make their way home, as the outbreak bit both onboard and onshore. Even in April, many staff were left trapped on ships as borders shut.

Of all those affected in the devastated travel sector, the $150 billion cruise industry – which was expected to carry 32 million passengers in 2020 – has been particularly badly hit.

It has survived outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, norovirus, SARS and MERS, but COVID-19 threatens to sink it altogether.

Colossal ships - complete with swimming pools, theatres and high-end restaurants - are now being pulled apart, as these eerie images by a Reuters photographer show.

Prior to the pandemic, Turkey’s shipbreakers’ yards traditionally handled the dismantling and recycling of cargo ships, Kamil Onal, chairman of a ship recycling industrialists’ association told Reuters.

cruise ships industry travel tourism boats scrap affect turkey change covid  coronavirus virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly  A drone image shows decommissioned cruise ships being dismantled at Aliaga ship-breaking yard in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC2EAJ9W8ANE
The pandemic has impacted the industry severely.
Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

But by June, the yards in Aliaga near Izmir on Turkey’s west coast were already stripping five decommissioned cruise ships from the UK, Italy and the US, with three more set to join them. In other signs of how badly the industry was impacted, in July cruise operator Carnival announced 13 ships would be removed from its fleet.

The global industry consists of more than 50 cruise lines and over 270 ships, although the sector tends to be dominated by three major players which are all facing major losses until they can sail again. However, the impact of the pandemic doesn’t just threaten the ship owners and operators’ future.

cruise ships industry travel tourism boats scrap affect turkey change covid  coronavirus virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly  Decommissioned cruise ships are being dismantled at Aliaga ship-breaking yard in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC2EAJ98H86I
Many small nations, particularly islands, rely on the revenue from visitors.
Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Many small nations, particularly islands, rely on the revenue earned from guests on visiting ships and the related tourism activites including restaurants, attractions and tours. The industry is said to contribute $2 billion to the Caribbean a year; in St Kitts and Nevis alone, the total economic contribution of cruise tourism was $149 million in 2017/18.

cruise ships industry travel tourism boats scrap affect turkey change covid  coronavirus virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly  Decommissioned cruise ships are being dismantled at Aliaga ship-breaking yard in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC2EAJ9AA5BT
Many cruises have been cancelled well into 2021.
Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Looking to the future, cruise liners have sought to maintain contact and trust with their customers – with many offering refunds or credits for future bookings after the industry ground to halt in early 2020. However, the ongoing crisis has seen many sailings cancelled well into 2021, although some river cruises have been going ahead.

cruise ships industry travel tourism boats scrap affect turkey change covid  coronavirus virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly  Decommissioned cruise ships are being dismantled at Aliaga ship-breaking yard in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC2EAJ9C9OBI
Only time will tell if the industry can build back.
Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

When the industry does restart, things are likely to look very different on board. Many in the sector are trying to promote cruise ships as the safest form of travel for the future, with coronavirus tests, social distancing and hand sanitizer making vessels a safe haven or ‘bubble’. Only time will tell if it’s enough to tempt customers back.