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Cruise Industry’s Daunting Efforts to Berth

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By Allan E. Jordan 03-15-2020 04:47:26

The cruise industry is garnering nearly universal praise for its actions of the past days taking the unprecedented decision to suspend nearly all of its global operations. While the initial shock has worn off from the announcements, the industry nonetheless faces a nearly unimaginable logistical challenge to complete this suspension.

“I think the cruise lines made the right move by suspending cruises now,” says Tanner Callais, the founder of a consumer website Cruzely.com. While consumers, of course, are deeply disappointed over the loss of their dream vacations, it has removed a level of anxiety.  

Unable to avoid the reach of the virus as it became a global pandemic, the cruise lines moves are helping to emphasize to both the consumer and the media that the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is not a cruise ship disease. The industry has successfully removed itself from the headlines and will not continue to suffer from potential situations such as the Diamond Princess quarantine or ships such as the Westerdam trapped at sea struggling to find a port. One further ship, the Braemar, seems, however, to be caught in a similar situation.

Nonetheless, the challenges of implementing this pause are daunting. First, all the ships need to get to a port so that they can disembark and begin the massive effort of returning passengers to their homes. Most of the U.S. based ships operating to the Caribbean are returning to the U.S., but ships such as the Crystal Serenity and Amsterdam in the midst of world cruises are suspending operations in far more distant ports. With many of the world’s ports closed to cruise ships, some are having to locate alternate disembarkation ports.

The next challenge for the cruise lines is what to do with well over 100 ships and their crews. Based on the current level of travel restrictions around the world it is seemingly impossible to repatriate the crews to their home countries. Indeed, Carnival Cruise Line, for example, confirmed that all of its crews will remain onboard and Carnival will continue to pay them. All of the cruise lines seem to be maintaining their current crew contracts.

The ships are well provisioned, so the crews will not face any immediate shortages. Depending on the length of the suspension, the crews might even find themselves enjoying some of the provisions originally intended for passengers. Surely, they will not be lacking in basic supplies, such as toilet paper, which has become a scarce commodity in many parts of the world due to consumer hoarding. The time can be used to clean and prepare the ships for a return to service, but if the suspension drags on the lines may find themselves dealing with provisioning or fueling concerns.

Many of the ports have indicated that they will try to accommodate the laid up cruise ships although giving priority to the ones that are normally based at their port. PortMiami, for example, announced that it will be waiving all lay berth fees for home-ported vessels that request to berth alongside during the 30 days effective March 13, 2020. Jacksonville, Florida is also making space available including for ships such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky, which does not normally operate from the port.

However, the ports do not have sufficient space to accommodate the vast number of cruise ships that will be idled. Some of the ships are being sent into shipyards for lay-up or maintenance, while some are heading into the Bahamas, especially Freeport which has a shipyard, available berths and anchorage space. A few of the ships and their crews are heading at least initially to the cruise lines’ private islands, while Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas anchored off Port Everglades, the MSC Seaside moved to Miami anchorage, and the Celebrity Silhouette is heading to anchorage in Tampa Bay. Similarly, on the Pacific Coast, some of the cruise ships appear to be heading to anchorage in Mexico, but it is too early to tell if any ships will use the time to reposition preparing for when the world will stabilize the viral threat and cruise ships will be able to resume operations. 

The executives at the home offices are considering the questions of where, when and how the industry will be able to resume sailing and under what controls and circumstances. In the meantime, the staffs are also working to process not only the numerous cancellation requests they had been receiving but also all the passengers displaced during the suspension.

“The cruise industry is in uncharted waters,” says Andrew Coggins, professor of management at Pace University in New York City. He points out that in addressing prior challenges such as the SARS virus in 2002-2003 or in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the cruise lines were able to reposition ships to maintain operations.  

With the world in the midst of the global pandemic, only time will tell what comes next. In the meantime, the cruise lines are working diligently to berth their operations and prepare for the future.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.