The drifting cruise industry in a post-COVID-19 world – Analysis – Eurasia Review
By Catherine Robinson *
The early attention during the COVID-19 outbreak on cruise ships as “petri dishes” of infection has been overshadowed by the enormous economic and health impacts of the pandemic. But the first epidemics on mega cruise ships foreshadowed the global dimensions of the epidemic. the Princess Diamond was quarantined in Yokahama in February 2020 because more than 700 of its 3,700 passengers were infected and more than a dozen have died. Subsequently, his sister ship, the Ruby princess controversially disembarked 2,700 passengers in Sydney on March 19, 2020, apparently the result of failures in Australia’s quarantine procedures. It has sadly seen 660 cases and 21 deaths in Australia, including an outbreak in northern Tasmania.
The mass recreational cruise industry is a relatively recent global economic phenomenon. Based on mega-ships that carry thousands of passengers and employees, it was made possible by the globally interconnected economy that developed at the end of the 20th century.
Mass cruises are dominated by three major companies: Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Star Cruises. Carnival is the largest, with 100 ships operating under 10 brands, one of which operates the Princess Diamond and Ruby princess. These mass corporations benefit from the “leased sovereignty” of registering their vessels in so-called “flag of convenience” (FoC) states. The most often used are Panama and the Bahamas where they face minimum regulations on taxes, wages and working conditions.
Cruise ship crews and reception staff are, like merchant seamen, international migrant workers motivated by the hope of improving the future of their families. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the precariousness of their jobs.
COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of FoC’s business model. Large ships were taken to sea, unable to navigate to safe ports even after being granted permission to disembark passengers. FoC countries do not have ports capable of accommodating these huge ships. The ships were effectively “orphaned”, sharing limited anchorages and occasional visits to ports in non-FoC locations around the world.
The passengers of the Ruby princess disembarked in Sydney and returned home to Australia and overseas – but what about the multinational crew? The Australian government did not allow them to disembark and the cruise line demanded that at least some remain on board to maintain the ship. Even without passengers, these floating hotels need 100 or more crew members to operate.
There were problems repatriating crews to their countries of origin as borders closed and air travel dried up. the Ruby princess the crew were also stigmatized by their association with the virus and many of those who remained on board were infected.
the Ruby princess was eventually transferred from Circular Quay in Sydney to the grain terminal at Kembla industrial port in Wollongong. Union awareness in the region culminated in an assistance project led by Rev. John Kewa of the Mission to Seafarers, joined by unions and local government. Volunteers packed 1,200 care packages including food, gifts and phone cards for workers left on board “to protect the dignity and well-being of seafarers.”
The ship finally left Port Kembla on April 23, 2020, accompanied by tugs sporting salvos of water cannons, a symbol of recognition of heroic sailors. It made it to an anchorage off the Philippines, joining a number of other stranded ships in that part of the world. Singapore and Johor have also become hosts for ships moored offshore with the minimum crew needed to maintain them.
So what is the future of this industry which has been a valuable source of employment for many migrant workers? As of September 2020, 300,000 crew members are said to be still stuck in “COVID-19 limbo” on ships, unable to return home. These figures included the crew of cruise ships and merchant seamen. Many have faced long waits and long journeys to get home unpaid. The problem remains unresolved.
Cruise lines seem to be hoping to be able to resume navigation, and some smaller ships have already started sailing with ‘hyperlocal’ routes within national borders towards the end of 2020. Some of the older and larger ships have been discarded.
Carnival and Renaissance have submitted a set of operational proposals to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for approval to navigate again. The CDC has been reluctant to allow large vessels to sail in U.S. waters again, but some navigations in U.S. and Caribbean waters resumed in June 2021.
While cruise lines report they have lots of advance bookings of potential passengers in the United States, Australia and Europe, infection rates remain high in many source countries for maritime and hotel workers. , and vaccine deployment is slow. Potential workers face border closures and reduced transport links to reach the ports of embarkation.
The question remains whether the cruise industry can be a source of work for migrant workers from the south of the world under the proposed new employment conditions, such as vaccination requirements. Much effort will be needed to ensure that conditions are improved through compliance with new health and safety requirements and fair wages.
* About the author: Kathryn Robinson is Professor Emeritus in the School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum