17 Mar 2020

Is COVID-19 the iceberg that will sink the cruise ship industry?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 17 March 2020
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One of the large cruise ships in Auckland which cannot berth in Lyttelton Photo: AFP

Cruise ship holidays are off the agenda, world wide. The floating fun palaces are not allowed to visit New Zealand any more, at least til the end of June, and the government suggests strongly you don’t get on one at an overseas port either.

But if the possibility of getting stuck in a windowless cabin in a foreign port while a pandemic rages around you isn’t a big red flag, there are other issues with cruises that may make you want you to think twice about booking one in future.

In today’s podcast Jessie Chiang talks to a former frequent cruiser who started investigating the industry about the problems with this fast-expanding way of holidaying.

Canadian academic researcher Ross Klein from Memorial University says cruise ships are a perfect incubator for illness, in part because they are closed environment, but also because people come on to socialise.

"The Diamond Princess is a reflection of the futility and absurdity of quarantining a vessel and not quarantining sick individuals," he says.

The boat was stuck in Japan while the virus spread through the passengers and crew, making it the biggest “country” outside China (at the time) for cases.  

Major cruise companies have now suspended operations – some have found company stocks falling by 80 percent.

Ross Klein says the coronavirus could be one of those disasters that have an impact in redesigning the cruise industry. "I think it's a matter of [companies] having to step back and, in a sense, reintroduce their product at a point where people feel ready to go on a cruise again."

But they may have to address other issues.

Klein talks about  environmental concerns, sexual assault figures and exploitation of workers.

He says it can be easier for companies to pay fines or pay off victims rather than actually work to prevent problems from happening in the first place.

The Detail also talks to Herald business travel writer Grant Bradley about the importance of the cruise ship business to the country.

"There's about 100,000 New Zealanders [taking cruises in] a year, it's grown really quickly in the last three or four years. Kiwis are the keenest cruisers in the world," he says.

The number of ships berthing here has rocketed, with 1190 port calls in New Zealand last summer – up 10 percent from the year before.

In Australasia, it’s thought to support more than 18,000 jobs and contributes $5 billion every year to the region.