Cruise ships are back. Welcome aboard the voyage of the damned

Daniel Piraino / EyeEm

A five-month hiatus from ocean cruises gave Dario Cremona withdrawal symptoms. The 20-year-old travel agent from Switzerland usually takes eight to nine trips a year. So, naturally, he wanted to be among the first to embark on a ship when the sailing ban was lifted – even if he had to travel alone and on a cruise that didn’t really go anywhere.
Standing on the deck overlooking the small archipelago of Helgoland in the North Sea, he watched two sister ships approach to take part in a foghorn concert, while the song Grosse Freiheit (“Great Freedom”) by the German rock band Unheilig blasted in the background. It gave him goosebumps. “After the last few months, this was really emotional for me. It was a highlight and perfectly rounded off the trip,” says Cremona, who runs a blog called cruiseExperience. After just three days out at sea, the large cruise ship made its way back to the German port of Hamburg.


Voyages like these offer a glimpse into the future of cruises after they were battered by the coronavirus pandemic: to float around aimlessly. TUI Cruises was the first company to run an all-inclusive cruise to nowhere out of Germany, with stringent health and safety measures that included no port calls and shore excursions. They are the last-ditch attempt to salvage an industry devastated by Covid-19 outbreaks, mass cancellations due to continuing travel restrictions and a potential tsunami of lawsuits.
The cruise industry is worth around £115 billion per year – £10bn in the UK and Ireland alone – and supports some 1.2 million jobs worldwide, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Customer loyalty, however, will not long sustain an industry that has rapidly expanded in recent years. Cruise lines have more than 100 new ships on order and set to be delivered through to 2027.
They are desperate to return to business and generate some income, despite the fact they are capped at less than 60 per cent passenger capacity. But the first cruises to nowhere setting sail from Germany, Norway and elsewhere face new logistical hurdles – and new coronavirus infections.
Cruise lines appear to have learned from the major Covid-19 outbreaks on ships like the Diamond Princess off Japan – which had no dedicated quarantine zones on board and crew sharing bedrooms and tables for meals. But cruises to nowhere with no port visits won’t remove all the risks of infection, particularly if there are no rigorous testing regimes in place. On two recent Arctic cruises with Hurtigruten, the Norwegian company that owns the ship, at least 41 crew members and passengers tested positive for coronavirus as of August 7.


“The preliminary examination of what happened on MS Roald Amundsen has uncovered several deviations from our procedures. That’s not good enough,” CEO Daniel Skjeldam said in a statement. This included not properly quarantining foreign crews before embarkation and letting passengers disembark without informing them of illness on board. Four of the Filipino crew members were admitted to hospital in the Norwegian city of Tromsø, where the ship is now docked, and all further cruises have been cancelled pending external investigations.
To rebuild public trust, cruise lines have tightened their safety and sanitation protocols to protect passengers and crew from future outbreaks. Passengers now check in and embark on the ships at staggered times, and have to wear face masks in elevators and when strolling through cabin halls. Thermal cameras will check passengers for a fever before they enter a restaurant or bar every day before noon. Buffets still exist, but crew members will serve and plate the food.
The electronic swipe cards used to access rooms or pay for cocktails at the bar already provided cruise lines with insight on where people congregate before coronavirus transmission becomes a concern. This system could come in handy in case of an outbreak, to quickly identify anyone who may have been in close contact with an infected individual. Cruise ships, which were well prepared to deal with norovirus outbreaks before, now carry Covid-19 tests on board.
With no stops at ports and shore excursions, cruise lines have to make sure their guests are entertained on board – be it solo travellers, couples, friends or families. Katrin Kaht and her adult daughter drove up from Berlin to hop on TUI’s first Blaue Reisen (“Blue Voyage”). Not being able to leave the ship for a few days didn’t bother them, as long as they could enjoy a sunny, long weekend by the pool. But the 50-year-old mother felt it was over the top when the crew asked mask-wearing dancers on the pool deck to sit down because of social distancing. “All acts had to play ‘smoochy music’ so that no party would take place. I was looking forward to a little party vibe instead of excursions, but it was rather boring,” she says.


In theatres, which usually house around 1,000 people, only 150 guests can listen to a concert or comedy show live while others watch them on TVs in their cabins. “The first five rows are empty and there are two empty seats between each staggered group. This is all difficult for an improv comedy act like mine, but better than not being able to perform at all,” says Ralf Ottmers, a drag artist from central Germany who has been performing on cruise ships like Auntie Valetti since 2002 and is currently working on TUI’s cruises.
Cruises to nowhere give operators an opportunity to test their operations first and gain post Covid-19 operational experiences with the crew, suppliers and ports involved, says Thomas Illes, a shipping and cruise analyst and university lecturer from Switzerland. Above all, it is also about public perception. “Cruise lines want to reinstate customer confidence and show that they are back. If they work out and there are no major outbreaks, these ‘cruises to nowhere’ can serve as best cases, which is key to ramping up the industry in the near future.” TUI plans to extend its mini-cruises to seven-day panoramic journeys along the coastal landscapes of Norway, Sweden and Finland at the end of August.
There is certainly pent-up demand from the industry’s loyal following. The Mein Schiff 2, which has capacity for nearly 2,900 (and around 1,700 under social distancing restrictions), managed to attract 1,200 passengers for its first voyage. And many guests will have been on a cruise before. TUI Cruises previously said some 40 per cent of passengers are repeat cruisers – a figure that is estimated to be 66 per cent across Carnival Corporation’s competing nine cruise lines.
However, Illes says the challenge will be to attract enough first-time cruises as – before Covid-19 hit – cruise lines were focused on creating a new and growing customer base to fill the newly-built ships they have on order. Convincing people to take a cruise despite stricter hygiene and social distancing measures may be no barrier, but it doesn’t address a wider problem: many people will simply no longer be able to afford a holiday. And if they do, they may not be willing to spend it on board a boat going in a giant circle where they would have to pay extra for alcoholic drinks, spa treatments, casino gambling and, if allowed, shore excursions.
If cruise ships can’t figure out a way to turn a profit again, they are unlikely to get a government rescue package to stop them going bust. The same business model that allowed cruise lines to avoid paying corporate taxes, benefit from cheap labour and enjoy high profit margins of up to 19 per cent in normal times (double that of some of the largest hotel chains) has now come back to bite them.
Take Mein Schiff 2, which set sail from Hamburg on July 24 for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic froze all cruises. The ship is operated by TUI Cruises, a joint venture between the British-German tourism company TUI and the world’s second largest cruise company Royal Caribbean International, but sails under the flag of Malta. This legal practice, known as “flags of convenience”, allows for a ship to be registered in a country different to the companies that own and operate it; predominantly in a place with low taxes and minimal regulation. (Some ships even “rent” the flags of landlocked Mongolia and Bolivia).
Ships sailing under a flag of convenience are not bound to the employment laws of their home countries, meaning many seafarers – who often come from cheap labour countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Russia and Ukraine – are working fixed-term service and housekeeping jobs with low salaries and poor onboard conditions. Royal Caribbean itself is headquartered in Miami, Florida but conveniently incorporated in the West African nation of Liberia.
Now these legal loopholes threaten the survival of cruise lines. “Covid-19 exposed a lot about the cruise sector that before had remained largely unknown. The lack of paying taxes, the offshore incorporations, the dangers of viral contagion and the possibility to be locked in your cabin,” says Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of South Australia. Because Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corporation and other major cruise companies are registered abroad and their employees are spread across the world, they don’t receive a share in the US government’s $3 (£2.9) trillion coronavirus relief package – even though they are headquartered in Florida.
To make ends meet, cruise ships need to start going somewhere. But both Illes and Higgins-Desbiolles say week-long cruises with multiple destinations and shore visits are likely a long way off. Besides the reputational damage and multiple lawsuits from passengers and crews due to the poor handling of earlier Covid-19 outbreaks, the industry’s return to full service is also hampered by cross-border regulations. Multinational itineraries may be possible through travel bubbles such as proposed in Scandinavia and between Australia and New Zealand. But cruise lines will still have to coordinate their itineraries with numerous local hotels, tourism agencies, airlines and transport operators, catering providers and port agents.
“Covid-19 showed that communities are willing to block tourists’ access when they fear contagion,” says Higgins-Desbiolles. Cruise ship tourism was already subject to resistance in European destinations such as Venice and Barcelona, the Galapagos, and Komodo Island in Indonesia. “So with added issues of viral infection, we can anticipate many destinations won’t be happy to receive cruise ships until Covid-19 risks are better addressed.”
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