Thousands in limbo around the world as vessels seek a port at which to dock
As countries scramble to close their borders in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of cruise ship passengers are stranded on the high seas while their vessels seek a port at which to dock.
The Norwegian Jewel, sailing under the flag of the Bahamas, has been refused permission to dock in French Polynesia, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, and is piloting to American Samoa to refuel.
No passengers will be allowed off the ship in Pago Pago and it is unclear where they will ultimately be permitted to disembark. Unconfirmed reports are emerging that the vessel may continue to Hawaii, where passengers will be allowed to leave.
There are no suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus on board. The ship, with a capacity of more than 2,000 passengers, left Sydney in February.
Meanwhile, more than 200 British and American passengers are among 609 people on board the Silver Shadow cruise ship, in isolation off Recife in north-eastern Brazil. The vessel was en route from Buenos Aires to Fort Lauderdale, and has been in quarantine since a Canadian passenger, a man aged 78, tested positive and was taken to a local hospital.
According to a ship’s manifest seen by the Guardian, the 318 holidaymakers include 109 British citizens and 103 US citizens. The 291 crew also includes eight British nationals.
“Two guests aboard the Silver Shadow have been medically disembarked in Recife, Brazil, and one has tested positive for Covid-19,” said a spokeswoman for the vessel’s owners, Silversea, part of the Royal Caribbean group. “We have asked guests on the ships to temporarily remain in their cabins in accordance with our medical isolation protocols.”
Olimar Cardoso,the Pernambuco director of Brazil’s sanitary vigilance agency, Anvisa, told reporters on Saturday that passengers were only allowed to circulate around the ship in small groups and meals were left outside their cabins. “It is a situation nobody likes to go through,” he said.
A spokesman for the British embassy said it was working closely with Royal Caribbean on how best to get British nationals home. A Pernambuco government spokesman said it was having meetings with health ministries, embassies and the navy to find a safe way to return everyone to their countries.
But as countries close their borders to all visitors, or restrict the entry of cruise ships, the ocean liners are running out of ports where they will be accepted.
Australia has banned international cruise ship arrivals for 30 days, while the New Zealand government has announced a prohibition on cruise vessels from entering its territorial waters for more than three months.
Pacific and Caribbean countries have been unilaterally refusing permission for ships to berth for several weeks.
On Monday, a British cruise ship that had been turned away from several ports in the Caribbean was heading towards Cuba, which announced it would allow passengers to disembark and fly home.
Four passengers and one crew member on the MS Braemar have tested positive for the virus, while a further 20 passengers and 20 crew members, including a doctor, are in isolation after displaying influenza-like symptoms.
“The Captain of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ship Braemar has announced on board that he is setting sail to Cuba, where all guests will be repatriated back to the UK by air,” the ship’s owner, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, wrote in a statement.
Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, tweeted: “[The] decision has been taken in response to health emergency that might put the life of sick persons at risk.”
Infection control on board ships has proved difficult. For several days in February, the ill-fated Diamond Princess which was put into isolation in Yokohama Port, Japan, after isolated cases where detected on board, was the second-largest outbreak site for coronavirus in the world, behind mainland China.
During a two-week enforced quarantine, nearly 700 people on board were infected, and seven died. The quarantine was abandoned and crew and passengers ultimately disembarked (most were placed into a further fortnight’s quarantine in their home countries).
The Golden Princess, which left Melbourne on 10 March, is expected to return to Australia. While three passengers have been quarantined by the ship’s doctor, there are no confirmed cases on board.
One passenger developed coronavirus-like symptoms, while two others have had contact with a confirmed case in the past two weeks, before they boarded. The ship has been cleared to return to Australia.
Cruise lines including Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Fred Olsen Cruises have suspended voyages.
The industry body Cruise Lines International Association Australasia said it was working with federal and state governments as cruising lines brought their vessels back to port.
“As always, the health and safety of passengers and crew is the highest priority,” CLIA said. “As the Australian government has announced, all international arrivals by cruise ships to Australian ports will be suspended for 30 days, with provisions for vessels currently in operation.
“As many cruise lines had previously announced voluntary suspensions of their operations, the industry is already well advanced in returning ships to port. CLIA has been working closely with the government in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, and has been consulting with state and national health departments over the extensive measures enacted by the cruise industry globally.”
CLIA said the “unprecedented situation” brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic would impact not only guests and crew but also the destinations that cruise lines visit, and whose economies were dependent on the tourists the ships bring.
“Despite challenging times, we are confident our industry has the resilience to overcome this situation in the longer term.”