The Covid-19 pandemic hit us suddenly and caught us unaware. It crippled life in an unprecedented way and, in many ways, has changed our way of living forever.
On land, the covid-induced lockdowns and social distancing- terms barely heard of before, became common terminology. Physical interaction and socialising, one of the basic human needs, became minimalistic, even if not non-existent.
Were passenger ships any different?
No, not really. Being industry-driven and thriving on people (passengers) and interpersonal interactions, the cruise passenger industry was no different, and it took a severe hit during the pandemic. The very foundation of the cruise industry- thousands of passengers and crew living onboard a ship in a relatively closed environment, became a reason for the rapid spread of covid.
The Diamond Princess, a cruise ship, became a hotbed of covid in the initial days of the pandemic in February 2020. The World Health Organization announced that more than half the known cases of covid-19 in the world outside China at the time were on the Diamond Princess. Over 700 passengers and crew had tested positive for covid, so the vessel was forced to suspend regular operation and quarantined in Yokohama, Japan.
This led to the suspension of cruise ship operations worldwide as the obvious risk of having so many people packed into limited space became apparent. It broke the back of the passenger cruise industry as it came to a screeching, uncertain and long halt.
For the next two years, most cruise ships worldwide were confined to prolonged anchorages with minimum safe skeletal manning onboard to sustain basic operations. The cruise passenger industry employed many lakhs of people and was forced to lay off many employees. Many cruise ship employees lost their livelihoods and were forced to look for jobs ashore to provide for their families.
Many cruise lines, especially smaller ones, were forced to sell/scrap their ships or even close down permanently due to complete suspension of operations and resultant loss of earnings. In some cases, this forced crew-members crewing these ships to stay onboard for several months without being paid, and even worse at times, without any electricity (no bunkers) and in scarcity of food and water as the owners had no money to provide fuel, water and provisions.
This worsened to such an extent that six months to 1 year into the pandemic, scrap yards around the world were overflowing with cruise ships, many older ones and some even much newer. Many new-build orders for cruise ships were cancelled, and in one unfortunate case, a brand-new cruise ship was on the verge of being sent to the scrapyard even before its first voyage due to the bankruptcy of its owner.
The basic operational costs, viz. provisions, water, bunkers, crew and staff salaries, anchor/berth costs, agency fees etc., without any earnings over almost two years were driving the cruise industry to the edge, challenging its very existence.
On the one hand, cargo ships were serving as a lifeline, at the forefront of transporting essential goods and commodities across continents in the middle of the pandemic. On the other hand, the very existence of the cruise passenger industry became a huge question mark.
There were many questions raised on the need for passenger ships. Even so, some countries didn’t allow cruise ships to anchor and ordered them to leave their territorial waters. This was when they were without passengers and operating with a skeletal crew.
The burning question was, would people return to cruising if the pandemic eventually subsided? Had the pandemic, particularly cases like the Diamond Princess, permanently changed people’s perception of cruise ships as potential breeding grounds for viruses & diseases instead of attractive vacation destinations?
The questions were very many, and the cruise industry didn’t have too many answers at that time.
The redemption & restart
Fortunately, the answers did arrive before it was too late. The rigorous pandemic-management measures (masking, restrictions, isolations and quarantine procedures) adopted around the world and the eventual arrival of the vaccines slowly but gradually resulted in subsiding the pandemic. Increasing research and findings led to more information and knowledge about the virus, which helped to reduce the fear of the disease and provided reassurance to the masses.
The borders started opening, and restrictions began being lifted slowly but surely. People, especially cruise enthusiasts, forced indoors for two long years because of the pandemic, were more than eager and looking forward to getting outside and exploring the world once again. The pandemic may not have been eradicated, but it had subsided considerably, and the world had found a way to accept and live with it. The cruise industry started seeing a ray of hope once again.
The cruise lines started preparing their ships to restart their operations. To attract passengers once again and to reassure them of their safety, cruise lines began adopting and also aggressively promoting the following:
- Ensuring enhanced hygiene, cleaning and sanitation procedures throughout the ship.
- Ensuring mandatory usage of masks (KN95) at all times.
- Formulating SOPs and protocols for covid management onboard. Setting up of different levels, viz. level 1, 2 and 3, where Level 1- minimum measures (no known active covid cases onboard), Level 2- additional measures (in case of the known active case(s)) and Level 3 (heightened measures according to no. of cases)
- Ensuring mandatory bi-weekly testing of shipboard crew & staff members.
- Ensuring and mandating that their crew is fully vaccinated.
- Ensuring mandatory pre-boarding covid test and compulsory minimum 7-day quarantine for all new joining crew, followed by covid testing before release.
- Limiting shore leaves for crew members also, testing them before and after the shore leave.
- Setting-up up hand sanitising stations and dispensers around the ship in conspicuous locations and encouraging their generous usage.
- Training of shipboard medical staff in handling covid cases and emergencies.
- Ensuring an uninterrupted supply of covid test kits, medicines, sanitisers, masks, personal protective equipment, ventilators, oxygen cylinders etc., to medical personnel.
- Ensuring a supply of approved vaccines to ensure all crew are fully vaccinated according to company policy and the prevalent norms of port states.
- Allocate a few cabins on selected decks (usually interior ones on higher decks) as isolation or quarantine cabins for crew members who test positive.
These were made a part of SOPs across the cruise industry.
There are also requirements for guests who intend to embark on a cruise ship as passengers.
- Cruise lines had to limit the number of bookings for a particular cruise to ensure social distancing and availability of spare rooms in case required for isolation of guests feeling unwell/testing positive.
- To ensure that guests must either be fully vaccinated or carry an adverse covid test report to be allowed to embark on the ship. In case fully vaccinated, they must carry their proof of vaccination with them to be allowed embarkation.
- Not allowing embarkation of any guests appearing visibly sick or covid symptomatic.
- Ensuring guests must wear masks at all times, whenever outside their cabins.
- Cruise lines had to ensure social distancing onboard in all public spaces. Restaurants and cafes onboard could only seat a maximum of 50% of their capacity at one time.
- Guests are to be briefed on procedures to be followed if they feel unwell/sick and to contact the onboard medical emergency no. and isolate/avoid going outside their cabins. In case of severe symptoms, the affected guest(s) will be isolated and hospitalised onboard in a separate room(s).
- Many cruise lines developed innovative contactless methods of verifying guests’ identity while boarding/embarking the ships, briefing and familiarising guests about their muster stations and onboard evacuation procedures through personalised apps and/or other digital devices. This, in most cases, also included ordering food and drinks onboard. These have been developed to reduce physical interactions as much as possible to minimise the incidence of infections and transmissions.
The pandemic cast a gloom over the entire world. Every country, whether developed or not and all walks of life were severely affected. Passenger ships, too, were no exception. Being a people-driven industry, unlike cargo shipping which is goods-driven, it was one sector that faced a grave existential threat.
Fortunately, the situation has dramatically improved, and things are looking up again. Many cruise ships have restarted operations since the beginning of this year, and many continue to. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that it has been a renaissance or rebirth for the cruise industry.
The pandemic has forced us to change and adapt. It has been the same for the cruise industry, which had to unlearn, relearn, and adopt many new procedures. However, it will never be the same as in pre-pandemic times, as some of these procedures will likely stay forever. But considering that they are in the best interests of passengers and crew to ensure their well-being and safety, one feels it is worth it.
The pandemic may be over, yet the threat of covid exists. But like life, the show must go on.
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- Norwegian Cruise Line’s Cruise Ship Norwegian Dawn
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