- 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.