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Examining the Cruise Line Industry’s Response to COVID-19

Epitome Examines COVID-19 Safety in the Cruise Line Industry?

The cruise line industry lost over $23 billion in revenue during the COVID-19 worldwide shutdown of 2020-2021. It is not projected to fully rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. That projection assumes the pandemic ends soon (which doesn’t appear to be the case).

The industry has struggled to reopen, and safety information is ever-changing. COVID-19 safety procedures vary from ship-to-ship and cruise line-to-cruise line. Cruises often travel between countries which adds several new layers of complexity since infection rates, port-procedures, and country protocols differ widely.

This article is part of an ongoing series that explores COVID-19 safety across major industries. In this fourth installment of “Price of Admission,” we examine the state of COVID-19 within the cruise line industry.

To do this, we have divided this article into four parts:

  • The size of the industry
  • COVID-19 safety issues
  • Areas for improvement
  • The bottom line

Before we look at the safety issues inherent to the industry and how they can be mitigated, let’s take a moment to understand just how large an industry this is.   

The Size of The Industry

According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise line industry contributed $155 billion to the global economy (more than the GDP of Hungary) and generated nearly 1.2 million jobs (nearly the population of Dallas) in 2019 alone.

There are over 50 cruise lines in the world with a total of over 320 cruise ships in operation, sailing from over 2,000 ports. The busiest port for cruise lines in the world is the Port of Miami. In 2019, the Port of Miami welcomed over 5.5 million passengers, over 1,200 cruise ships, and 22 cruise lines.

The cruise line industry saw records for both revenue and passengers in 2019. That year cruise lines carried 30 million passengers and generated over $27 billion in revenue. COVID-19 shut it all down.

COVID-19 Losses

During the shutdown of 2020, the cruise line industry’s revenues plummeted to a record low of 3.3 million. Carnival Cruise Lines alone lost over $10 billion in 2020.

That same year saw hundreds of ghost ships stranded out at sea, several infected vessels with no place to dock, and countless cruise ships haphazardly shoved into ports, unused.

COVID-19 did not sink the cruise line industry, however. The industry reopened slowly over the course of the last year and aims to be fully operational by this summer. This is not going to be an easy task. Pandemic risk factors are simply part of the foundation of this industry. Let’s take a look at some of them.

COVID-19 Safety Issues

While the full list of safety issues associated with the cruise line industry would be quite long, we want to highlight a few:

  • The nature of the business
  • Lack of industry standard
  • Conflict of interest

Let’s start with the big one: this is an inherently risky industry in a pandemic.

The Nature of the Business

There is no more dangerous place to be during this pandemic than indoors surrounded by a lot of people. Despite ports of call, outdoor pools, and various outdoor activities, this is still primarily an indoor industry.

Cruise ships are, in essence, enclosed, floating cities. They have all the issues that come with a municipality but with the added challenge of being self-contained. When it comes to COVID-19 safety, there are simply some aspects of this industry that are unchangeable.

The CDC has recently downgraded the risk level of cruise lines from “high” to “moderate.” This should not be viewed as an endorsement. A “moderate” or “Level 2” rating means that there were 500-999 COVID-19 cases among crew members in the last 14 days.  As the CDC says:

“The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is moderate, even if you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.”

-Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

This gets to the heart of the reason the CDC has a separate designation program for the cruise line industry. “Cruise ships are congregate residential settings with high risk of COVID-19 transmission among travelers (passengers and crew),” says the CDC.

The nature of this business is that COVID-19 infections will happen, and the virus spread aboard cruise ships.

Lack of Industry Standard

There is no international governing body issuing industry-wide COVID-19 standards. CLIA, a trade association, is the closest thing this industry has to a governing body but not all cruises are members and the organization only makes recommendations.

The CDC has issued guidance, but it lacks the authority to enforce them beyond the borders of the USA. The United States is the global leader in revenue generation for the cruise line industry, so the CDC’s guidelines do carry some weight.

Many cruise lines have opted into the CDC’s safety program, but several have not. Each cruise line has its own standards for vaccinations, testing, mask, and distancing. This has put the onus on the traveler to research which cruise line requires what safety measures.

In fact, the lack of standardization is troubling enough that the CDC can’t rely on passenger cases when determining cruise ship safety levels. The CDC says, “Screening testing is not performed routinely among passengers; therefore, their COVID-19 results do not constitute an accurate representation of onboard COVID-19 case counts.”

This level of confusion and lack of standardization is not recommended when fighting a virus as resilient and contagious as SARS-Cov-2. Standardization is necessary to maximize safety.

Conflict of Interest

The CDC’s color-coded safety chart, as well as its 4 Level Safety rubric, is based on the number of COVID-19 infections among cruise ship crew members. Each cruise line is responsible for reporting its infection totals to the CDC and participation is voluntary.

As we have already discussed, the cruise line industry lost tens of billions of dollars when it was shut down. This creates a conflict of interest, puting profit directly at odds with safety. If cases increase, the CDC will change the designation, potential passengers will look elsewhere, and revenues will fall.

Reports show that some cruise lines off-load infected crew members to non-passenger ships. The cruise line companies say this is for quarantine purposes. And it very well may be. Getting infected crew members off the ship would seem like a prudent step toward mitigating the spread of the virus.

The issue here is that crew-only ships are evaluated differently by the CDC. Couple that with the fact that reporters have had a difficult time getting additional information from cruise lines about the nature and purpose of these quarantine ships and the statistics about COVID-19 infections on cruise ships begin to look less than exact.

We are not accusing the cruise line industry of any wrongdoing here. We are simply pointing out that this conflict of interest runs counter to safety. And that the self-reported statistics — upon which the CDC’s grading system is based — lack appropriate oversight, and therefore are likely to lack the precision necessary to truly prioritize safety.

Let’s look at some steps the cruise line industry could take to increase pandemic safety.

Areas for Improvement

Three major risk categories must be addressed: the nature of the business, lack of standardization, and the inherent conflict of interest. Let’s look at potential paths forward that can increase safety in each of those areas.

A Safer Environment

While there are some aspects of the cruise line industry that cannot be made safer during a pandemic, there are some steps it the industry can take to minimize risk in certain areas. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Limit Passenger Capacity: Limiting the number of passengers can increase spacing and decrease congestion on board. Fewer passengers may also mean fewer crew members.
  • Upgrade Crew Quarters: Traditionally, most crew members sleep in communal bunk rooms deep in the hull of the ship. This close-quarter lodging situation is an outbreak waiting to happen. By upgrading these areas and decreasing their occupant density, we can increase safety. Furthermore, by limiting the capacity of the passengers it may be possible to close-off some strategic passenger floors and make them available to crew.
  • Prohibit Lodging in Interior Rooms: Many rooms on cruise ships have no outdoor walls or windows. These rooms have far more limited ventilation options than rooms that have access to the open ocean air. By keeping these interior rooms closed to passengers, we can allow all guests to have the best ventilation possible. And good ventilation in vital during this pandemic.
  • Regulate Passenger Activities More Thoroughly: Many cruise lines already regulate passenger activities. In the pandemic, this is more important then ever. By providing passengers with a clear schedule that maximizes their safety, the cruise line industry can further minimize the risk of an outbreak by eliminating congestion in common areas.
  • Mandate Vaccines: While vaccines cards can be forged and the vaccines aren’t 100% effective, it is still the best weapon we have in the fight against COVID-19. Most cruise lines require vaccines (with exemptions) when departing from US ports. By making it an industry-wide requirement, cruise lines could further increase safety.

For additional recommendations, see CDC’s guidelines for ships.

Establish Industry Standards

The cruise line industry is built on customizing options for particular sets of passengers. Variety is practically the whole point. Understandably, this is an industry that might not be designed for standardization.

However, the industry already adheres to strict standardized safety regulations. In fact, according to the CLIA, “the cruise industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries.” Each ship must be built to exacting specifications and must contain a slew of additional safety elements. From hospital staff and fire extinguishers to lifeboats and capacity limits, the cruise line industry is quite standardized.

As we saw when we examined the price of admission for the concert industry, it is possible for both large multi-national corporations and cooperating independent businesses to prioritize safety and establish standardize COVID-19 protocols.

The cruise line industry should establish and adopted a universal set of COVID-19 safety procedures that address vaccinations, masks, testing, distancing, and sanitation for both passengers and crew. This will put the industry on a safer course.

Eliminate the Conflict of Interest

To eliminate the conflict of interest inherent in the self-reported numbers, the cruise line industry should consider third-party oversight of COVID-19 testing and reporting.

Part of the standardization process could be to partner with a third-party service that performs the testing and reporting of COVID-19 numbers. Cruise lines already allow impartial bodies to evaluate the safety of other aspects of their operations. It would be best if COVID-19 safety, testing, and reporting were put in the hands of an impartial third-party.  

The Bottom Line

The cruise line industry ran aground during COVID-19, but it didn’t sink. After several months of uncertainty, the industry is increasing speed in the hopes of reaching full recovery soon; assuming COVID-19 numbers stay low. The future of this pandemic remains uncertain, however, and COVID-19 cases are rising in certain parts of the world.

This is one industry that will likely never be 100% safe from outbreaks. By creating a safer onboard environment, establishing industry-wide pandemic safety standards, and removing the conflict of interest in reported numbers, the cruise line industry could go a long way reaching the highest safety levels possible.

As the temperatures warm and travel season begins, many of us will be tempted to take a cruise this year. We hope that our examination of the industry has helped you to make a more informed choice.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before participating in organized athletics during a pandemic.