As we enter the third month of social isolation due to COVID-19, as a cruise journalist I’m trying to stay positive and optimistic about the future of an industry that employs millions of people around the globe. However, I am also deeply saddened by the adverse portrayal of cruising as a result of the pandemic.
Countless articles and opinion pieces have condemned cruise travel as being unsafe and as the leading cause of spreading the disease. As Your Cruise Coach, my mission is to preach the merits of cruising to my readers, but it has become increasingly difficult to have a conversation with someone when their perceived image of cruising has been tarnished by the negative reporting. I have spent a lot of time organizing my thoughts and observations on the events and fallout of COVID-19. In this post, I hope to provide some thought-provoking insight and perspective into the perceived and actual reality of cruise travel.
Why are there so many virus outbreaks onboard cruise ships anyway?
Virus outbreaks occur everywhere, every day. We hear about it onboard cruise ships because cruising is the only travel segment that self-reports to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC’s website:
“Health officials track illness on cruise ships. So outbreaks are found and reported more quickly on a cruise ship than on land.” 1
All cruise ships visiting U.S. ports participate in the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP). The program requires ships to follow this protocol 2:
"Medical staff on cruise ships with a foreign itinerary that visit the U.S. must send gastrointestinal illness case reports to VSP at these designated times:
- Before arriving to a U.S. port from a foreign port. This initial report is required even when there are no cases of gastrointestinal illness. Staff make this report between 24 and 36 hours before the ship arrives at a U.S. port.
- When 2% or more of the passengers or crew have gastrointestinal illness. Staff must send this report any time the vessel is in the United States or within 15 days of arriving at a U.S. port.
- If 3% or more of the passengers or crew have gastrointestinal illness, cruise ship staff must send an additional report."
I’d like to point out that on a 4,000-capacity ship, 2 percent equates to 80 persons.
Additionally, the CDC states:
“People often associate cruise ships with acute gastrointestinal illnesses such as norovirus, but acute gastrointestinal illness is relatively infrequent on cruise ships. From 2008 to 2014, 74 million passengers sailed on cruise ships in the Vessel Sanitation Program’s jurisdiction. Only 129,678 passengers met the program’s case definition for acute gastrointestinal illness and only a small proportion of those cases (1 in 10) were part of a norovirus outbreak.” 3
If you do the math, 129,678 out of 74 million is 0.175 percent - an infinitesimal number.
But no matter the number of cases, a publicized report obtained by the media gets published with sensational headlines accompanied by dire language and finger-pointing. And never have the cruise lines been attacked this severely as during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I fully acknowledge that the outbreaks and the resulted quarantines, stranded guests and crew, and deaths were devastating. But focusing strictly on cruise ships as the primary cause of COVID-19's spread is completely unfair. Unfortunately, even the CDC – which previously advised travellers not to stigmatize cruise lines as the chief carrier of illnesses - is now recommending people not to cruise “because the risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships is high.”
Unfair (and lack of) comparison
Now back to those cruise-bashing articles. What these stories lack is the comparison to other modes of travel. How did the number of COVID-19 cases onboard ships compare to that of land-based travel? How many cases of COVID-19 were spread by travellers who stayed at hotels, resorts, visited attractions, restaurants, and shopping malls around the world? I did not see a single article with this approach, probably because it is an impossible feat. No other travel segment is required to report illnesses, and even if they are, these reports aren’t available to the public. Cruising then becomes primary fodder for the media as it is the only travel where concrete statistics are available and being reported.
It’s all about perspective
Cruising is repeatedly described as being unsafe because guests are traveling in confined spaces, thus allowing the easy spread of viruses. But in reality, a cruise ship is no different than a land-based resort. In both scenarios, the same guests are staying for the entire week sharing the same facilities. Cruise and resort guests touch doorknobs, railings, elevator buttons, buffet serving ware, casino chips, and deck chairs. While in their rooms, at restaurants, bars, and lounges, land resort guests are also in confined spaces. The only difference is that a ship moves from place to place, people get off and back on. Resorts obviously don’t move, but guests can and do leave the premises to go on excursions, visit attractions, shop, and come back.
Let’s put this in another perspective: the largest ship in the world - Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas - can carry 7,718 persons (counting double occupancy guests and all crew). The Bellagio in Las Vegas has 3,950 rooms - that’s 7,900 guests without counting staff or the parade of daily visitors that use its casino, restaurants, spa, etc. - which can easily hike that number to over 10,000 - every day.
And according to the Theme Index and Museum Index 4 published by Themed Entertainment Association, Magic Kingdom at Walt Disneyworld Resort received 20,859,000 visitors in 2018 - that’s over 57,000 visitors a day touching ride handlebars, using public washrooms, purchasing food and beverage, and browsing the shops.
Clearly, these numbers are staggering. But because of the reality of self-reporting (or lack thereof), news of a 1,000-room resort with 200 cases of norovirus may never see the light of day, while a 4,000-capacity cruise ship reporting 80 cases gets labeled as a floating Petri dish. How fair is that?
What’s the reality onboard ships?
Sanitation is a serious business onboard ships. From the first cruise I took in 1991 to the one I took last year, I always see someone vacuuming the hallways, wiping the railings, and sanitizing all touchpoints. The crew is most visible performing these cleaning duties in the stairwells, elevator bays, and the atrium, no matter what time of day. There are also hand sanitizer dispensers at the gangway and all dining venues - with a smiling and persistent crew member holding a bottle, insisting that you “washy! washy!” before you enter.
I am hard-pressed to remember a time where I witnessed the same detailed attention paid to sanitation multiple times a day - every day - at any land-based vacation property.
In addition, as part of the VSP 5, cruise ships follow strict measures to prevent and control gastrointestinal illnesses. They are also subject to unannounced sanitation inspections by the CDC that look at eight different areas onboard a ship, with a comprehensive list of inspection points. Most medium and large sized cruise ships pay between USD9,000 to USD24,000 for a CDC-conducted inspection 6, and the passing score is set at 86 out of 100. In 2019, the CDC performed 175 sanitation inspections, and only five ships failed. This level of commitment and investment on the cruise lines’ part to ensure the health and safety of their guests and crew speaks volumes.
So why do people still get sick on ships?
Unfortunately, not everyone is perfect. We don’t always wash our hands - whether intentionally or not. Some of us travel even when we are sick because we already booked vacation time and bought a non-refundable ticket. People lie about their health so they won’t be denied boarding and lose the money that they’ve paid. Crew members continue to work while sick in fear of being reprimanded or fired. These actions, unfortunately, result in the illness being brought onboard. But does this only happen onboard cruise ships? No. It happens everywhere else too, but you just don’t hear about it.
But fortunately with the prevention, monitoring, and reporting protocols in place onboard ships – and they have been in place for decades - outbreaks can be quickly identified, contained, and eliminated.
What’s the future of cruising?
Never has there been an incident so severe that it halted sailings worldwide, forced massive layoffs and furloughs, and resulted in billions of dollars in losses to the cruise lines and the economies they support. Biased and negative reporting has eroded the public's confidence. Experienced cruisers will return because they understand the value and the reality of cruising, and they have faith in the cruise lines to continue to deliver a safe and enjoyable vacation. But non-cruisers now have more reasons not to go onboard, and it will take a lot of education and reassurance to overcome their objections.
With even better policies and protocols to safeguard guests and crew, cruising will flourish again. But it could be two to three years before the numbers climb back to pre-COVID days. In the meantime, I hope we can stop singling out the cruise industry as a monster in this pandemic.
References: [please note clicking the link will open a new window]
1, 3 Facts About Noroviruses on Cruise Ships
2 Outbreak Updates for International Cruise Ships [When Do Ships Report Gastrointestinal Illnesses to VSP?]
4 Theme Index and Museum Index
5 About the Vessel Sanitation Program
6 Fees for Sanitation Inspection of Cruise Ships