Cruise Travel and COVID-19: Perception vs Reality

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

 

25 Comments

  1. A well researched and presented article. I have worked as a professional in the travel industry for many years. I am also an IT professional and always looks at, and believe, numbers and statistics. As such, much of what has been reported about Covid19 by many sources does not show the true numbers whereas the cruise industry does, and has to. As such the cruise industry has been very unfairly represented, even targeted. Folks who believe in facts will look at the numbers and believe those. Experienced traveller, including cruise passengers, will return to travelling and cruising as soon as the world and industry is ready for them. And to concur with Ming – everywhere you travel, hotel, cruise ship, domestic or international, take a look at how that facility is looking after health and cleanliness and compare that with what the cruise industry has always done which is exceptional care for its’ passengers and guests.

  2. Thank you so much for stating the FACTS.
    I Work for a Cruise line and everything you said is true and accurate,everything I open Instagram or Facebook, it nauseated me to have to read someone’s half factual cruise bashing call to blame and punish the cruise line industry.

    Cruising is the safest way to travel , no matter how you evaluate the risks.
    Thanks for taking the time to educate the public.

  3. Great article! Very sad and true resorts, you do not see the daily attention to cleaning you do on ships. Having worked on many of the Ponant ships, I never heard of norovirus on any of them. They were spotless. I want to add that the culprit here, in my opinion, are the airlines. They are the ones who flew cruise passengers from around the world, so it starts somewhere else. The airlines are struggling to sanitize their aircraft, which they should have learned to do back with SARS and EBOLA…it took this for them to wake up. Again with thousands of hours on airlines in the past 50 years, they were stinky, filthy bathroom floors, caught numerous colds from others on the flight and those that sneeze with their droplets traveling 200mph! It started there – in my humble opinion.

  4. Very good article indeed 👍🏼 We are massive cruise fans have already had one cancelled so far… 1 in August we are hoping may go ahead 🙏🏼🤞🏼 But feel doubtful.. we have 1 in October 🙏🏼🤞🏼 One in December so as you can see we love cruising and can’t wait to “Come Aboard “ once again.

  5. Awesome that you have out this into perspective. Will forward this on to my non-cruising part of the family. I will also be happily crusing post-Covid !

  6. We have cruised many times and I have not been frightened off returning on board. My issue is how social distancing will work on a ship and whether it will so change “the product”. The relative lack of space by pools etc as compared with a land based resort and how ships will manage that, restaurants, theatres, etc. all needs to be understood.

  7. Absolutely well written and fact based. I am new to ocean cruising ( 2 years)but not to travel in general and to river and small ship sailing in particular. I’ve been all over the world for 17 years and in some of the least safe and sanitized countries from India to China Mongolia, etc and I never got sick anywhere. I’m very careful on where I put my hands and on what goes into my mouth. I’m now a full time ocean cruiser in particular dance cruising. I can only say I will sail back with Cunard as soon as they go back to the big seas. It hurts me to read so many negative reports about how dangerous it is to be on a cruise ship. I’m ready and I miss sailing again! I had 6 cruises booked but was allowed to take one

  8. Accurate and timely. Yes to all the points as you have done your homework. As a former cruise owner and operator having dealt with adversity in the past, there is an issue that also comes into play here because of the publicity the industry has and will continue to receive. The bashing over the past 90 days has become so unbalanced that if we try as an industry to offer reasons why we are safe, maybe the safest form of International travel, we will get fried by the govt.oversight groups and also by the media. The way to combat this is to accept the criticism, and still point out our positive track record in all the ways you describe. But along with this must come a pre and post vaccine protocol that states by its actions that because ships are what they are and we can make them totally secure and sanitary beyond anything a resort or airplane or airport can do. We in fact have taken the steps over and above our existing procedures to create a redundant sanitary environment for our passengers and crew. Then explain how all air is purified, all pathogens are eliminated and all surfaces, textiles and things we experience and touch on a ship are not an item of risk any longer. We can flip the misconceptions of who and what we are as a tourism product. But while I agree we have little to be ashamed of, the bullets are already fired and we have been hit so we have to provide new alternatives on top of our past diligence to show we care and are never stopping to invite and protect.

  9. This is a well written fact based article. I work for a cruise line (14years). The sanitization is endless, yet it only takes one person to track it onto a ship and inadvertently spread it around. The answer is quite simply wash your hands constantly and keep a little distance. The only thing I might suggest is that we dont fear going to the doctor if sick. The reason is usually feeling as though you are overloading your coworkers because you were signed off sick. The ship doesn’t make you feel like your job is in jeopardy, at least not the company I work for.

  10. This is a really great article. The only issue I have is the statement in regard to some outbreaks, “crew members continue to work while sick in fear of being reprimanded or fired.” I don’t know where they got this information but this will NEVER happen, at least not with my companies, Royal, Celebrity or Azamara! Our crew MUST report any and ALL illnesses and will NEVER be “reprimanded or fired” for being sick. Ever! In fact the only reprimand would be if a crew member FAILS to report illness. Other than that point, great article! Thank you!

    • People working while sick is a reality around the world. You may not have seen it at your company but it happens elsewhere – onboard ships or ashore.

  11. The medical services on cruise ships are not always up to the best standards. And their charges are very high. This can deter passengers from going to the ship’s medical centre.
    Also the comparison with Disneyland is not fair. No visitors live in Disneyland for three months as one does on a cruise.
    My wife and I have both caught a Respiratory disease on a cruise. Lots of passengers caught it. That is a fact.

    Never again!

    • Cruise ship medical facilities are designed to treat minor ailments while at sea. Serious cases would be transferred to shoreside hospitals. Purchasing out of country medical insurance will guard against unforeseen expenditures. The comparison to land vacations including theme parks is to illustrate that viruses can be spread by other modes of travel, not just cruise ships.

  12. Now when people ‘bash cruising’ to me, I just tell them that almost 29 million people cruised last year, and I think 25 million the year before that. And they don’t say anything after that. Yep, just throw the numbers at people. I have booked cruises up to April 2022, just waiting for the Start button to be pushed.

  13. Excellent article! Well said! We are avid cruisers and will continue to be. We hav had one cruise cancelled in June and have a cruise booked in September which I am afraid may be cancelled. We do however have cruises booked in January and February and really hope those are a go. We will be booking more cruises for 2021. We have both just retired and plan on 4 to 6 cruises a year and have no worries health wise to board a cruise ship at all. Love cruising and those ships are always clean. Cleanest vacation spot I have ever been too!

  14. Finally, the truth comes out. So tired of reading and hearing how awful the cruise industry is, from people who have never stepped on a cruise ship. Thank you.

  15. Quite frankly, I agree with everything mentioned in this article. I would feel safer on a cruise ship at this point in time than on land. I know how well they sanitize on the ship! I would even be very happy to cruise to “nowhere” and just sail on the ocean; there won’t be any Corona virus out there in the middle of the ocean. I cruise to get away from it all and relax. I truly miss this!

  16. A well researched and written article very well articulated as well. Sadly as much as we share this it will fall on deaf ears because someone has to be the villain and the airline industry can’t be seen to be the real petri dish now can they? I am going to share this thanks from a not so finished crew member

  17. As a crew member who has been working for over 11 years at sea, I feel attacked when people judge us for not wanting to find another source if income. The other day I read a comment that we are all lazy for not trying to get a ‘real job’ on land. I am not and have never been lazy. I’ve been working since I was 13 and found my place, the place I truly love, at sea and I can’t wait to go back. When people make nasty comments about ships, I really wonder if they really know anything they are talking about. Ships are the cleanest environment – God how many hours spent sanitizing! How many weekly internal inspections! How many unannounced USPH inspections in all these years! Yes, there are virus onboard as there are anywhere. Just visit a regular school or a restaurant or a shop. They will be there too. It all depends on us to do our part – wash our hands especially. I loved the article and I thank you for it. We need more people with a better sense of common sense.

  18. My husband and I have been on cruise ships continuously for the past two years. We came back to our home base when the ports shut down and would not allow passengers and crew to disembark. We certainly felt more protected from any public health risks on board ship than we do here on land. The attention to sanitizing on board borders on obsessive and EVERY crew member has that at the forefront of their mind at all times. In the last 5 years I had the Norovirus once and it was over within 24 hours. Rails, elevators and food facilities are attended to religiously always with the intent of ensuring a safe guest environment. Given the option I would prefer being at sea to being exposed to the haphazard “rules” on land.

  19. It sounds like cruise lines should offer full refunds to people who have become ill prior to their cruise. People go in their vacations while being sick because they don’t want to lose their money. The cruise line will not accept illness as a refundable issue. If they can fix that problem less people would travel while ill.

    • Agreed, but most people also have to fly to get to the ship, so airline cancellation penalties were a factor too. Airlines and cruise lines have now amended their cancellation policies so hopefully we will see less of this in the future.

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