Sam Duncombe, head of the Bahamian environmental organization reEarth, looked on with concern Thursday as island authorities debated whether to allow passengers to disembark from Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ Braemar, the latest ship hit by the novel coronavirus. Duncombe is a longtime critic of the cruise industry and has led the fight against Disney’s plan to build a private cruise port in an area recommended for marine-protected status, home to a fragile coral reef ecosystem. Cruise ships have repeatedly come under fire in the Bahamas for dumping sewage, food waste, plastic, and oil into the aqua waters. Duncombe doesn’t trust the cruise industry to protect the islands from a health crisis any more than she trusts it to protect the environment.
The Dominican Republic turned away the Braemar at the end of February due to health officials’ concerns about flu-like symptoms reported on board. But in a move typical of an industry that tends to play island nations against one another, the cruise company called the decision an “overreaction” and found a friendly port in St. Maarten. Passengers disembarked and new ones filed on board.
From there, the Braemar headed to Cartagena, Colombia, where an American who disembarked became the first recorded coronavirus case in the city. Four crew members and one passenger tested positive on a stop in Curaçao. Meanwhile, in Canada, Alberta’s chief medical officer revealed that a Braemar passenger had tested positive after returning home from the ship. As the crisis continued to unfold on board, Barbados turned the Braemar away, and it headed toward the Bahamas, the country whose flag the ship flies, home to one of the busiest Caribbean island cruise ports.
So far officials have not confirmed any coronavirus cases in the Bahamas, but Duncombe worries that the country is not ready for what could come. “The hospital is already overwhelmed with normal sicknesses and problems that are happening,” she said, noting that recovery after the devastation of Hurricane Dorian has been like “molasses in the snow.” “We simply do not have the resources to be dealing with any kind of massive outbreak.”
Late Thursday, to Duncombe’s relief, the Bahamian government announced that the Braemar would not be allowed to dock, and by Friday, Fred Olsen announced it would suspend cruises in the face of the crisis. “This is odd for the industry. They’re not used to ports standing up for themselves,” said Ross Klein, a professor at Canada’s Memorial University who studies maritime tourism. Typically, he added, “the cruise industry says, ‘If you don’t like us, we’ll go somewhere else.’”
Across the Caribbean, cruise lines have placed enormous pressure on governments to be allowed to continue to dock cruise ships, even when concerns about illness on board arise.
In Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos, Carnival Cruise Line, the namesake brand of Carnival Corporation, which controls about half the market share, threatened to pull its business after government officials attempted to stop ships carrying potentially sick passengers from docking in their ports or restricted which passengers could disembark. The three island governments were left to make critical public health decisions under threat from a corporation that holds enormous sway over island economies.
One of the ships turned out to be carrying the virus. On Friday, authorities in the Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico announced that their first confirmed coronavirus patients had entered on the Costa Luminosa, a Carnival Corporation ship.
Only after news broke that the Cayman Islands would be forced to shut down one of its three hospitals because of worker exposure to a Costa Luminosa patient did the Cruise Lines International Association announce that its members would suspend operations in the U.S., cancelling many Caribbean cruises.
As Klein put it, “It’s an industry that tends to be arrogant. It’s an industry that tends not to listen to consumers or listen to people providing feedback.” The outcome, he said, is that “they’re exporting illness.”
Even after the U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans avoid cruise ships, and the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, cruise companies like Carnival and Royal Caribbean continued offering bargain-basement deals and flexible cancellation plans incentivizing vacationers to keep cruising despite the risk of spreading the virus.
Emails leaked to the Miami New Times by a Norwegian Cruise Line employee showed a manager pressuring sales staff to lie to potential customers about the risk of the virus, telling them, for example, that “the coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise.”
It was a dangerous form of crisis capitalism, considering that cruise lines had already been linked to multiple outbreaks. Some of the first Americans diagnosed with Covid-19 were aboard Carnival Corporation’s Diamond Princess, which sat off the coast of Japan for two weeks during a bungled quarantine effort carried out by low-paid workers who were not properly trained or given effective safety equipment. Eight people died, and around 700 caught the virus. Weeks later, Carnival Corporation’s Grand Princess idled for days off the coast of Oakland as 19 crew members and two passengers were diagnosed with the virus. The first coronavirus patient to die in California had previously disembarked from the same ship.
The cruise industry is one of a handful that the Trump administration has flagged as a potential recipient for special aid in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The industry is certainly struggling; share prices tumbled as passengers have canceled voyages. But its special treatment is also the result of the cruise lines’ intense lobbying efforts and close relationships with the Trump family. On Monday, the president told the press, “We’re working with them very, very strongly. We want them to travel.”
Indeed, the crisis has displayed the strong-arming capability of an under-regulated industry that has a poor record on labor, the environment, and public health. And nowhere has cruise companies’ risky determination to stay afloat been felt more acutely than in the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico’s first coronavirus case came from an Italian tourist whose cruise ship, Carnival Corporation’s Costa Luminosa, had sparked a clash between Jamaican authorities and the cruise industry, after Jamaica refused to allow Italian passengers to disembark. Puerto Ricans have cried foul, criticizing their government for being less strict with the ship. However, Jamaica’s move came at a price.
After learning that a crew member on the MSC Meraviglia was quarantined with flu-like symptoms, Jamaica’s health minister turned the ship away on February 25. To the cruise industry’s dismay, the Cayman Islands followed suit. A few days later, the Costa Luminosa approached Jamaica’s shores. This time, government officials informed the company that guests from hard-hit Italy would not be allowed onshore.
Carnival Cruise Line had seen enough. The company, which has the same parent company as the Costa Luminosa, threatened to end its stops in Jamaica if the government didn’t soften its hard line on coronavirus. Cruises account for nearly 1 percent of the country’s GDP, and the downturn in recent weeks has cost the economy $4 million. To show that it was serious, Carnival rerouted two ships away from Jamaica, and MSC also diverted a cruise. Carnival Cruise Line skipped the Cayman Islands, too.
Carnival Cruise Line threatened to end its stops in Jamaica if the government didn’t soften its hard line on coronavirus.
“While we are following all U.S. CDC and World Health Organization screening protocols and guidelines, we want to avoid any possibility of a visit to a destination where there is uncertainty or we risk being turned away,” said Carnival in a statement to press at the time.
“What were Jamaica and the Cayman Islands doing? They were just trying to enforce their own health codes. Carnival didn’t like it,” said Jim Walker, an attorney who created the blog Cruise Law News and represents clients suing cruise companies.
After a meeting with Carnival and MSC on March 6, Jamaican officials announced a deal in which the cruise lines would begin handing over the ships’ medical logs, including temperature readings and travel history. The companies also consented to stricter rules for passengers with a recent history of travel to the most impacted countries.
The same day, the government of Turks and Caicos declined to allow the Carnival Magic cruise to dock because several guests on board were exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Carnival was “enormously frustrated.” The company responded in the same way that it had to Jamaica, rerouting three cruises from Turks and Caicos as it entered discussions with the government.
Meanwhile, the Costa Luminosa sailed on, making stops in the Cayman Islands, Honduras, and Mexico. By March 8, the tourist from Italy had arrived in Puerto Rico. The island government had no notification from Carnival that anyone on board had presented coronavirus-like symptoms when 1,370 passengers and 410 crew members disembarked in Old San Juan. But after the woman was diagnosed with pneumonia by a ship doctor, she was rushed to a local hospital. Because she came from the heart of the pandemic in northern Italy, medical workers administered a Covid-19 test.
Of course, in another indication of the deep uncertainty that the pandemic has sown, Puerto Ricans only received the results of the Italian tourist’s Covid-19 test from the CDC on Friday night, a week after the patient was hospitalized. The news that the cruise passenger and her husband had tested positive broke hours after the Cayman Islands’ government announced that another Costa Luminosa traveler had become the first patient to test positive in the territory. He was hospitalized at Health City Cayman Islands after going into cardiac arrest but developed a dry cough after six days of treatment. Thirty medical workers who came into contact with him are now under quarantine, and the private hospital has decided to close for the next two weeks. The 68-year-old patient died Saturday morning.
Klein said the cruise industry’s response to the crisis is business as usual. “The cruise industry always wants ports to know, ‘We’re mobile, so if you get out of line, there’s plenty of ports that will welcome us,’” he said.
The ships operate under “flags of convenience,” basing themselves in whatever nation gives them the best deal. “They enjoy freedoms from many laws and controls, whether it be in the U.S. or a Caribbean island,” said Klein.
One of the most important ways the industry is able to fleece Caribbean nations is via port fees, a tax per head on the passengers who disembark. Klein said the fees are often lower than what it costs for the islands to maintain the facilities the cruise companies demand. Caribbean islands have attempted to collectively demand fair fees, but so far, the industry has succeeded in a divide-and-conquer strategy that leaves all of the region at the behest of the corporations.
Many critics argue that the problems the ships bring aren’t worth the tourists they attract on shore. In many cases, cruise companies steer passengers toward excursions and shopping destinations that allow them to take a cut of profits.
“The cruise industry always wants ports to know, ‘We’re mobile, so if you get out of line, there’s plenty of ports that will welcome us.’”
The latest trend is cruises that bypass local communities entirely. Last month, Antigua and Barbuda signed an agreement with Royal Caribbean International to open a Royal Beach Club. A half mile of the Antiguan coast will be available exclusively to Royal Caribbean cruise passengers, away from the island’s small businesses. It follows a model similar to the Disney project Duncombe opposes in the Bahamas.
On Thursday, the same day that five U.S. states announced that they would close all schools to limit the spread of the virus, Carnival Cruise Line told The Intercept that it would continue to operate, with a few new protocols. “We have five departures scheduled for today and those sailings will depart this afternoon,” spokesperson Vance Gulliksen said. Neither Carnival Corporation nor its Costa Cruises responded to requests for comment.
Although some major cruise companies suspended operations, including Carnival Corporation’s embattled Princess line, most waited until their hands were forced.
Even as news broke of the Cayman Islands hospital closing on Friday, a spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association, Bari Golin-Blaugrund, reassured The Intercept in an email that “the vast majority of the 272 ships in the Cruise Lines International Association fleet have been unaffected by this growing public health crisis, which we believe points to the effectiveness of our policies.” He continued, “We realize the situation is changing rapidly, and we are changing with it appropriately.”
Within hours, the same organization announced its members would suspend all cruise operations at U.S. ports of call for 30 days. Trump issued a Twitter announcement soon afterward that Carnival Cruise Line and other major companies would be among those pausing operations. “At my request, effective midnight tonight, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and MSC have all agreed to suspend outbound cruises for thirty days. It is a great and important industry – it will be kept that way!” the president said.
In a video message, Princess’s President Jan Swartz assured customers that the health of guests, crew members, and the communities they visit are the company’s No. 1 priority. She closed her message with a plea for vacationers to book a cruise now for the sake of the common good. “We ask you to book a future Princess cruise to your dream destination as a sign of encouragement for our team; as a support to the people, companies, and communities who rely on us; as a vote of our collective faith that we will find solutions to address this virus together; and as a symbol to the world that the things that connect us are stronger than those that divide us.”
Walker, the attorney, said he doesn’t expect the coronavirus crisis to lead the industry to rethink its pressure tactics in the Caribbean. “Do I see this as a moment where the cruise line industry is inherently going to make changes? No, I don’t,” he said. “The business model is set.”