CruiseQ&A: How virus is impacting Asia's cruises and passengers

Treating fear with facts: A travel agent’s guide to coronavirus

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Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas in Hong Kong in May 2019.
Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas in Hong Kong in May 2019.

SINGAPORE - At a time when the travel industry is concerned about the accuracy of reports of the spread of coronavirus – and the CEO of the Malaysian Association of Hotels, Yap Lip Seng, says, “fear is spreading faster the virus“ – our colleagues at Travel Weekly USA have produced this vital Q&A about the virus's impact on the cruise industry and passengers:

It will be especially helpful for travel agents when answering customers’ questions.

How many cruise ships are in Asia right now?
The Cruise Lines International Association -- which represents around 90% of global cruise capacity -- says around 10 of its 272 member ships are currently in Asia. Only the Diamond Princess has confirmed cases of virus, the association said. At least six of the 10 ships have cancelled their itineraries for now, including Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas and MSC's Splendida.

Have any ships been allowed to let passengers off?
Yes. On Sunday, Dream Cruises said passengers on its World Dream were cleared to disembark in Hong Kong after screenings found no positive tests for the virus. The ship had arrived in Hong Kong four days earlier.

In Italy, more than 6,600 passengers and crew were allowed to disembark from Carnival's Costa Smeralda on Jan. 31 after a Chinese passenger was found to have the flu and not the virus.

And in New Jersey, passengers were allowed the disembark last Friday even as the US.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested four passengers for the virus. The passengers tested negative and the CDC cleared the ship for its next voyage.

Are cruise ships banning some passengers from boarding?
Yes. Policies vary, but in general, cruise companies won't allow passengers or crew to board if they have visited, travelled from or passed through airports in China, Hong Kong and Macau within a certain time period -- usually 14 or 30 days.

They also aren't allowing people to board if they have been in close contact with someone with the virus. Royal Caribbean was banning all passengers with passports from China, Hong Kong and Macau, but the company lifted that ban Monday. Norwegian Cruise Lines is still banning passengers who hold those passports.

Is a quarantine the best way to handle a viral outbreak on a cruise?
According to Tara Smith, a professor who researches infectious diseases at Kent State University's College of Public Health, a hospital - not a ship - is the best place to keep people quarantined. The Diamond Princess may have already had environmental contamination when the quarantine began, which puts passengers and crew at risk of further transmission.

What other precautions are cruise lines taking?
Cruise lines are scanning the temperatures of passengers and crew and having them complete questionnaires before they board any ship. MSC says it's conducting deep cleaning on its ships. Royal Caribbean also says it has stepped up cleaning of its ships and air filtration systems.

Can passengers catch the virus through the ventilation systems?
Japanese health ministry official Masami Sakoi said the cabins on the Diamond Princess have separate air-conditioning systems, so guests aren't sharing the same air. "We do not consider the air-conditioning system as the cause of spreading infections," he said.

What is life like for passengers aboard these ships?
Christina Kerby, a communications director with a health care company in San Francisco, struck an upbeat tone in her Twitter posts aboard the Westerdam. She says the ship is holding spin classes, magic shows and towel-folding demonstrations. But she expressed regret when Philippine crew members couldn't disembark in Manila to see their families, as they'd hoped.

When will cruise operations return to normal?
That's unclear because the situation is very fluid. Royal Caribbean has cancelled eight China sailings through March 4. Princess Cruises has cancelled at least 12 cruises, including two scheduled to leave Shanghai in June. Holland America said it's weighing port restrictions in Asia before deciding on a cruise scheduled to leave Yokohama on Feb. 28.

Cunard says the Queen Elizabeth won't make scheduled stops in Hong Kong and Shanghai in March and April. Norwegian Cruise Lines has cancelled scheduled Asian cruises on the Norwegian Spirit through Dec. 7.

In some cases, cruises are being rerouted. Norwegian said a 24-day cruise leaving South Africa on March 22 that was supposed to end in Singapore will now last 27 days and end in Greece, for example.

How much will this impact cruise companies?
Asia is not yet a major destination for cruises. This year, around 10% of cruise ships worldwide were scheduled to be deployed to Asia, according to Cruise Lines International Association. That's down slightly from 2017 and compares to 32% deployed to the Caribbean and 28% to Europe and the Mediterranean.

The virus may not have much impact on cruise bookings outside of Asia, says UBS analyst Robin Farley. Past experience shows that concerns about viruses usually remain regional, she said.

Cruise companies will likely see lower passenger volumes coming out of Asia. The association said its members expected 4.2 million passengers from Asia this year, or 12.5% of all passengers. That would be up from 3.4 million in 2016.

But even if 2020 passenger volumes from Asia are lower than expected, they can recover quickly. In 2015, a viral outbreak in South Korea hurt demand for cruises from China. But by 2016, South Korea was once again a top destination for Chinese travellers, Farley said.

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