Coronavirus Casts A Pall Over Cruise Industry At Height Of Booking Season

Feb 12, 2020
Originally published on February 12, 2020 3:18 pm

Updated at 9:51 a.m. ET

The Diamond Princess cruise ship has become a symbol of a global health nightmare. To date, 175 cases of the coronavirus — the infectious disease the World Health Organization is now calling COVID-19 — have been confirmed aboard the ship.

David Abel is one of the remaining 3,600 people on board, quarantined in waters off the coast of Japan until at least Feb. 19. He's been documenting life in quarantine: Medical staff doing checkups through the night, small boats ferrying supplies of food and medicine.

Abel told Britain's Channel 4 News: "24/7, we are not allowed to open the door until there is a knock on the door and they bring the food to us. Other than that, we are like prisoners."

Keeping the spread of the virus contained in those close quarters is not only a big medical and logistical challenge, it could also take a big bite out of the cruise line business this year.

"Ugh, everything's down," laments Monish Luthra, president and CEO of Odysseus Solutions, a Miami software company that handles bookings for cruise companies.

About 10 days ago, he says, reservations started to plummet, starting with flight bookings in Asia. "We've seen about a 40% drop" in cruise bookings, Luthra says.

What's worse, it's peak booking season for cruise lines.

Luthra himself is scheduled to embark on a cruise out of Sydney in about a week. Originally, he was supposed to fly through Hong Kong, but he rerouted to avoid that virus hot zone. He says he still loves cruising, but can't imagine spending weeks holed up with his two kids.

"I wouldn't know how to explain it to my 6 year old or my 8 year old why they can't leave that room," he says.

China makes up a small, but growing segment of the $45 billion cruise industry, says Emily Flippen, a senior analyst with The Motley Fool. "This is a major setback," she says.

Meanwhile, another cruise liner, Holland America's MS Westerdam, has been drifting around Asia, having been denied entry at five different ports, despite the fact it has no confirmed cases of the virus. The ship is now sailing for Cambodia, where the cruise will end Thursday, Holland America said Wednesday.

But the outbreak is not a widespread problem that will affect the industry long term, says Brian Salerno, senior vice president of maritime policy of the Cruise Line Industry Association.

He says the industry was quick to take precautions, from screening anyone who's sick, or denying entry to anyone who recently traveled to China, or who was in contact with someone there.

Plus, he argues, the ships themselves are safe because medical care is on board. "When you take a cruise at a cruise ship, you're traveling with your hospital in a sense," he says.

The cruise industry has shaken off worse crises, says Gene Sloan, a writer for The Points Guy, a travel website.

Remember the dramatic sinking of the Costa Concordia that killed 32 people? "At the time, there was a lot of speculation this is gonna kill the cruise business," he says.

Every year brings a new challenge: norovirus, Zika, hurricanes, or loss of power. Sloan says the cruise industry has grown through them all. So this virus, too, shall pass.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Diamond Princess cruise ship has become a symbol of a global health nightmare. So far, more than 170 passengers have contracted the coronavirus. About 3,600 people remain on board the ship, quarantined in waters off the coast of Japan. Passengers are largely confined to their rooms, where they have to remain for at least another week. And as this spectacle plays out on television and social media, the cruise industry is really starting to take a hit. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Diamond Princess passenger David Abel has been documenting life in quarantine - medical staff doing checkups through the night, small boats ferrying supplies of food and medicine. He told Britain's Channel 4 News...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID ABEL: Twenty-four seven - we are not allowed to open a door until there is a knock on the door and they bring the food to us. Other than that, we are like prisoners.

NOGUCHI: Keeping the spread of the virus contained in those close quarters is not only a big medical and logistical challenge, it could also take a big bite out of the cruise line business. Monish Luthra is president and CEO of Odysseus Solutions, a Miami software company that handles bookings for cruise companies.

MONISH LUTHRA: Ugh (laughter), everything's down.

NOGUCHI: Luthra says about 10 days ago, reservations started to plummet.

LUTHRA: We started to see it with the flight bookings first, where everything started getting canceled, especially to Asia. And now on the cruise side, I mean, we've seen about a 40% drop, I want to say.

NOGUCHI: That's happening amid what's supposed to be peak season. Luthra himself is scheduled to embark on a cruise out of Sydney in a week. Originally, he was supposed to fly through Hong Kong. He rerouted to avoid that virus hot zone. He says he still loves cruising but cannot imagine spending weeks cast away and holed up with his two kids.

LUTHRA: I wouldn't know how to explain it to my 6-year-old or my 8-year-old as to, you know, why they can't leave that room.

NOGUCHI: China makes up a small but growing segment of the $45 billion cruise industry. Emily Flippen is a senior analyst with The Motley Fool.

EMILY FLIPPEN: And that really was supposed to be a boon for the cruise line industry in China. This is a major setback.

NOGUCHI: Another cruise liner, Holland America's Westerdam, has been drifting around Asia. It's been denied entry at five ports in spite of the fact it has no confirmed cases of the virus. But the Cruise Line Industry Association's Brian Salerno says this outbreak is an isolated issue. The senior vice president of maritime policy says he expects little long-term damage.

BRIAN SALERNO: It's clearly not a very widespread problem within the cruise industry right now.

NOGUCHI: The industry has taken precautions. It's screening anyone who's sick or recently traveled to China or been in contact with someone there. Plus, he argues, the ships themselves are safe because medical care is on board.

SALERNO: So when you take a cruise on a cruise ship, you're traveling with your hospital, in a sense.

NOGUCHI: Gene Sloan, a writer for The Points Guy, a travel website, says the cruise industry has shaken off worse crises in the past. Remember the dramatic sinking of the Costa Concordia that killed 32 people?

GENE SLOAN: You know, at the time, there was a lot of speculation, you know, this is going to kill the cruise business.

NOGUCHI: Every year brings a new challenge - norovirus, Zika, hurricanes or loss of power. Sloan says the cruise industry has grown through them all. So this virus, too, shall pass.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISOBEL BELANO'S "SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.