The travel industry as a whole is suffering due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, which as of Wednesday had infected more than 120,000 people globally. But it’s cruise ships, in particular, that have become notorious hotbeds for the disease.
Last month, a Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined at a port in Japan for two weeks due to positive tests for coronavirus among passengers. Ultimately, there were nearly 700 people with confirmed cases stemming from the ship, six of whom have died. According to The New York Times, that cruise ship is the fourth-highest cause of coronavirus contraction among Americans. Similar outbreaks have occurred in the weeks following.
As a result, Princess Cruise Lines announced Thursday that it is halting its global ship operations for the next 60 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department recommend that Americans avoid cruise ships right now, especially older adults and those with compromised immune systems.
“Right now, it is not safe to take a cruise,” said Patrick Hardy, a certified risk manager, former FEMA representative and CEO of the disaster preparedness planning app Disaster Hawk. “When you are confined to an enclosed area like a ship with passengers, there is little that personal disaster plans and preparedness can do for you … People should avoid cruises until the pandemic is controlled, not one second earlier.”
Though most ships are still setting sail as scheduled, many passengers have decided to bail on their plans. According to one survey by GOBankingRates, 65% of respondents wouldn’t go on a cruise even if it was all-expenses-paid.
The cruise industry ― a $150 billion business that carries 30 million passengers a year ― is taking a beating as a result. Stocks of cruise operators have lost about 60% of their value since the first coronavirus cases were reported on Jan. 20 (the market as a whole, as measured by the S&P 500, dropped 22% so far this year). It’s estimated that every lost voyage equals $3-$4 million in revenue down the drain.
Cruise lines are feeling the pressure, and some are resorting to desperate measures to keep customers.
Cruise Lines Incentivize Customers To Stay On Board
Recently leaked Norwegian Cruise Line emails show that the company flat-out lied to travelers to encourage bookings. An anonymous employee told the Miami New Times that managers provided several talking points to use in case the coronavirus came up in conversation with potential customers.
“The Coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise,” said one.
“Scientists and medical professionals have confirmed that the warm weather of the spring will be the end of the Coronavirus,” reads another.
Though some respiratory viruses such as the flu slow down in warmer months, they don’t disappear. And because the coronavirus is so new, there is not enough evidence to know for certain how it will react to warmer temperatures.
Customers who attempt to cancel their trips due to health concerns have been met with resistance. In one particularly horrific example, a family from Hawaii scheduled to travel on the Norwegian Jade and stop in Hong Kong last month was denied a refund for canceling the $32,000 trip.
Norwegian did not respond to a request for comment.
Other cruise lines may not be engaging in the same egregious practices, but they are encouraging customers to stick with their travel plans despite the very real risks.
A Carnival Cruise representative, for example, shared with HuffPost a handful of letters that the company is sending to customers in light of the coronavirus threat. In addition to outlining enhanced screening measures and other safety precautions being taken, one letter details updated rescheduling policies as well as financial incentives for keeping plans intact:
Guests who choose to keep your booking as currently scheduled for departures between March 6 and May 31 will receive the following Onboard Credit (OBC) amounts:
$100 per cabin for 3 and 4 day cruises
$150 per cabin for 5 day cruises
$200 per cabin for 6 day and longer cruises
For our guests booked on Carnival Radiance European itineraries, we are finalizing some itinerary changes and a special offer that we will be sharing in the next few days.
Chad Smith, vice president of engineering for a Chicago-based home automation company in Wichita, Kansas, said his family is booked on a five-day Carnival cruise that departs on Monday. Not only did he receive an offer for $150 in credit, but his travel agent was able to negotiate another $200 due to so many passengers canceling.
“You’ve probably seen the jokes people are posting about there being cheap cruises available right now, and it appears it be somewhat true,” Smith said.
Indeed, cruise prices may not be at rock-bottom rates quite yet, but they are still trying to entice travelers with minor deals. “There are definitely some cheap prices out there for some specific sailings. It’s just not across the board,” said Tanner Callais, founder of Cruzely.com, noting that he’s seeing prices of about $50-$100 cheaper per person right now.
“[My family and I] are fairly healthy, so it definitely makes keeping our current plans slightly more appealing,” Smith said, noting his family is on the fence about what to do.
But how much is a person’s health and safety worth?
“I personally think it would be better for everyone to reschedule, but know that their jobs are not as flexible as ours,” Smith said. “The fact that pretty much every other organization is canceling activities when cruise lines are not speaks a lot about where their priorities lie.”
Travelers Are Still Setting Sail
Despite warnings from the CDC and State Department and horror stories about cruise ship passengers getting stuck in quarantine at sea, plenty of people are willing to take the risk.
The hassle of rescheduling plus the added incentives some cruise ship operators are promising might cause some passengers to feel they can’t afford not to go on their dream vacations.
Though doctors say most cases of COVID-19 are mild, the highly contagious disease ― now officially considered a pandemic ― is responsible for at least 38 deaths in the U.S. so far. Just because you are healthy now doesn’t mean you’re immune to the potentially serious effects of the virus. And even if you do avoid falling ill, you’re still capable of spreading the disease to others who are more vulnerable.
“We scheduled the trip for my son’s spring break back in August, and I don’t want to ruin his time off, but I also don’t want to risk passing a lethal virus on to someone in poorer health or to end up barred from re-entering the country for 30 days,” Smith said.